The Gift that Keeps on Giving

A dear friend and colleague shared a podcast with me this morning and encouraged me to listen to it. The podcast, What’s Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success, was published by NPR as part of their Hidden Brain podcast series. It really got me thinking…

The podcast featured an interview with James Heckman, a professor at the University of Chicago. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Some of his early work focused on programs like the GED that are designed to give young people a second chance to earn a high school diploma. Jim wanted to know whether people with a GED were as successful as people with a high school diploma. He started by looking at their test scores. What really surprised him was their test scores were virtually the same. Within a few months, the GED program was allowing students to catch up with peers who had spent years in high school. But then Jim looked further. Were GED grads holding onto jobs and long-term relationships and staying out of trouble?

If you looked at the GEDs later in life, they weren’t doing so well. If they got a job they were more likely to quit the job or be fired. Their marriages or partnerships were much less stable compared to the ordinary high school graduate. And, they were more likely to commit crime.

These findings turned Jim onto a subject he believes is really important for long term success and understanding success and failure. The subject? Noncognitive skills, or in other words, social and emotional skills.

In comparing GED graduates to those who stay in school and graduate, the GEDs were very deficient in social and emotional skills. In fact, they were far worse than the high school graduates. This evidence shows that staying in school can help build these skills – if, especially, the classroom environment and the teacher encourages the skills.

People with strong social and emotional skills seemed to have some common traits. A few of them are:

  • The ability to plan and persist. How well can I actually plan my life forward and make good use of my time? How well can I persist on a task? How resilient am I? If I experience failure, how far can I go and bounce back and try, try again?
  • Being open to new experiences and ideas. Am I closed off? Do I shun contact with new ideas and with new people? How agreeable am I? If I find I disagree with someone, what do I do?
  • Having grit and the ability to delay gratification. This is how Jim describes it… “I can see a gain later if I do the work now. If I go to school today, even if it’s unpleasant, I don’t like the teacher and I don’t like studying, I know that if I finish high school, I will have a much better opportunity in life. So, I grin and bear it and stay in school.”

The good news about these traits – they are malleable (can be altered and learned), can be measured and are very powerful in producing positive life outcomes!

In the podcast, Jim talks about a program that ran in the 1960s and intervened in the lives of disadvantaged African American kids in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for 1-2 years (the Perry Preschool Project). The project integrated social and emotional skills into the learning environment for the students. In addition, a parent component was included in the curriculum.

The goal of the parent component was to build the parents’ engagement with their child through home visits. The child and a person from the child care center would go home and work with the parent. Over time, they found the parents getting motivated and excited to work with their child. There was active engagement on the part of the parents that had not been there before.

As a result, the parents provided a warmer environment. They spent a lot more time with their child reading, playing and encouraging. The parents had a greater appreciation for what their own children could do and a greater understanding of their importance in nourishing the child. Even though the program lasted only two years, a nourishing cocoon now surrounded the child, encouraging the child, staying with the child and fostering the child in the years to come.

Jim Heckman has followed the kids who went through the Perry Preschool Project over the years. They’re now middle-aged. And he’s followed what happened to their children. What he found is that an early investment in kids, especially disadvantaged kids, and their parents can pay dividends across generations.

The kids in the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960’s were more likely to be cooperative, engage in school, graduate from high school, go on to college, make more earnings and much less likely to commit crime. When they were followed into their 20s and into their 30s, you began to see even more substantial benefits that came from the program.

Those benefits were with the children of the original participants. The children of the participants were healthier. They had better social and emotional skills. They were more likely to graduate high school, go on to college, earn more and were less likely to engage in the criminal justice system.

There is something quite incredible about a program that ran in the 1960s, intervened in the lives of kids for maybe one or two years, and that you see the effects of 50 years down the road – both in the lives of the people who went through the program and their children. You see beneficial effects that go on to the next generation.

And that, according to Jim, is an important lesson. The lesson is that if you start doing interventions and then evaluate them immediately upon their conclusion or within a few years you may not recognize the program’s multiple effects over time. If you don’t allow those effects to generate and express themselves over time, you can reach very premature negative conclusions. You may not think you made any or much difference in the short-term, when in actuality, you may have made a BIG difference long term.

So, what does all of this mean for you, your kids and All Stars? It means, keep doing what you are doing in All Stars! You and I know that All Stars is that social and emotional intervention that kids WANT and NEED!

  • All Stars can be a student’s respite from tests, note taking and hard class subjects during the school day by offering the opportunity for kids to only think and talk about themselves.
  • All Stars can be a student’s safe zone from a negative home or neighborhood environment that offers hope, encouragement and affirmation.
  • All Stars helps kids look forward to and plan for a positive future.
  • All Stars challenges kids to have the grit and perseverance to do the hard work, today, to realize their future later.
  • All Stars engages the students in important conversations with parents or other important adults to create that “nurturing, safe, encouraging and understanding cocoon” kids need for a lifetime.

It really is remarkable when you think about it. A program that was done 50+ years ago not only had benefits for the recipient, but that the benefit was passed on to the next generation, as well.

Or, think about it like this…It really is remarkable to think that what YOU are doing in All Stars today not only has long term benefits for your All Stars students, but that the benefit will be passed on to the next generation, as well. You truly are giving a gift that keeps on giving. Believe it and keep on giving!

P.S. Listen to the full podcast!