Rethinking How Students Succeed

A wave of noncognitive skill initiatives holds promise for making teachers more effective and students more successful.



Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom held that cognitive ability displayed by mastery of core academic subjects paved the way to success in school, career, and life. Today, we know better. Success comes when cognitive skills work in tandem with so-called soft skills like self-control, persistence, social awareness, relationship development, and self-awareness. Practitioners and researchers typically frame their discussions of these characteristics around either social and emotional skills, or academic attitudes and behaviors. Each charts a separate path of inquiry and classroom practice. Yet they share a common destination: developing students whose mastery of noncognitive skills, strategies, attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors enhances their academic and life success. We call such students “effective learners.”

Leaders in the broad field of noncognitive learning not only share this common goal, but they feel it with an uncommon sense of urgency. Only three-quarters of US students who start high school earn a diploma. And only 25 percent of those meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. Incorporating the dropout rate, the percentage of students who leave high school ready for college-level challenges falls to just 19 percent. 1

In their quest to do better, educators typically focus on improving their skills at teaching core subjects, such as reading, math, and science. But research shows that students who develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and academic mindsets (for example, a belief that one’s abilities can improve with effort) do better in school. (See “What’s an Effective Learner” at the end of the article.) Yet, the potential for schools to foster more effective learners has not been developed to any significant scale—especially for the students from low-income districts who would benefit the most.

We are at a moment in time when that could change. The quest for scaling up noncognitive learning has inspired researchers and educators to embark on a range of initiatives. Thirty-seven leaders of several of the more prominent organizations leading this work, including the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Character Lab, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and New Teacher Center recently gathered at Bridgespan in Boston for a daylong convening to discuss the current and future direction of their work, and look for ways to work more closely together.2

These field leaders work against an educational backdrop in which the stakes have never been higher. Forty-two states are moving forward with implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which require students to master more challenging math and language arts/literacy content. At the same time, a number of states have embarked on improving teacher effectiveness—often measured by student learning gains.

If the pressure to improve student outcomes has never been greater, the prospects for funders to help scale noncognitive competencies across school districts—in school and after school—have never been brighter. Four such promising initiatives have zeroed in on the barriers to progress and advanced two priorities to overcome them: integrating SEL and the development of academic mindsets into teaching practice, and acknowledging that before educators can help students develop as effective learners they need support to change their own beliefs and mindsets.

New Efforts to Expand Noncognitive Development

Pioneering efforts by members of the convening to expand noncognitive development fall into four broad categories: collaborations between researchers and teachers; professional development for teachers; systemic reforms in school districts; and complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time.3 Some initiatives are primarily in service of developing students’ social and emotional competence, while others aim to build academic mindsets and behaviors such as the belief that failure can lead to improved learning. For educators, the lines between these two parallel strands of exploration often blur as they focus on the desired result—more successful students.


Collaborations between researchers and teachers | One promising path to scale up effective learning targets students’ attitudes and beliefs regarding school and learning. A growing number of researchers and teachers are collaborating to identify exactly what can help students develop an “academic mindset,” characterized by the persistence needed to participate in class, complete homework, and study. Many evidence-based SEL programs were developed through a similar collaborative approach. Such collaborations are a way for researchers to break free of university-based settings, where most academic mindset research has been conducted. Researchers have found that school teachers are eager to contribute their knowledge to advance innovation in the field, enabling them to become a source for the best (and perhaps most scalable) ideas grounded in the work they do every day. These classroom-based research initiatives often include multiple cycles of testing and feedback with an emphasis on rapid learning and improvement. The 8th/9th Teacher Network (8/9TN) and Character Lab, cofounded by MacArthur Genius award winner Angela Duckworth, Dave Levin, cofounder of the KIPP Charter Public Schools, and Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, provide examples of this approach.

The 8/9TN initiative in Chicago represents a partnership between researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) and 35 eighth- and ninth-grade teachers across seven Chicago public schools. The 8/9TN project grew out of CCSR’s work on noncognitive skill development and increasing recognition that teachers need actionable strategies to develop students’ academic mindsets. To that end, teachers work together, with input and support from researchers, to identify and develop practices that may be suitable for other schools to adopt.

