From a child’s perspective, school, extracurricular activities and home are part of the continuous experience of life. From the perspective of teachers, coaches and parents, those experiences may seem more differentiated and are thus treated separately. However, if the adults in a child’s life approach his or her growth as a collaboration following a clear developmental path, every child will have a better chance at a life filled with choices and the skills to achieve goals, according to a report.

“The idea is that if everybody starts to have a common understanding about what they’re trying to do and what an effective approach would be, and they understand that it’s a shared responsibility to help kids develop and learn over time, then hopefully it will lead to more discussion,” said Jenny Nagaoka, lead author of the Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework and deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).

“Kids will be engaged in learning and internalize the academic side if you are also helping them work to develop in multiple ways,” she said. Engagement doesn’t come only from exciting content, but from a student’s own ability to self regulate, apply skills and find some relevance in the lesson.

The CCSR report makes the case for better integrating aspects of a child’s development using a compilation of developmental psychology, neuroscience, sociology and education research perspectives. By combining insights from each of these areas, the report’s authors strive to paint a clearer picture of how to support development of the intangible qualities underlying both the cognitive and non-cognitive skills emphasized in school, clubs and at home.

The report identified three “key factors” that young people need to be successful. Many programs that focus on closing the equity gap only address educational attainment. But through research and interviews with both experts and youth, the CCSR researchers have developed a broader definition of success that includes young people becoming aware of themselves and the wide range options available to them, while developing the competencies to pursue those options and make good decisions as citizens of the world.

UChicago CCSR
UChicago CCSR and The Wallace Foundation


Agency: It’s important that young people feel they have the ability to influence the outcome of their lives. This doesn’t negate the fact that external factors can constrain choices, but a successful person recognizes their agency even within those constraints. The report notes, “having agency also requires having the competencies to be able to manage one’s environment, a sense of what one values, the ability to manage one’s emotions and behavior, as well as a belief that conscious self-directed action is possible.”

It can be harder for young people coming from marginalized communities to develop a strong sense of agency when faced by factors like violence or a lack of experiences that allow them to try on and experiment with new identities. However, adults working with those young people should recognize the importance of developing agency and give them opportunities to try it out when the stakes are low.

Integrated Identity: The process of getting to know oneself happens throughout childhood and into early adulthood and plays an especially important role in the teenage years. Forming an identity is some combination of discovery, construction and creation, but at its core it is a process of figuring out one’s beliefs, values, goals and experiences. All humans are multifaceted, but integrating an identity is about fully inhabiting all sides of the self.

This process can be more challenging for kids coming from disadvantaged communities where the coping mechanisms that work at home may not transition well into school or work environments. School often reflects a dominant white, middle-class culture, forcing kids who don’t come from that background to make a bigger lift when integrating their identities. This is profoundly unfair to kids coming from a different background from the dominant one, as it presents a whole other set of values and beliefs that must be incorporated into the sense of self.

Competencies: The report notes that the ability to perform roles, complete complex tasks and achieve specific objectives requires a set of competencies that include things like interpersonal skills and critical thinking skills. To some extent, the competencies a person may need will depend on what path in life they choose.

All of these factors play an underlying role in determining how successful a child will turn out to be. Additionally, four components underlie all cognitive and non-cognitive learning: self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets and values. Researchers note these components are malleable and can be easily influenced by experiences and relationships. They are also more or less important at different stages of a child’s development.

For example, 12-year-olds are very oriented towards identity, groups and finding a sense of comfort in friends, while older adolescents are often questioning their identity, looking to differentiate themselves. “If teachers can tap into that place, they can engage students more effectively,” Nagaoka said.

UChicago CCSR
UChicago CCSR and The Wallace Foundation

Early childhood educators often think about children in this holistic way, paying attention to social and emotional skills in addition to things like recognizing letters and numbers. Often this practice is dropped when a child turns from five to six and enters the first grade, even though developmentally, that child could still use those supports. That’s where the network of adults around that child could better integrate their supportive efforts.


While this report attempts to draw together disparate areas of research to offer a more complete picture of how children develop and use resources, relationships and experiences around them to make their way in the world, there are some clear ways that parents, educators and policymakers could integrate this holistic view.

Academics aren’t everything: Teachers often see themselves as responsible for specific academic content, but schools will never see the success they desire without accounting for some of the non-cognitive factors that play a role in development. The report points out that adults must act with a holistic approach to learning: “Cognition, emotion, affect, and behavior are reflexive, mutually reinforcing, and inextricably associated with one another as a part of development and learning. Adults will make little headway if they target only one particular component or subcomponent in isolation.”

Educators need a developmental lens: Too often, structures and practices are at odds with the developmental states of the children they are meant to serve. Schools and even parents are often more oriented towards the needs of adult – such as discipline and quiet – than towards what works for kids.

All kids need access to rich opportunities: At almost every step of the way kids from marginalized communities face more challenges to becoming successful adults than kids from wealthier and better educated homes. Adults need to help young people develop the skills and dispositions to cope with the world as it is, while helping them build the courage to change the status quo.

