• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2015 •

Dr Nilka Aviles, Ed.D.

Of course, all students inherently have the ability to think critically, solve problems, interact socially and persist in tasks. They are creative and resilient. When the adults and institutions that surround them support, nurture and encourage these competencies with trust, high expectations and respect, students’ non-cognitive skills blossom.

Borghans, et al., (2008) define non-cognitive skills as personality traits that unpack patterns of thought, feelings and behaviors. Non-cognitive skills, referred to as habits of mind, matter for students’ long-term success. They can be observed, intentionally-cultivated, reinforced and mastered by integrating a pedagogy that facilitates the flowering of the internal strengths and powers of the learners.

As educators, we should plan effectively to construct the tasks and challenges that will drive learners to think critically, solve complex problems, increase interaction and communication with other learners, and persist because of the intrinsic drive that is unleashed. When we do this, students can generate ideas, analyze them, and create, produce, and ultimately exhibit behaviors that are socially acceptable to peers and self in a dynamic and engaging learning environment.

Non-cognitive skills also can be informally assessed as each skill requires a level of proficiency. When the skills are used, the effects should be reflected upon and modified for continued practice and improvement. Cognitive and non-cognitive skills are valued in the marketplace and are important to the economic success of communities. And educators are exploring ways to take an active role in equipping students with these skills (Rodríguez & Avilés, 2014).

If non-cognitive skills are critical for school success, how can we as teachers and school administrators address these skills? What mindset must teachers and administrators adopt in order to effectively address students’ non-cognitive skills that foster habits of mind?

Addressing Non-Cognitive Skills

Many students fall through the cracks when the school systems they are in fail to provide opportunities for students to develop non-cognitive skills in each classroom. Many school systems, unfortunately, maintain a student deficit approach that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, inappropriately guiding the interaction between teacher and student (Robledo Montecel & Bojorquez, 2015).

What teachers must do is apply a valuing, asset-based lens in viewing students, one that focuses on students’ strengths and searches for opportunities to strengthen skills through the use of job-embedded strategies that foster success. As teachers provide the right environment and opportunities, students reap the benefits of knowing when and to what degree the skills are to be used, mindfully showcasing their skills and behaviors productively.

Simply put, they are able to recognize the opportunities in which they need to be engaged in utilizing one or more than one of the skills successfully (Costa & Kallick, 2008; García, 2014). School teachers and administrators should be energized to focus on solutions and create new opportunities for students. The new mindset often challenges educators’ belief systems in how they see learners, making a difference in how they interact with their students.

Costa & Kallick (2008) indicate that habits of mind consist of skills, attitudes, behaviors, signals, or indications, past experiences and trends or predispositions that students need to reference when they are challenged with real-life situations. Some of these skills are determination, self-discipline, motivation, self-directed learning, organization, persistence, involvement, collaboration, communication, problem solving, and attentiveness, among others. These have to be taught with an asset-based mindset. They then can be nurtured and cultivated as teachers create the learning environments where these non-cognitive skills can emerge.

How can we create a school culture that leverages correlation of non-cognitive and cognitive skills?

The kinds of indicators of an asset-based campus that equally support cognitive and non-cognitive skills are:

  • collaborative work using cooperative learning structures;
  • students engage listening, speaking, reading and writing;
  • students working on holistic or multidisciplinary projects;
  • students sharing and providing feedback to each other and;
  • teachers acknowledging persistence, fostering the way individuals and teams discipline themselves, allowing for individual and group learning and prizing collaboration.

Educators make a difference for today’s youth, when they focus on the assets students bring and build relationships while seeing students through a lens that cultivates their inherent abilities (Montemayor, 2015).

School leaders themselves must have grit: (1) persist in believing all students are valuable; (2) practice determination, understanding that failure is not an option; and (3) be resilient to keep going despite the emotional stresses of everyday tasks in schools.

Teacher efficacy refers to having impact on students’ learning and success. Asset-based educators refuel and inspire each other to embody mindsets of confidence in reaching all students. These teachers advocate for excellence regardless of circumstances.

Therefore, by keeping students in mind, we provide opportunities for youth leadership, voice and empowerment by facilitating the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and actions to inspire desired performances and solutions to the everyday challenges students may face. Because non-cognitive skills are not part of the traditional essential knowledge and skills or the content curriculum, they are not tested. However, they must be measured as critical in the learning achievement of students. Furthermore, it is crucially important that the non-cognitive skills be strengthened to reap the benefits in higher cognitive achievement (Heckman, 2006; Heckman & Kautz, 2012, 2013; Rosen, et al., 2010).

When a school culture has grit, it enables teachers to self-reflect on which strategies help them guide students to think critically, brainstorm, apply knowledge and find solutions to problems drawing from previous experiences to build on their repertoire of beliefs, attitudes and strategies that foster learning. The more educators facilitate opportunities for students to work on project-based activities, experiential tasks, reflection after each task, and individual or group exploration where students demonstrate expected behaviors by using strategies to practice the skills, the more their inherent strengths can be developed into vital competencies that will increase academic achievement. For example, exposing students to IDRA’s non-cognitive skills scenarios where students collaboratively work in groups to answer challenging questions and find creative and purposeful solutions to the situations is a good start (see story in August 2015).

Our educational goal then is to create a school culture that focuses on building collective efficacy in schools to support students and educators in energizing, developing, and habituating non-cognitive skills purposefully and with intentionality to increase opportunities to grow mindsets and transform lives. This powerfully directs all of us toward accepting responsibility, believing in our own strengths and increasingly developing constructive behaviors that make schools more efficacious and successful. Non-cognitive skills matter, can be cultivated in schools, must be a defined goal of public education and must be supported by policy.


Borghans, L., & A.L. Duckworth, J.J. Heckman, B. Weel. The Economics and Psychology of Personality Traits, NBER Working Paper No.13810 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2008).

Costa, A., & B. Kallick. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008).

García, E. The Need to Address Noncognitive Skills in the Education Policy Agenda (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, December 2014.

Heckman, J.J. “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children,” Science (2006).

Heckman, J.J., & T. Kautz. “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills,” Labour Economics (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2012).

Heckman, J.J., & T. Kautz. Fostering and Measuring kills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, November 2013).

Montemayor, A.M. “Gauging Grit – Gouging the Poor,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2015).

Robledo Montecel, M., & H. Bojorquez. “Grit and Non-Cognitive Skills – Framing the Narrative,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2015).

Rodríguez, R.G., & N. Avilés. “The Cognitive and Affective Dimensions of College Readiness,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2014).

Rosen, J.A., & E.J. Glennie, B.W. Dalton, J.M. Lennon, R.N. Bozick. Noncognitive Skills in the Classroom: New Perspectives on Educational Research (Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Research Triangle Institute, September 2010).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education association in IDRA’s Department of Student Access and Success. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]