Character Lab strives to develop evidence-based teaching tools and practices that can be easily and effectively integrated into the school day—a key to scaling up. For example, a mental strategy to boost students’ successful pursuit of goals helped fifth graders in a low-income New York City middle school move up half a standard deviation on their academic performance in one semester. Character Lab aims to help teachers weave this kind of exercise more systematically into their lesson plans and daily interactions with students.

Professional development for teachers | A second promising effort aims to upgrade the training programs teachers routinely enroll in. Many school districts partner with professional development providers to deliver in-service teacher training. Some of these providers serve multiple districts across many states and reach thousands of teachers each year. Given their reach, these providers can play an important role in helping to embed the development of noncognitive skills into the daily practice of thousands more teachers. By incorporating noncognitive competencies into their training programs, providers set a higher standard for other professional development organizations to follow.

The New Teacher Center (NTC), for example, considers SEL and academic mindsets as integral to its training programs. The center provides coaching and professional development, in person and online, to first-year teachers in more than two dozen school districts across the country. This year some 7,000 NTC mentor teachers will work with more than 26,000 new teachers who instruct an estimated 1.6 million students. NTC’s Mentor Academy, for example, has integrated SEL development with its guides for implementing the Common Core. “Teachers need to have these competencies front and center the minute they come into teaching,” says NTC CEO Ellen Moir. To complement its training and mentorship programs, NTC is building an online site with a set of tools and resources, including observation guides and assessment rubrics, focused on SEL and academic behaviors.

Systemic reforms in school districts | A third effort focuses on helping school districts integrate noncognitive competencies into district-level policies and practices, extending to every classroom. The Collaborating Districts Initiative, launched by CASEL in 2011, involves eight school districts striving to move beyond the programmatic and often modular focus of most SEL efforts. Rather than teach SEL as a separate classroom exercise once a week, for example, the initiative seeks to embed SEL into teachers’ daily work with students. That means adopting SEL learning standards and assessments, designing professional development programs for teachers, and integrating SEL with existing district initiatives—such as the Common Core. CASEL hopes the collaborating districts initiative will provide successful models that other school districts will follow. Two of the districts involved—Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn.—illustrate somewhat different routes to achieving the same goals.

In Austin, SEL Director Sherrie Raven has led the school district’s initiative with a three-pronged strategy: teaching SEL to elementary school students using the evidence-based Second Step program;4 embedding SEL in curriculum at all grade levels; and integrating SEL throughout the school day from the classroom to the cafeteria.

Austin hired 14 coaches to work with teachers on incorporating SEL into their daily activities. “The most critical thing for success has been the involvement of SEL coaches,” says Raven. “These coaches keep SEL at the forefront for principals and teachers, and they are building administrators’ and teachers’ capacity to sustain SEL implementation efforts over time.” Among their many activities in schools, coaches reinforce a common language for SEL competencies, work with principals to determine how to integrate SEL into school culture, and partner with teachers individually and in groups to identify what works and how to better support SEL throughout the school day.

In Nashville, the school system chose not to hire SEL coaches, says Kyla Krengel, the district’s SEL director. Rather, the district tapped its academic and instructional specialists to provide SEL support for teachers and administrators. The district is also working to embed SEL into existing programs and initiatives, including its project-based learning initiative in which students explore real-world problems and do a significant amount of individual exploration as well as group work. Project-based learning efforts began in high schools and will be rolled out in Nashville’s elementary and middle schools as well. Nashville’s academic specialists also help to integrate SEL support with the training teachers receive for implementing the Common Core. The district plans to review its teacher evaluation framework, seeking to identify links between teacher effectiveness and their SEL competencies.

Complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time | The fourth effort involves after-school and expanded-learning time initiatives. Several of these programs already build noncognitive development into interactions with students. There are increasing examples of programs that work more closely with the schools where they are housed to ensure that students experience the same support for skill and behavior development during school as they experience after school.

