Mobilizing Our Collective Power


September 24, 2014


As a former teacher, I often run into adults I taught years ago when they were children and marvel at what they’ve achieved. Sometimes my mind scrambles, though, to square the confident, accomplished person in front of me with the child who struggled to write an expository paragraph or make sense of a reading. Why do some young people overcome initial challenges, do well in school, and go on to great things, while others fall off the tracks?

Of course, there is no single answer to this question. However, one piece of the puzzle may lie in factors that education leaders, researchers, and youth-development specialists believe are key to success in school, career, and life. These skills and dispositions were highlighted in Paul Tough’s 2012 best-seller, How Children Succeed, and include a domain of social and emotional competencies and attitudes sometimes called noncognitive factors.

Noncognitive factors is a somewhat misleading term. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013 report, Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, the term describes a set of attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, and intrapersonal resources — independent of intellectual ability — that high-achieving individuals draw upon to accomplish success. That report and others, such as one from the University of Chicago, make the case that young people with strong social-emotional foundations — including the belief in their own capabilities and the connection between their efforts and their achievement — are better prepared to do well.

Collective impact, a movement gaining steam across the Northwest and the nation, is built around the concept that young people need more than a “whole village” in order to thrive; they also need “whole child” approaches to develop the required mindsets, resources, and skills. In our region, collective impact initiatives are bringing together the critical influencers in young people’s trajectories — from academic, family, health, youth-development, mentoring, athletics, service, the arts, and other fields — around common goals and agendas for young people as they progress from cradle to career.

For example, Washington’s Youth Development Executives of King County and the Road Map Project, as well as All Hands Raised in the Portland area, have begun to examine positive youth development through the lens of noncognitive factors as they identify ways that schools, communities, and families can collaborate more intentionally to create supportive learning environments for young people.

When I was teaching, I realized early on that what I could accomplish in a classroom of 30-plus students (five times a day!) would never be enough. The psychological resources and achievement mindsets that kids need to do well are developed in many contextsin and out of school — through family activities and the chores children are expected to do; in out-of-school programs that require teamwork and persistence; in informal learning experiences that spur students to tackle challenging, real-world problems; and through volunteering in settings that develop civic responsibility and cultural competence.

I believe we need to mobilize the collective power of schools, communities, and families to ensure our children get the connection between their own efforts and success, can set goals for their future, persist in working toward them, and collaborate with others along the way. We need to do this because most of the good things in life really don’t “come easy”!

What do you think about the current interest in socio-emotional development as a resource for learning?

How might more focus on this area strengthen the connection between schools, families and community-based organizations? Where do you see this happening well?