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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New Report on Self-Regulation and Social Competence

From Daniel Willingham's Science and Education Blog

By Daniel Willingham, Ph.D.

December 8, 2015

I (like everyone else) am always eager for documents that clearly summarize a large, complex literature. One such literature of urgent interest is the role of self-regulation in academic success.

A new working paper from Transforming Education (full disclosure: I’m on their advisory board) does a great job of highlighting the important findings regarding non-cognitive skills, a not-very-precise term originating in economics that refers mostly to self-control and social competence.

Download the full report, entitled "Ready To Be Counted: The Research Case for Education Policy Action on Non-Cognitive Skills", HERE (PDF; 40 pages).

The report is targeted at policymakers, but should be of interest to teachers and administrators as well.

The paper is organized around nine “headlines;” these are conclusions that the authors suggest are justified by the research literature. These headlines concern the relationship of non-cognitive skills to academics, careers and general well-being.

1. Non-cognitive skills predict high school and college completion.

2. Students with strong non-cognitive skills have greater academic achievement within K-12 schooling and college.

3. Fostering non-cognitive skills as early as preschool has both immediate and long-term impact.

4. Employers value non-cognitive skills and seek employees who have them.

5. Higher non-cognitive skills predict a greater likelihood of being employed.

6. Stronger non-cognitive skills in childhood predict higher adult earning and greater financial stability.

7 Adults with stronger non-cognitive skills are less likely to commit a crime and be incarcerated.

8. Strong non-cognitive skills decrease the likelihood of being a single or unplanned teenage parent.

9. The positive health effects associated with stronger non-cognitive skills include reduced mortality and lower rates of obesity, smoking, substance abuser, and mental health disorders.

You not only get a brief, readable elaboration of each point, you also get the backing citations.

My only quibble is that, were I the author of this report, I would have been a bit more cautious in drawing a causal conclusion about the evidence of success in fostering non-cognitive skills in preschool (conclusion #3 above).

It is of course possible that self-control is largely heritable and is changed little by the environment, so it’s important to know that the positive outcomes associated with non-cognitive skills can be promoted by practices in schools. The authors cite a 2014 report by Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver showing success, which is encouraging, but it is, according to Blair andRaver, the first experimental demonstration of.

That said, I encourage you download it, read it, and refer to it. It neatly sums up a complex and vital research literature.


Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992.

Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of Why Don't Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, and Raising Kids Who Read. His writing on education has appeared in thirteen languages.

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