WINGS for Kids, for example, is an after-school program teaching kids how to behave well, make good decisions, and build healthy relationships. Students participate for three hours each day throughout the school year. The staff typically spends the first hour providing direct SEL instruction, and then reinforces these lessons with teachable moments over the next two hours as students complete their homework and engage in enrichment activities.5 WINGS also works to bridge the gap between students’ in-school and after-school experiences. Program directors collaborate with school administrators and teachers to ensure that students in school are exposed to the same SEL concepts encountered in WINGS. The WINGS staff and teachers also assess students’ SEL competencies with a series of behavior rating scales. This allows the WINGS staff and school’s teachers to develop joint plans for providing additional supports as needed to students who may be struggling with specific concepts.

An increasing number of schools are also using expanded-learning time as a venue for developing effective learning behaviors. Through its ExpandED Schools initiative, The AfterSchool Corporation (TASC) has developed a survey to help teachers and expanded-learning time educators measure students’ academic “habits of mind.” TASC then collaborates with instructional teams at schools to create action plans to help students become effective learners. Citizen Schools is another leading expanded-learning organization that provides low-income middle school students with hands-on, after-school apprenticeships focusing on social and emotional skill development. The apprenticeships emphasize 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, data analysis, advanced literacy.

What’s Preventing Greater Scale?

While nascent, these four initiatives show promise for charting multiple ways educators—and entire school districts—can help students develop noncognitive skills, attitudes, and mindsets. However, those involved in advancing the noncognitive field realize that their efforts touch only a small number of students. Four barriers impede scaling up to a larger number of students.

District agenda overload | Administrators and teachers are weary from coping with multiple competing priorities, initiatives, and programs. Few districts have escaped deep budget cuts in recent years, eliminating teaching positions and long-standing programs. Many schools face high teacher and leadership turnover. Superintendents and school boards often fail to involve teachers in decisions that affect classroom practice. In this context, any new effort to develop students’ noncognitive capabilities may come across as just another district initiative when there’s simply no room to squeeze in another well-meaning program.

Lack of consistently positive school environments | Students need to experience consistent support throughout the school day to develop the SEL skills and academic behaviors that characterize effective learning. It takes a supportive environment for these skills and behaviors to translate to actual learning outcomes. Conversely, classrooms with negative environments “stifle perseverance and undermine academic behaviors, which results in poor academic performance,” concludes a Consortium on Chicago School Research report.6 Creating the right classroom environment starts at the top with district and school leaders who make noncognitive factors a system-wide priority. And it extends to every adult who is interacting with students throughout the school day. Such consistency is hard to find in any school, much less an entire school district.

Lack of adequate preparation for educators | Educators need to understand and be able to model the attitudes and behaviors they endeavor to instill in their students. Unfortunately, most haven’t been trained to put noncognitive factors at the forefront of their work, and supportive professional development opportunities are scarce. At the top of the list of behaviors educators need to model are a growth mindset—believing that their own and their students’ abilities are not fixed but can be developed through dedication and hard work—and a sense of self-efficacy—believing in their own and their students’ ability to complete tasks and reach goals. These are building blocks for student success because they reflect a fundamental belief that effort produces results.7 Educators also need building blocks to develop trusting relationships with their students, including learning how to show empathy and respect. This implies significant changes for teaching training and coaching, which today largely focuses on pedagogy and classroom management.

Inadequate measurement | Assessment remains a huge challenge for the field, as evidenced by the questions yet unanswered. How exactly do you measure development of noncognitive factors? How do those measures change with students’ age? Are some interventions more effective than others? Participants at the convening viewed this lack of clarity around measurement as a serious obstacle to field advancement, both in terms of progressing research to develop practical classroom practices and of attracting funders to support continued research. “This community needs to have a set of metrics that show SEL and other noncognitive skills are foundational to student success,” says Moir. “We’re never going to get into funders’ portfolios unless we build a common language to measure success.”

Priorities for Moving Forward

Moir’s plea for a “common” way forward resonates with our findings. Commonality, in fact, has emerged as a unifying theme in a field where groups have worked in isolation. Once steeped in their own specialized pursuits, SEL advocates, academic mindset advocates, after-school and professional development practitioners, and reform-minded funders have begun to forge a unified voice around two goals critical to pushing aside barriers to the field’s advancement and much greater scale: reorienting the field from replicating programs to integrating noncognitive development into teaching practice; and acknowledging that educators need support to develop their own noncognitive skills.

