As federal and state educational policies have shifted to relying on standardized testing and other measurements to assess young people's success, many parents, educators, and policymakers are pushing back, finding that what's being measured cannot fully account for what young people need to succeed.
For some researchers, this has translated into looking at the influence of nonacademic skills—variously described as emotional intelligence, self-control, or the catchy "grit." But one big challenge has been agreeing on what is being described, as well as what interventions can best help make a child well-rounded, resilient, and capable into adulthood.
A study by researchers from the University of Chicago tries to set the foundation for alternative ways to measure and foster the skills and aptitudes kids need as they grow.
"It is so common, especially in the education sphere, to define success in terms of educational outcomes like college and career readiness or college completion," said Stacy Ehrlich, one of the principal investigators. "But the answer is much broader than just attaining a college degree. We hope for our youth to be happy, engaged citizens, be healthy, have positive relationships with others, feel like they can make their own decisions about how to direct their lives, and have the know-how to do it."
Reviewing research from the past two decades on child, adolescent, and young adult development, the researchers concluded that in addition to developing cognitive skills such as critical thinking and the ability to work with others, young adults need to develop a sense of agency—the ability to make active choices about their lives, rather than just allowing circumstances to act on them—and an "integrated identity"—a stable sense of self from which to make decisions.
And much of the research the study looks at indicates that building these parts of character begins in the earliest stages of life, but can be affected throughout a young person's development.
Preschool children, for example, are already developing the beginnings of agency, wanting to set goals and make choices about what to do. And perhaps just as important for long-term development, they are just learning how to control their own impulses.
For Barbara Abel, a curriculum manager for a Chicago early-education program interviewed for the study, this is key. "I've been working on children's capacities to self-regulate in terms of emotional regulation, behavioral regulation, and attention regulation," she said.
Once kids reach school age, self-control develops into an ability to reflect on their behaviors more critically, which in middle school and high school influence their ability to develop a sense of their own capability and their relationships to their peers, and to develop the mindset and values that will guide their decisions going forward.
For Hillary Rhodes of the Wallace Foundation, the primary funder for the study, putting names to the principles behind needed interventions was an important step.
"It wasn't just thinking about what to do, but the emphasis on reflection," Rhodes said. "Even if a child has a negative experience, adults, and peers can help reflect on that experience, and we have opportunities all the time to make a difference in a child's life."
Child development specialists such as Angela Duckworth, who popularized the importance of "grit," and David Yeager, who has studied how young people can learn from failure, warned in a recent essay that figuring out how to measure these less-tangible aspects of a young person's abilities risks falling into the trap of misquantification.
But they agree that developing ways to account for these qualities is key to developing more-productive ways to help young people reach their fullest potential.
This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
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