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Non-cognitive Skills

No teacher, in the history of teaching, will (I think) have ever answered yes to these questions:

  • Has your classroom, one hundred percent of the time, ever been full of pupils who have the right ‘character’?
  • Are all your pupils continually motivated, able to build relationships, willing to persevere and respond positively to setbacks and display self-control when necessary?

It is not surprising that teachers, in all probability, given the breadth of what constitutes the right ‘character’ and the difficulty in developing one, will have probably answered no.

The right ‘character’ and the associated attitudes, behaviours and strategies, referred to as non-cognitive skills, is something teachers have on their minds. According to a poll conducted by the University of Birmingham 80-percent of UK teachers believed character education would improve school grades.

Within the past ten years, there has been growing interest in non-cognitive skills and why they matter. The Education Endowment Foundation (2018) say this is because:

There is growing evidence that children’s social and emotional skills – their ability to respond to setbacks, work well with others, build relationships, manage emotions, and cope with difficult situations – are associated with success at school, as well as positive outcomes in adulthood, such as stable employment, physical and mental health, and well-being.

The association between non-cognitive skills, success at school and positive outcomes in adulthood is an indication that schools have a role to play in shaping children’s non-cognitive skills and subsequently the paths their lives take. Therefore the question to pose is this: How can schools effectively nurture non-cognitive skills in children?

As a starting point, teachers may want to think about growth mindset. Growth mindset refers to a learning theory that believes that intelligence, ability and performance can be developed. It focuses on the development of positive learning behaviours rather than intrinsic intelligence or talent. Research suggests that having a growth mindset supports the development of non-cognitive skills. But, how can this be fostered in the classroom? (The research referenced in this part of the report was found in links from two brilliant Guardian articles, which make up part of a series of articles: Lessons from Research. The links are in the bibliography)

  1. Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller (1998) explored how different types of praise affected students. In the study some children were praised for “intelligence”, while others were commended for their effort. The children who were praised for their intelligence decided against attempting more challenging assignments, while those praised for effort did not lose confidence when faced with more challenging questions from which they would learn. Teachers should therefore praise learning behaviours rather than ability or outcome.
  2. Rather than appealing openly for pupils to develop a growth mindset; teachers could try a sneakier approach. According to Yeager et al (2013) this is because, “stealthy approaches feel less controlling and don’t stigmatize students as in need of help.” Pupils could, according to the researchers, write letters to younger pupils supporting the message of growth mindsets.
  3. Consider your own mindset: How do you view the ability of the children in your class? Dweck et al (2012) found that a fixed perception of mathematical ability leads to diagnosing low ability. A fixed theory then leads to poor teaching practice and comforting pupils for low ability. Comforting, in turn, leads to low motivation and low achievement.
  4. Haimovitz and Dweck (2016) studied the effect of parents’ mindsets on their children’s. They found that children, whose parents who viewed failure as a negative, were able to accurately perceive the mindset of their parent which then had an effect on their own. A mindset of failure then, in general, meant that their children believed that intelligence was fixed rather than changeable. Schools could teach parents about growth mindset, through parent meetings and written guides, in the hope of addressing this issue.

In 2015, EEF researchers published the results of their study on Philiosophy for Children (P4C). P4C is, “a whole-class intervention which aims to stimulate classroom dialogue in response to children’s own philosophical type questions about shared stories, films and other stimuli.” (Siddiqui, 2017) The EEF (2015) found that:

  • P4C had a positive impact on KS2 attainment
  • P4C had the biggest positive impact on KS2 results among disadvantaged pupils
  • Teachers generally reported a positive impact on wider outcomes

In 2017 Dr Nadia Siddiqui from the University of Durham looked at the contribution P4C can make to children’s non-cognitive skills rather than maths and reading (as looked at by the previous study). She found that P4C has some promising effects in improving children’s non-cognitive skills. It seems therefore that P4C may be a worthwhile approach in developing non-cognitive skills.

What are the implications of this for the classroom? If you answered yes to the original question, it’s definitely worth thinking (if you haven’t already) about non-cognitive skills and exploring the wider evidence base.


Education Endowment Foundation. (2015). Philosophy for Children. Available: Last accessed 24.1.19.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2018). Measuring essential skills and non academic outcomes. Available: Last accessed 22nd Jan 2019.

  1. Dweck et al. (2012). “It’s ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
  2. 4(3),731-737.

Mueller CM, Dweck CS.. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance.. J Pers Soc Psychol. 75 (1), 33-52.

Siddiqui, N.and Gorard,S.and See, B.H. (2017) Non-cognitive impacts of philosophy for children.’, Project Report. School of Education, Durham University, Durham.

The Guardian. (2018). Lessons from research. Available: Last accessed 30.1.19.

University of Birmingham. (2018). 80-percent of teachers say character education would improve school grades – survey . Available: Last accessed 22nd Jan 2019.

Yeager et al, D, 2013. Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions. Kapan Magazine, 1 February 2013. 62.