Why should schools in Dubai focus on non-cognitive skills?

When my daughter was 5 years old, she would run up to me with wide arms waiting to hug me as I returned from work! It’s the most delightful memory I have of her. But, now she’s 16 years old and when I come home from work, she doesn’t even glance away from her phone to at least acknowledge my presence and say hi. It hurts me and I miss my little girl. Last term her grades slipped. I’m not sure what’s going on and how to help her. – Parent

I’ve noticed that for the past month that Omar usually puts his head down on the desk during class and hardly participates in discussion. He looks really sleepy at 1pm. He scored 2 out of 10 on the last quiz. I’m wondering if he’s sick or just not getting enough sleep. Whatever it is, I think it’s affecting his performance in my class. – Teacher

Last week, one of the boys in my class said I was “retarded” and “stupid”. Since then he’s been telling all the other kids in the class to call me that. And some of them do, and others just don’t talk to me. The teacher doesn’t notice. And, I can’t tell her. I told the boy to stop, but he keeps on saying it. I hate going to school. – Student

Each of the three scenarios above illustrate tensions affecting student wellbeing. The parent of a 16 year old adolescent girl is concerned about the fact that her daughter does not communicate at home, is preoccupied with her phone and that her grades are slipping. What is going on socially and academically? The teacher of an adolescent boy whose grades are also slipping finds him to be sleeping in class. Is there a health or home issue to be addressed? A young boy hates going to school because his classmates call him names. Why can’t he ask his teacher for help? How can he be helped? These situations are examples of issues and tensions that may be affecting student wellbeing in private schools in Dubai and beyond. In this KHDA Chatter, we explore the importance of developing non-cognitive skills among students to help them through such common situations encountered while growing up and to boost their sense of wellbeing.

Importance of Non-Cognitive Skills. “Student wellbeing” is a term used to describe students’ mental health and non-cognitive skills such as personal and social capabilities enabling perseverance, self-esteem, self-efficacy, attentiveness, resilience, openness, empathy and tolerance. International evidence shows that success in school and adulthood does not only depend on cognitive abilities related to reading, writing, arithmetic and technical skills, but on these non-cognitive skills as well. Non-cognitive skills were once thought to be “traits” or “personality factors” that were fixed, permanent or inherited. However, this is not the case.[1]

Research shows that wellbeing and non-cognitive skills can be changed through experiences and interventions. They can have ongoing impact across childhood, adolescence and adulthood on health behaviors, academic performance and vocational outcomes. Importantly, non-cognitive skills are more malleable at later ages than cognitive abilities.[2] Non-cognitive skills develop over time and build on each other (“skills beget skills and abilities beget abilities”) thus there are potentially greater gains from earlier intervention than later intervention.[3] Schools can leverage this dynamic by supporting student experiences that lead to positive personal development.

Non-Cognitive Skills & Positive Personal Development at School. Considering the three scenarios of issues affecting student wellbeing again, how can positive personal development be fostered at school? Relationships have increasing importance as students get older, therefore experiences and interventions aimed to promote student wellbeing at the secondary level may engage peers, teachers and parents. Open forums to discuss social issues among students, together with teachers and parents, may enable an experience to express oneself and hone important social skills enabling healthy relationships. Interventions supporting self-awareness and health education are also vital at the secondary level to ensure that students are aware and feel capable of taking care of themselves. Effective sleep strategies, regular physical exercise and good nutrition are all important for good health and the ability to concentrate and learn well at school.  While school-wide anti-bullying campaigns help to build awareness among teachers and students, a more direct approach to building positive relationships would require students to practice how to empathise with each other. Such practices would enable students to think about appropriate ways to behave with each other while showing compassion and tolerance.  

More than 95,000 students completed the second year of the Dubai Student Wellbeing Census in late 2018. Schools received their reports of student responses in February 2019. More information about the Census is available at https://www.khda.gov.ae/en/dswc.

Can you think of ways that students learn non-cognitive skills? Please share your thoughts!

[1] Heckman & Kautz. 2013, Fostering and measuring skills: Interventions that improve character and cognition.

[2] Kautz et al (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. OECD Education Working Papers no 110.

[3] Olsson et al., 2012. A 32-year longitudinal study of child and adolescent pathways to well-being in adulthood. J Happiness Studies

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