By focusing on these two goals, noncognitive field leaders hope to go farther faster, making what they learn available for application on a far greater scale. Agreement on priorities like these also will help draw attention and build momentum for the pioneering efforts already underway. Integrating noncognitive factors into teaching practice and teacher preparation are common elements of all the initiatives led by participants in the convening.

Shift from replication of programs to integration of practices into daily interactions with students | Over the past two decades, dozens of SEL instructional programs have been developed for all ages. They aim to help students learn skills such as conflict resolution, decision making, self-control, teamwork, and relationship building. Many of these programs are taught as an add-on, with a designated time slot one or more days a week. Going forward, advocates want to see SEL and academic behaviors become integral to the student experience, and they want to achieve this shift on a scale that reaches millions of students.

School districts hold the key, especially the large, urban districts that educate the vast majority of students. They provide a platform for effective learning to become an integrated part of students’ daily interactions. But first, districts need to figure out how to systemically build and embed the capacity and supports to do this well. As is the case with CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative, this could mean integrating SEL into the district’s budget, professional development, organizational structure, communications, school supports, and central office functions and priorities.

In addition, districts have to make change management a priority to help teachers and administrators navigate the often unfamiliar terrain associated with supporting students to become effective learners. Austin and Nashville have learned a lot about what district-wide change management efforts entail. They see the importance of having dedicated district capacity to lead the charge and build buy-in among teachers. In both districts, coaches work to steer the needed change in the right direction. And as the 8/9TN initiative discovered in Chicago, building educators’ understanding of SEL and noncognitive development can be a prerequisite to gaining their engagement and ownership over development of their students as effective learners.

Professional development providers also have an important role to play by helping teachers learn the skills needed to help students become effective learners. Many of these providers, like NTC, work with thousands of teachers across multiple states. Similarly, expanded-learning time initiatives (Citizen Schools, ExpandED Schools) and after-school programs that work with schools (WINGS) are eager to align their ongoing SEL and noncognitive efforts with the work of teachers during the regular school day.

Help educators change their own beliefs and mindsets| Ongoing initiatives in the field have brought into sharper focus the need to devote much more attention to educators’ beliefs and mindsets, and the development of their own noncognitive competencies. It’s not just that educators feel unfamiliar with noncognitive skills and unprepared to teach them. In many cases, they also need to change long-held beliefs in their own and their students’ capacity to learn—such as embracing the power of a growth mindset and self-efficacy. The need to focus attention and support on educators came as a surprise, but it’s an insight central to advancement of the field. Students can’t develop as effective learners unless their teachers understand, model, and believe in the skills and behaviors they seek to teach.

This was an early lesson for researchers and teachers involved with the 8/9TN initiative in Chicago. Researchers quickly saw that many participating teachers did not believe they could impact students’ noncognitive development or that students could change in the ways described, which shifted the initiatives’ early focus to helping teachers develop needed behaviors and competencies. “We have spent a lot of time helping teachers to own the idea that they are a powerful force in students’ lives, and in the few hours they have with students each day, they can do a lot. We have been able to change a lot of people’s minds,” says Ann Szekely, director of the 8/9TN initiative. Teachers viewed this knowledge and changes to their behavior as the gateway to helping students develop as effective learners. “Much of our work in this last year has been as much or more around teacher mindsets and teacher self-efficacy, without which it will be impossible for teachers to effectively support noncognitive development in their kids,” says Camille Farrington, a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The investment in teachers pays dividends in the classroom. A growing body of research indicates that schools and classrooms are more important in shaping students’ desired academic behaviors than the personal qualities they bring with them to school.8 Without the requisite mindsets, beliefs, and self-knowledge, teachers are less likely to create the kind of supportive classrooms that foster effective learning. Creating the right environment starts with grounding teachers more firmly in their own noncognitive skills, traits, strategies, and attitudes. Such training presents a growth opportunity for university teacher training programs and professional development providers.

Make no mistake. Behavioral change is hard to learn and even harder to sustain. But the efforts under way to help teachers learn and model new noncognitive skills and behaviors are essential for the field to grow. What’s learned from today’s efforts will point the way to further research and development on strategies that position educators to help their students develop as effective learners—strengthening their own effectiveness as educators along the way.