The focus on testing and accountability in school undermines educators’ ability to provide developmental experiences. “Testing has started to define what matters in schools and that’s how we think about what is successful,” Nagaoka said. This way of thinking creates incentives for school leaders, teachers and parents to focus on only on the academic content, while neglecting the many other factors that lead to success. In many cases schools have lost sight of what they want their students to become in favor of high test scores, which might not get them anything in the real world.

“Narrowing the focus onto one thing is a lot easier than saying there’s a lot of things we need to be paying attention to,” Nagaoka said.

Schools must be safe places for educators: “In the current state of things, schools are not particularly safe places for teachers to be experimenting or practicing or doing something they don’t know for sure will work,” Nagaoka said. There’s no clear roadmap of practices and policies to ensure the kind of holistic education this report is advocating. It will take trial and error. “Adults learn and grow and organizations improve by being allowed to make mistakes and overcome them and learn from them,” Nagaoka said. If this is the advice we are giving students about their learning, it only makes sense to allow educators the same growthful stance and professional agency.

Be careful measuring non-cognitive factors: Many school districts are realizing that non-cognitive factors are important to success, but the immediate instinct has been to try and quantify those things. The report’s authors caution that course of action, noting that in many cases the factors aren’t compatible with a standardized test-based accountability system.

“It’s more about understanding where kids are and understanding where kids need more support,” Nagaoka said. There’s no “right place” for a seven-year-old to be on the self-actualizing scale. Nagaoka suggests more diagnostic or formative assessment tools for evaluating how a student’s noncognitive abilities are developing.

Learning happens throughout life, not just at school. The daily real-world experiences are often much more potent and lead some students to question the value of what they are taught in school. If educators don’t address that disconnect and help students to reconcile those implicit messages with the values of school, those students may get lost.

“We’re trying to shift the narrative and helping people see the commonalities in what they’re working on,” Nagaoka said. She suggests that developmental psychology should be a part of all teacher training programs and hopes that there will be more cross-pollination among educators about how to support kids’ growth.

The focus of development changes as kids grow older.
The focus of development changes as kids grow older. (UChicago CCSR and the Wallace Foundation)
Beyond Academics: What a Holistic Approach to Learning Could Look Like 6 July,2015Katrina Schwartz

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  • Thank you, Katrina Schwartz. Your article gives a new perspective on a old problem. As an older adult pursuing a degree, I can relate with the need to learn in a lower-risk environment building the confidence required to be creative and innovative.

  • Joanne Kenney

    It’s interesting how the three factors you mention: agency, integrated identity, and competencies fit in with the Ryan & Deci’s Self-determination Theory of motivation. According to them human motivation is based on the ideas of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If we want our students to learn and be successful we must, as you so clearly point out, go beyond the academics.

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  • Thank you for your excellent article, Katrina. Your suggestions are consistent with our organization’s (Earth Force) 20 years of experience helping educators create an exciting learning environment. At Earth Force, we use a community action and problem-solving process that encourages students to identify issues within their community that are of interest to them and actively work to solve them. Nearly two decades of evaluation shows that young people build problem-solving and decision-making skills, and civic efficacy, as well as gain a better understanding of how the skills they learn can be used in the real world.

    As you demonstrate, supporting a student’s ability to take ownership of his/her learning and establish connections between classroom content and the real-world provides a much richer and deeper learning experience and builds competencies that are a critical piece of student learning that is often overlooked in the traditional educational environment. Learn more about Earth Force at

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  • Ryan Ricenbaw

    If we can make schooling the “hub” for life experiences for every student, we then take the needed step in education. So much of the information we teach can be consumed elsewhere, or found when needed. Now is the time to go back to our purpose in education – to inspire, to lead, to guide, to grow, etc. Your quote, “Learning happens throughout life, not just at school” sums it up. Students are experiencing things and they need support. Today, most would say those experiences are separate and that school isn’t a place or the time to learn from those “outside” experiences. School should be the center of those experiences where teachers, coaches, friends, peers, etc. are at a place where they know guidance, reflection, feedback and so much more can happen. The time is now!

  • bladerunner515

    Does anyone know why, in that final graphic, the outer ring is blacked out during adolescence?

  • Steve Hughes

    Nice article!

    It was interesting to read quotes from Jenny Nagaoka, one of the authors of the report. However, I take issue with her statement that “Testing has started to define what matters in schools and that’s how we think about what is successful.” Testing has more than “started to” define what matters in schools; across the US and increasingly around the world, standardized testing has absolutely DICTATED what matters in schools, with disastrous results to the growth and general development of children everywhere.

    While we in the US are now well aware of the consequences of the near-eradicating of any truly developmental processes in education, until there are changes in legislation and policy, we will continue to see a narrowing curriculum and reduction or elimination of physical education, music, art, recess, and even classes (such as social studies) that don’t contribute to performance on basic skills tests. Other countries are beginning to see this too, but most are a few years behind us in destroying public education. The chasm between the sentiments expressed in this report and actual practice at the school level is vast and will not soon be closing.

    Evaluation dictates what happens in education. Full stop. And the process of evaluation inexorably changes education.

    As social psychologist Donald Campbell wrote in his seminal, 1976 paper1, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor” (p. 34).

