Understanding Core Skills

For education stakeholders, four key features of fundamental nonacademic skills

December 5, 2016
Understanding Core Skills

Identifying executive function (EF) skills among the patchwork of regulation-related buzz words like grit, self-control, and behavioral regulation is important — but it’s only one of several distinctions needed to identify the core skills for success.

A second grade teacher striving for a calmer classroom needs to understand how the competencies her students gained in preschool have prepared them for new skills. A policymaker deciding which skills schools should emphasize needs to be able to assess relevant research findings. A researcher looking to boost reading comprehension needs to distinguish the skills necessary for academic success from the ones that lead to social awareness.

Acknowledging these various needs, a new report from researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes fundamental nonacademic skills, shows how they vary, and advises education stakeholders about how to think about these skills in their individual practices. 

How Core Skills Vary 

  1. Skills vary by complexity. Mastering “simple skills,” which are core competencies that can’t be broken down into smaller components, can prepare children to grasp more “complex skills.” For example, self-control is a complex skill requiring attention and working memory, which are both simple skills.

Understanding how skills are scaffolded in this manner can:

  • Help teachers map out learning trajectories for students and identify which simple skills they need to master first
  • Help policymakers recognize the fundamental nonacademic skills children need for success throughout their lives
  1. Children acquire certain skills at specific developmental stages. For example, children should begin developing working memory and behavioral regulation in preschool and kindergarten, laying the foundation for more sophisticated planning and problem-solving skills later in elementary school.

Understanding how children learn at different ages can:

  • Help program developers ensure that they are targeting and measuring developmentally appropriate skills
  • Help program evaluators accurately decide whether a curriculum is building core skills
  • Help policymakers recognize which skills children need to learn at specific stages of their education
  1. Different skills exist in different developmental domains: the cognitive domain, social domain, or emotional domain. Proficiency in different domains leads to different outcomes. For example, a child who has strong skills in the cognitive domain may perform well on math assessments, whereas a child with strong skills in the social or emotional domains may excel at perspective-taking or have lessened anxiety.

Understanding how different skills have different outcomes can:

  • Help teachers and caregivers build children’s competencies in areas where they most need assistance
  • Help program developers hone in on skills related to the outcomes they want to see  
  • Help program evaluators assess whether a program is effective at connecting skills to results
  1. Different measurement strategies have different shortcomings and benefits. There are two main ways to evaluate a child’s skills: direct assessments and observational reports by teachers and parents. Direct assessments are more objective, but not always reflective of real-life scenarios; reports by teachers and parents are more subjective, but they do record real situations. Often, EF skills are measured through direct cognitive assessments, and broader regulation-related skills are measured in reports of how children act in stressful situations

Understanding the ways skills are measured can:

  • Help teachers comprehend assessments of their students’ skills
  • Help program developers choose the best method to evaluate results in their program or curriculum
  • Help evaluators evaluate how well a program has done in meeting its goals

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.