Off to a Good Start


By clarifying goals and priorities for moving forward, the field is sure to accelerate research and learning. But advancing the field will take more than bold new approaches. Field leaders also recognize the need for greater emphasis on clear standards and measures of noncognitive factors—for teachers and students—that lead to greater student success, not only to calibrate learning today, but also to anchor the next wave of research around “what works.” It’s a point made by a recent Consortium on Chicago School Research report: “While some very interesting and promising work has emerged recently, the state of research evidence, and the development of practice models still lag far behind the high level of interest.”9

Field leaders also highlight the need for a coordinated learning agenda and more collaboration across different areas of research and exploration. Much remains to be learned about how best to help educators develop the self-knowledge they need to help their students become effective learners, and how to change educators’ daily interactions with students to incorporate new approaches. And it’s not clear which skills and behaviors—of the many being studied—make the most difference in improving student academic performance.

Ongoing efforts in the field represent a good start to answering these questions. With a clear fix on priorities and more coordination among field leaders, education funders increasingly may find noncognitive development an attractive arena for investment with the potential for significant impact—local, state, and national.

The accumulating body of knowledge gives rise to a growing sense of optimism that we can do better, much better, in preparing students for success in school and beyond. And those who stand to benefit the most are the students in low-income schools for whom success remains more dream than reality.

What’s an Effective Learner?

It’s a relatively new concept borne of recent research establishing the critical importance of noncognitive skills and behaviors to student success in school and beyond. While we use the word “noncognitive,” we recognize that the field does not yet have a common language for this set of competencies. Therefore, we focus on the outcome—effective learning—and define “effective learners” as students who develop a set of qualities that includes self-control, persistence, social awareness, relationship skills, curiosity, resilience, and self-confidence. Research shows that such skills are the defining factors that set high school and college graduates apart from those who drop out at either level. The research that has introduced the importance of these qualities into mainstream conversation falls into two distinct but overlapping arenas: social and emotional learning (SEL), and academic attitudes and behaviors.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the leading proponent of SEL. Its mission is to make SEL an integral part of education from kindergarten through high school. CASEL has identified five interrelated social and emotional competencies that define SEL:

  • Self-awareness | The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior.
  • Self-management | The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations.
  • Social awareness | The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Relationship skills | The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.
  • Responsible decision making | The ability to make decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

A range of studies confirm that well-designed and well-executed SEL programs help students develop a greater attachment to school, diminish risky behavior, and improve academic performance. The most cited study is a 2011 analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs involving over 270,000 K–12 students. It found that many SEL programs significantly improved students’ social and emotional skills, and academic performance improved by 11 percentile points among students in 33 programs that measured impact on achievement.1

The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) is a leading proponent of enhancing students’ academic attitudes and behaviors to boost performance. In 2012, CCSR published an influential paper that described five factors that significantly influence student academic performance as well as success in life: academic behaviors (going to class, doing homework), academic perseverance (grit, tenacity, self-discipline), academic mindsets (e.g., believing that abilities are not fixed but develop through hard work), learning strategies (study skills, self-regulated learning), and social skills (interpersonal skills, empathy, cooperation).

CCSR concluded that “building students’ academic mindsets and teaching them appropriate learning strategies are the best ways to improve academic behaviors and perseverance, which leads to better grades.” 2 Over the last decade, researchers such as Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck have identified discrete interventions that, when applied in a lab setting, can result in changes in students’ academic mindsets or attitudes. What the literature review highlighted, however, is the gap between what we know about the importance of these factors and how little we know about how teachers and other adults can help students develop them.

Across the two arenas highlighted above, there is common cause: to help many more students grow as effective learners. While the roots of these movements differ, we see potential for greater integration over time as many more educators seek to support their students in all the ways it takes to grow their hearts and minds.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

1 The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2014, ACT,;
Foundation for Excellence in Education,
2 The Bridgespan Group organized the October 1–2 gathering in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Character Lab.
3 Expanded-learning (ELT) time adds hours to the school day to increase the amount of time students spend engaged in high quality learning experiences. Unlike traditional after-school programs, under the ELT model, all students in a given school are required to attend the longer day and/or year, and the additional time becomes an integral component of the school’s educational practices and objectives. Source:
5 School-level studies from Yale University and University of Virginia show that students enrolled in two or more years of WINGS demonstrate significantly higher math and reading scores, grades, and school attendance.
6 Camille A. Farrington, et al., Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (June 2012): 9
7 Ibid., 30
8 Farrington, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, 74
9 Farrington, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, 74

