Non-Cognitive Factors Affect Children’s Success


by Megan Zhang

The American Educational Research Association recently held a panel for prestigious scholars in developmental research to discuss non-cognitive factors that may affect students’ success in school, and the implications of these factors for school improvement.

In recent years, the concept that non-IQ factors play a critical role in student learning and persistence has taken off, igniting research projects and experiments all over the country. Interventions to improve children’s self-regulation, for example, have proven to have lasting, beneficial effects in multiple areas of childhood development. The AERA panel focused its discussion on how research findings can be used to improve students’ learning and overall success in school.

The panel, chaired by Dr. David Yeager of Stanford University, included NEL’s Dr. Cybele Raver, along with Dr. Angela Duckworth from UPenn, Drs. Carol Dweck, Geoffrey Cohen, and Gregory Walton from Stanford, and Anthony S. Bryk from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

At the panel, Dr. Raver shared an approach to educational intervention which centers around improving children’s self-regulatory skills that provide the foundation for early academic learning. Children’s learning relies heavily on higher-order cognitive processes known as executive functions, which include attention, working memory, and inhibitory control. To provide a sense of just how critical executive functions are, studies have shown that children’s prowess in executive functions during early childhood are a better predictor of future academic performance than even IQ is. Exposure to high negative arousal causes a build-up of “toxic stress” in children and is disruptive to their executive functions, thus resulting in such things as test anxiety. This toxic stress in turn disrupts the neuroendocrine system, which plays a crucial role in emotional regulation. Studies have shown that the strength of children’s executive functions decreases as children’s emotional regulation worsens. Lack of ability to self-regulate can also be detrimental for children’s futures; low emotional self-regulation is associated with twice the likelihood of criminal conviction later in life.

However, Dr. Raver pointed out during the panel that executive function and emotional regulation are malleable–in other words, they can be repaired and improved with intervention. The Chicago School Readiness Project, which Dr. Raver leads, aims to buffer children from the negative effects of toxic stress by intervening with both the children and their parents. Interventions include such things as training teachers to better support children’s self-regulation in the classroom, coaching teachers to improve classroom management, and applying curriculum designed specifically to improve children’s executive functions. These interventions can yield significant effects, as measured by improved academic performance and more positive behavioral assessments, as well as lower risk of negative health outcomes. Such findings are highly promising for helping children overcome poverty-related obstacles and adversity.

The correlation between emotional self-regulation and executive function does bring to light the academic and behavioral risks brought about by poverty, but interventions in early childhood and adolescence are bringing hope to children faced with such difficulties. Read more about the Chicago School Readiness Project here.

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