    “…achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways” (p.35).

    Thus is the legacy of No Child Left Behind.

    Will the assessment methods called for by the report produce superficial, didactic “programs” aimed at helping children improve their grades on a “Character Report Card” (as the KIPP schools have implemented)? Will the focus of evaluation remain on the child? How do we know what unique competencies each individual child will be draw to developing? How can we predict what direction their identify formation will flow? Anyway, will we attempt to evaluate a child’s “integrated identity?” Explain a C+ in “identity development” to that child (and is it his or her fault?). How does an introverted child satisfy a teacher’s need to grade them on this most personal and fundamental aspect of self? How will he or she demonstrate “Zestiness” (as KIPP and their partner, Angela Duckworth, would have it)?.

    There are indeed school environments that holistically promote identify formation, agency, and competencies, but you won’t find them in a conventional teacher directed, content based (and test driven) classroom. Not as long as music, movement, self-expression, or independence are absent.

    it is a pity that Montessori and Reggio Emilia get little more than a name-check (p. 41 of the report).

    Speaking of Montessori, It may be that Nagaoka and her colleagues from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research are simply unaware of the enormity of her contribution, or the depth and developmental impact of Montessori’s pedagogy.

    Montessori was a pioneer in creating and describing environments that support agency, identity formation, and the development of competencies (though independence, respect, the ability to make choices, to follow their instincts and curiosity, to work in a diverse community of other scholars). While the report calls for more research on how these attributes are fostered, the heavy lifting has arguably been done, and Nagaoka and her colleagues would do well than to spend a little time visiting some of the many excellent Montessori programs in the Chicago area. It would be hard to improve on the best of them, and even a middle-of-the-road Montessori program provides developmental opportunities that are well beyond the scope of anything they’ve seen in conventional education.

    Katrina, how about a follow-up on Montessori?

    1Campbell, D. T. (1976). Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change. Occasional Paper Series,# 8.

    • disqus_wwiFWj17oR

      Thank you, Kim. I agree. As a parent and a grandmother I wholeheartedly support childre being educated with Montessori’s approach.There are many alternatives today in educating children. It’s still rather new to require schooling in America considering the lifetime of our nation. I have enjoyed reading how Dewey , Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf schools and Tools of the mind grew out of philosophies that observe and support child development.

      Montessori was a physician. She was interested in psychic development as well as physical growth. I suppose that is an underlying key to Mind/shift.
      JohnDewey covered the controversy in education about which pathway to take in the revolution to revivify the systems being used in his time. In his little book about the Child and the curriculum and the Child and Society (1902 he speaks to this very controversy in values.)I I believe the USA suffers from a misunderstanding of the idea of education and may not take time to examine the underlying meaning of education itself.
      And the accent on academics and judgement without giving attention to the whole human being and thoughtful regard for life on this planet seems quite depressing .I’m all for change! One that”follows the child” instead of “raising the bar !” Whoever came up with that? Who wants to put children in an atmosphere that speaks of “bars?” Does the USA want to children and future adults in an atmosphere that contains bars? Sounds like judgement and jails to me. So let’s have a Mind/Shift and rediscover the Montessori Movement and bring her message completely to educators and children in our public schools. Her model is a vessel that contains all subjects and wise teachers will continue to learn and create with this model.It’s refreshing. She challenged us to teach peace. How’s that going these days?

  • Larryalobo

    When we compare how well USA students are doing compared to students from other parts of the world, what do we use and what are we measuring? Academics and use standardized test to do this. Now, in other good school systems, other areas are also important and most of them have more homogeneous student populations, but they focus more on academics since they perform higher than USA students, even though non academic things are important too. When k-12 can get the academics right (have students perform at grade level or higher and are well prepared for higher education training and college demands), then so much focus on the rest of what k-12 now considers as important can be considered more seriously (compassion, tolerance, self-esteem, equality, etc.). Then there are the issues of what k-12 staff thinks are important issues vs. what the community especially parents/families think are important issues to teach their kids. In today’s world, without good preparation in academics in k-12, students will face many problems in higher education training and college and throughout their lives and careers and this is more important than ever before. Yes socialization of students is important and many problems some students have because of their environments add to academic difficulties but plenty of kids from poor families around the world are doing better than many of USA students. Instead of saying – we can’t educate some kids well because of this or that issue – I want to hear more saying – some students may have this or that problem, and this is what we are doing about it to get them ready for the next grade (and not just pass them if they are not ready) and not depend on improving HS graduation rates if so many graduates are not well prepared for higher education training and college.

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    Maria Montessori designed schools based on these values.Hers was was a scientific breakthrough in changing curriculum to match the vital developmental needs of the child. She was a trained scientist and created a structure to follow. If her work would become more common knowledge, all the newest discoveries in brain/body growth would intertwine with hers. She stressed the Environment, training of educators and many aspects that lead to healthy human development. She was a genius ahead of her time. Her work prepared children to investigate math and science from a very early age, providing sequential steps with hands- on materials to learn specific concepts ( the timing is in sync with language development.) What if more attention went in the direction of finding out about her model?


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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