1 Joseph A. Durlak, Roger P. Weissberg, Allison B. Dymnicki, Rebecca D. Taylor, and Kriston B. Schellinger, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Meta-Interventions,” Child Development, vol. 82, no. 1, 2011: 405–432
2 Camille A. Farrington, et al., Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance, University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, June 2012: 37


  • BY Alex from Storybow

    ON February 18, 2015 03:01 AM

    What a great insightful article! Interesting research!

  • Elizabeth Farrar's avatar

    BY Elizabeth Farrar

    ON February 19, 2015 01:15 PM

    I have only had a chance to read half of this article and plan to read it when I have the chance to really absorb the details.  As a Mom to a child who is a high performer acedemically and at the same time has anxiety disorder ontop of scensory processing disorder I see the disjoint very clearly.  My daughter has the ability to meet the acedemic requirements but the need for a school structure that assists her with learning the non cognative skills as detailed in the article.  From my point of view this falls to the parents to provide the mentoring to develop all of these skills and it is a difficult task to do this while working full time and without any exposure to “how to”, relying on our personal experiance and understanding.  I can see how as you move down the economic ladder the direct relationship of time and knowledge dissapate. 
    I applaud the move toward this and at the same time recognize how slowly system change occurs so have more hope for my grand children and at the same time hope that this and other initiative catch fire and prove me wrong.

  • ” while others aim to build academic mindsets and behaviors such as the belief that failure can lead to improved learning.”

    WOW! What a load of crap! Stay away from our kids!

  • BY Eduardo Briceño

    ON February 20, 2015 07:35 AM

    Scott, I think the quote you pasted can be misinterpreted.  What this research is showing, as related to “failure”, is that it is helpful for people to understand that in order to learn to do something we don’t already know how to do, we have to take on real challenges and risks, and when we do, we’re bound to make some mistakes.  If we reflect on what we can learn from those mistakes, then we can learn and improve at a faster rate.  Here’s another article that goes deeper into that:

    Bridgespan team and Paul: thanks for the great work!  Sorry we had conflicting commitments and couldn’t make the first convening, but I hope we can have some Mindset Works presence in future convenings.  Looking forward to further collaboration!


    Eduardo Briceño
    Co-Founder & CEO
    Mindset Works

  • BY Linda Simmons

    ON February 23, 2015 04:04 AM

    I am always a firm believer that we really need to improve the overall learning experience for teachers as well as students make learning more fun and effective we should encourage our teacher to think out of box and support them when they do. That same old boring classroom studies with books and lecture may not be as effective as occasional outing and learning by activities and nature.

  • Sam Dharmapala's avatar

    BY Sam Dharmapala

    ON February 26, 2015 05:07 AM

    There is also a role for companies: My company in the Philippines employs survivors of trauma (including trafficking) to do data entry and outsourcing work for companies in the West.  We used insights from Paul Tough’s book ‘How Children Succeed’ in developing our training program (it ended up being a core reference).  Half of our training content is devoted to non-cognitive or ‘soft’ skills.  In particular we emphasize conscientiousness, grit and resilience.  The transformation we have observed has been beyond our expectations.  They are able to consistently self-regulate their performance and behaviours.  A recent project with over a million data points had a first pass quality rate of 99.6%. 

    The competencies discussed in the article above work in the real world - and reverses years of neglect.  Thank you Paul for your book – the impact for our company has been profound. 

    Sam Dharmapala
    CEO & Co-founder


  • Lija Farnham's avatar

    BY Lija Farnham

    ON March 6, 2015 08:43 AM


    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and comments. You are so right to note that parents play a critical role in supporting children and youth to develop the types of skills and mindsets we discuss in the article. And it’s hard to know exactly what this means and how to do this well. The research is clear that the contexts and environments that children are in make a huge difference in their growth as effective learners, and interactions with adults (parents, teachers, after-school educators, etc.) are an important element of a child’s experience in any setting.

