Cognitive and non-cognitive skills and future school success

Early development can have a long lasting impact on a child’s life. However, apart from cognitive skills, there is no consensus on which areas of development are associated with later student achievement.

To understand how all areas of early development are related to later achievement, researchers from the University of Toronto and McMaster University linked kindergarten EDI data with Grade 3 EQAO reading, writing, and math scores for 45,509 Ontario children.

The researchers were interested in two questions:

  1. Do non-cognitive EDI domains predict later school success, independent of cognitive domains and student- and school-level demographics?
  2. What are the unique contributions of each EDI domain on Grade 3 outcomes and how do they compare with the impact of child-level demographics?

The researchers used the following school-level demographics to account for the role a child’s neighbourhood may play in their academic achievement.

  • Percentage of lone parents
  • Family income
  • Percent of population with no secondary school
  • Percent of population with some university
  • Percent of population with a university degree
  • Total school enrolment
  • Percent of the population speaking English at home
  • Percent of the population with Aboriginal heritage
  • Percent of recent immigrants
  • Percent who moved in the last one year
  • Percent who moved in the last five years

What did they find?

All EDI domains significantly predicted Grade 3 EQAO reading, writing, and math scores, even after controlling for child and school-level demographics. EDI vulnerability in kindergarten was associated with lower EQAO reading, writing, and math scores in Grade 3.

Unsurprisingly, the language and cognitive domain had the largest unique contribution to Grade 3 EQAO scores, followed by the communication domain. The physical health and well-being domain had a smaller contribution than the two cognitive domains. Finally, the unique contributions of the social competence and emotional maturity domains were negligible. However, although the non-cognitive domains did not have a large effect on later academic success, they were statistically significant and larger than the unique impacts of most demographic variables, with the exception of gender on writing and age on all three outcomes.

What does it mean?

While cognitive skills are essential for later school success, non-cognitive skills are also important. Educational interventions should also include building a range of foundational skills, such as attention, fine and gross motor skills, and social skills. Success later in life depends on the opportunity to stimulate all aspects of development, not just those we traditionally associate with academic success.