Want Your Students to Excel? Focus on Noncognitive Skills

Barry Saide

No one expected Barry Saide to become a teacher. He was a mediocre student, at best, and he hated school, a place that was populated with bullies and uncaring teachers.

“When I was in seventh grade, my teacher handed me my report card and said, ‘that’s a lot of Ds on that report card,’” Saide recalls. “There was no follow-up. No, ‘what’s going on with you?’ or “maybe we should look into getting you some help.’ There was nothing.’”

It wasn’t until Saide took a summer job as a camp counselor that he realized he loved working with children. He’s since funneled his passion for helping kids grow into a career in education. Saide currently teaches second grade at Mount Prospect Elementary School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader, an advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and National Center for Teacher Quality and a sought-after speaker.

We recently talked to Saide about how and why he emphasizes noncognitive skill development in his classroom.

You have talked and written about the importance of empathy in the classroom. Why is empathy so important?

Because that’s where it starts. We talk about differentiation as an instructional piece, but differentiation is truly about understanding the needs of every child that you meet.  If you don’t truly understand them and meet them at a social and emotional level first, you can’t teach them anything.

I learned that over time, in part because of what I went through in my own experiences with education. Once I learned how to show empathy and embraced that, I actually became a much more effective teacher of cognitive skills, because those nontested, noncognitive skills are actually the life skills that people need to be successful.

What are some of the strategies that you use to demonstrate empathy to your students, and to build empathy in them?

The first and biggest thing is being transparent with them. I let them know how I feel about them every single day. I’m honest with how I feel about them and their approach to each other. I’m also honest about their academics and how I’m going to support them in that. When you know where you stand with someone, it becomes very, very comfortable.

I also model everything; I do every single thing we expect of each other with them. We return to things over and over again. Research shows that a student has to do something a minimum of nine times before they truly grasp the concept. We need to be sensitive to that. Just because you taught something, doesn’t mean they learned it.

I use humor a lot, too, aimed at myself, to loosen everyone up. It helps them realize that I’m OK with who I am. Because I model that, they can be OK with who they are.

How do you build your students’ noncognitive skills?

We do a lot of culture, climate and character building. Today, for example, there were some kids who were just not getting along with each other on the playground. I was told about it afterwards. Issues like that creep back into the classroom and affect the way kids are interacting with each other. When that happens, it doesn’t matter what I have planned for the rest of the day academically. If they’re not getting along with each other, and they don’t have the tools to fix those things, it doesn’t end. It really doesn’t matter what my math lesson was because it won’t stick with them anyway.

So what we did today was reframe our thinking. My students were of the mindset that, “This child is not being nice to me,” so I flipped that and asked, “What are the five things that you need to feel happier in school every day?” I told them, “I already know what you don’t like, so let’s talk about what you do and build from there.”

I gave the students five minutes to list the five things that they need to be happier at school. Then they spent another three minutes answering the question, “What two things do you think you need to make those five things occur?” After they wrote that down, we addressed why. “Why do you need this? Why is it going to make things better for you?” Once they had that all out on the paper, I asked them to draw it.

The time we spent breaking down what our feelings were, as well as what we want them to be, changed the vibe for the rest of the day.

You care deeply about your students’ academic learning. But it sounds like your first priority is building noncognitive skills. Is that a fair assessment?

That’s exactly where I’m coming from, and the research supports me on that. Look at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and their work with responsive classroom, the work of Alfie Kohn.

My students’ test scores bear that out, as they tend to do well after leaving my classroom, too. I’ve learned it’s really about finding the good in kids and getting them to see that, too, and then building off of that so they can grow academically.

Institutional barriers sometimes make it tough for educators to focus on noncognitive skill development. How do you overcome those barriers?

Show me another instance where kids have to walk in a straight line and have a hundred percent achievement outside of incarceration. Very often, school is about training kids to walk in a straight line, eat at certain times, respond to a bell, and keep everything neat.

We need to embrace the chaos a little bit more if we’re going to truly differentiate instruction, because every kid’s best is not going to look the same. Every kid’s work is not going to look the same. Every kid’s home life is not going to look the same.

We need to embrace the squiggles; life is not a straight line, and that’s OK. The biggest indicator of success is a level of comfort with oneself and a willingness to take a risk.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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