    Our hope is that many more environments (home, school, after-school programs, community, etc.), and the adults who build them, can provide the supportive elements that will help children and youth to develop the mindsets and social and emotional skills that will contribute to their success—and do so in more aligned, consistent ways. There is a lot more to learn about how to really do this, and the initiatives we highlight (and many more out there) are progressing our collective understanding of the actual practices and strategies that work.


  • Lija Farnham's avatar

    BY Lija Farnham

    ON March 6, 2015 08:47 AM


    Thank you for responding to Scott’s comment and further explaining the mindset research. We are excited to learn more from Mindset Works and see how your work progresses in the coming months and years!


  • Interesting article.

  • BY Barnaby Willett

    ON March 17, 2015 01:09 PM

    Thanks for a fantastic overview on the broad field of noncognitive learning. I’m with a nonprofit, Peace in Schools, which is bringing mindfulness education to high school students. We are driven by the question, “How would our world be different if everyone had access to education which focused on self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship development?”

    Because students are taking our class as a full semester course, there’s a great depth and duration to our program. This is our attempt to address the goal to make SEL “integral to the student experience.”

    From student self-reporting we’re hearing that all of our students are integrating mindfulness tools into their daily life outside the classroom, some to a greater degree than others. 98% say they’d recommend our class to a friend. One student wrote, “I’ve learned a lot about myself and my personal needs. I’ve learned that life isn’t always black and white, you’ve actually got options, which was very helpful for me to discover. I really wish that mindfulness could be a more widespread knowledge.”

    We’re one model out of many. What’s clear is that SEL is a necessary part of teen education that serves to both support students as human beings and enhance their ability to achieve at the cognitive and academic level.

    Barnaby Willett
    Director of Administration
    Peace in Schools



  • BY Sylvia Jaideep

    ON March 25, 2015 04:53 AM

    I am a school principal in India.  Your article is a treasure.  It has laid a thinking cap on my head.  I am going to help my rural village students and enhance their ability.  But I do not know how your suggestions of after school program (WINGS)will work out for us.  Because our students come from many kilometers 25 kms to study, and I have less resources.  Give me some inputs .


  • BY Kimberly Mitchell

    ON April 13, 2015 02:17 PM

    I love that we are talking about shifting adult/teacher mindsets in coordination with students. We have found success with this by offering clear and relatively easy-to-implement strategies to start shifting mindsets (a “belief follows practice” theory of change). Thank you for sharing this research.

    Kimberly L. Mitchell
    CEO, Inquiry Partners

  • BY Eric Schaps

    ON April 14, 2015 09:09 AM

    I am glad and relieved to see that the authors recognize a) the importance of creating a supportive school climate and culture, and b) the need to provide front-line educators with adequate preparation, for the success of initiatives aimed at equipping students with SEL and/or academic mindset skills.

    Too often these points are overlooked. Schools must meet students’ basic needs for safety, belonging, autonomy, and efficacy in order to engage them effectively in any kind of learning.

    And for any kind of fundamental change in classroom practice, teachers typically need much more in the way of professional development, and ongoing guidance and support, than school districts ordinarily provide.

  • Interesting article.  I think pedagogical staff need to be trained in many aspects of the SEL so that they can better work with their students.  This is especially important in urban schools were youth are often facing so many stressors and teachers don’t know how to address them and as a result focus on punishment or referrals to other services that take the learner out of the classroom.

  • Thomas J Phelan's avatar

    BY Thomas J Phelan

    ON April 18, 2015 07:52 AM

    Very interesting article. I believe education to be the cornerstone of our nation. Our ability to educate our youth and provide them with the necessary tools both cognitively and emotionally will determine our nations course. What is so interesting is the idea that teachers have to be taught how to relate to their students. I have a relative who is now a vice principle at a junior high school. I once asked them how they do their job. Their response was that every teacher to be effective must be able to love and discipline their students st the same time. Not physical discipline. Encouraging discipline. Un other words, be a mentor. I also agree the parents need to be actively involved in their childs education. To be able to voice opposition to curriculum if it is not compatible with their beliefs. We are beginning to realize that education is not a one size fits all model. Children have different needs. Different modes of learning owing to different types of intelligences. Add to that the hone life variable and teaching becomes a daunting task. I for one support teachers and the work they do. If we can help them be more effective by providing training on the emotional side then I’m all for it. Education is a vast area of concern we must correct if our country is to thrive in the future.



