Want to make your kids successful? Improve their noncognitive skills

Study basketball players two parent wealthy homes
Credit: Ryan Fung

A study of the top-scoring 100 black basketball players in the NBA found that a majority of its players are from wealthy, two-parent homes. The study pointed out that to be competitive, a prospective basketball player must have access to coaches, volunteers, and camps all of which cost money thus precluding non-affluent families.

The article challenged long-held assumptions I had about NBA players and was a general good read but I found this section of the article to be the most interesting:

    These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.


What are these advantages? In addition to their economic advantages, NBA players were also able to develop persistence, self-regulation and trust, traits that fall under the umbrella of noncognitive skills. We have grown accustomed to hearing about the importance of these skills for success in school, but players on team sports need the same skill set.

Noncognitive Skills
As a former psychology major, the term “noncognitive skills” immediately jumped out at me and sent me on a google search because I had never heard the term before. What my search uncovered was fascinating. For one, the term is misleading because noncognitive skills are more related to personality than to cognition. Interestingly, it is an economist, James Heckman, who has been at the forefront of research looking at the effect of noncognitive skills on the lives of disadvantaged children.
For example, in “The Importance of Noncognitive Skills: Lessons From The G.E.D. Testing Program”, Heckman and Rubinstein demonstrated that although G.E.D. holders had the same amount of knowledge, as measured on test scores, as high school students, they had poorer life outcomes. According to Heckman, the reason for this is that the G.E.D. holders had less noncognitive skills than high school students that may have affected their life outcome including earnings and academic success. The effort it takes to navigate and finish high school would no doubt require high noncognitive skills and that skill set would be useful in other areas.

Researchers have identified seven of these noncognitive skills: motivation, effort, self-regulated learning, self-efficacy, academic self-concept, antisocial and prosocial behavior, and coping and resilience. They have not, however, been able to figure out one dominant noncognitive skill that is more important than the rest. It seems all the noncognitive skills must be present in order for someone to be successful. It makes sense because in the real world you cannot separate grit from along with work together to produce a person. because noncognitive skills are an incredibly important skillset that children need to have.

The NY Times article lent support to Heckman’s argument with the example of Doug Wrenn. Wrenn went from being a star high school basketball player to convicted felon. Perhaps a victim of low noncognitive skills.

The Marshmallow Test

The “Marshmallow Test” is one of best examples of a noncognitive skill at work. In the study, researchers promised to give children an additional marshmallow if they were able to refrain from eating the marshmallow that was cruelly left in front of them. The video is hilarious. Some kids were able to exercise self-control and wait and others couldn’t. Researchers followed the kids until college and found that the kids who were able to wait for the marshmallows did better on the SATs than the kids who were not able to wait.

I have to admit that I occasionally replicate this study my little N=1, Biker Boy. I deliberately promise him the equivalent to two marshmallows if he can exercise patience and so far it is working. For instance, we were at an amusement park and he wanted to me to buy ice cream like my friend’s kids. I said no because we had homemade ice cream at home and the “ice cream” was that fake, high fructose-laden science project that I would never allow him to eat. I promised him two scoops when he got home and he was able to wait and delay gratification. I can only hope that it will stick and help him when he is in college and he has to decide between studying and socializing later.

what does this mean for your child?
Since cognitive skills, or IQ is set by 8 years-old, it is important that we devote as much attention to improving our children’s noncognitive skills because those skills are more important than IQ and they are malleable over time. As I read the research, it occurred to me that Love and Logic helps kids learn these noncognitive skills. For instance, the Love and Logic technique helps kids be more empathetic because when our children make mistakes, we use empathy to help them understand the consequences of their actions. Basically, they learn to see things from another perspective. Another skill kids learn when you use the Love and Logic technique is grit or perseverance because we don’t rescue kids at the first sign of trouble. We hold them accountable for their actions and that prepares them for a world without a lecturing parents. I really love this program and I highly recommend it if you want to raise kids with strong noncognitive skills.


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