  • BY Hulk Joshua

    ON April 18, 2015 09:03 PM

    I think the role of parents in the learning of a child is the most critical one even greater than that of the teacher. Problem these days parents think that as soon as they pay school fees then they dont want anything to do with the learning of the child, they just want to see results. I hink the use of technology can really help to involve the teacher more in a childs education. I can imagine if my child schools gave me access to an app that would indicate to me the assignments my child has and their progress at school. e.t.c it would really make parents more involved in the learning experience

  • Thomas J. Phelan 's avatar

    BY Thomas J. Phelan

    ON April 19, 2015 01:32 AM

    Hulk; you are absolutely right. Most parents don’t get involved with their childs education. As if it was someone else’s responsibility. A daunting task to be sure but one I readily accept daily for my children. Technology can only go so far. What we need is a fundamental paradigm shift nationally. For children to attain success starts with parents at home. We must be the role models for them. Setting standards for them to achieve is good only if wr provide the tools and the environment for success.

  • BY Andrew Frishman

    ON May 4, 2015 02:21 PM

    I am glad to see these vitally important issues raised to the fore in conversations about how to improve education. They resonate deeply with our work at Big Picture Learning ( We worked to develop a guide entitled, “The Role of Noncognitive Skills for Student Success” (

    Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski have written about the ways in which we need to transform what is considered student success and achievement in their recent book “Leaving to Learn” (see more at They provocatively ask if we should be focused on the expectations that educators have of students, and insightfully offer that we should instead more strongly consider the students’ expectations of their learning experiences (and by extension the design of the school, and pedagogy of their educators). I would be very interested to hear folks’ reactions to this 3 min video on the topic -

  • BY Eduardo Briceño

    ON May 5, 2015 11:48 AM

    Thanks for sharing Andrew.  Great 3 min. video, and yes, Big Picture Learning is doing great work!  Looking forward to reading Leaving to Learn.


  • Sue Panella's avatar

    BY Sue Panella

    ON May 7, 2015 12:51 PM

    Great article, and I loved Andrew’s 3 minute video. If our educational system is going to adequately prepare our children and youth for the challenges and opportunities in today’s world, these expectations MUST become imperatives. Bravo to all the efforts to increase the learning mindset in our educators and students!

  • Lija Farnham's avatar

    BY Lija Farnham

    ON May 8, 2015 01:07 PM

    Andrew: Thank you for sharing about Big Picture’s work and thank you for the link to the Leaving to Learn video. The student expectations/imperatives certainly resonate as critical components to an excellent education!

    Connecting this theme of student engagement with some of the themes in the article and in the comments above, it seems that the approach needs to be “both-and” so to speak. We need to think both about the lens of the student (what are her expectations, needs, learning desires, and how can educators and schools keep her engaged and excited to continue to learn) AND the lens of the educator (how can we best equip educators to respond to those student needs and catalyze and sustain effective learning across whole classrooms of diverse learners).

    As others have noted, the current system does not sufficiently address either lens or set of needs, yet the promise and potential of every student lives at the intersection of effective teaching and effective learning.

    Our hope is that more support to help educators help students become effective learners will enable more students to reach that promise and potential!

  • BY Pat Kilduff

    ON May 28, 2015 10:34 AM

    Where would creative mindset intersect or diverge from learning mindset?  At the Children’s Creativity Museum we are focusing on nurturing a creative mindset in youth and the adults who work with youth.

  • I accept the idea of after-school and after-college learning. The official education isn’t the end of self-development. We’d always try to jump higher in our opportunities, knowledge and activities. So I believe that permanent learning will bring us to success for sure.

  • BY Zez Ale

    ON May 2, 2016 01:52 AM

    . I can imagine if my child schools gave me access to an app that would indicate to me the assignments my child has and their progress at school. e.t.c it would really make parents more involved in the learning experience

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Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

By Paul Tough

Building on his previous work about the importance of personal traits such as perseverance in student success, Paul Tough focuses Helping Children Succeed on how educators, policymakers, and parents can help children develop those attributes.