The importance of developing non-cognitive skills at an early age


1. Intelligence and social skills are developed at an early age — and both are essential for success.

Many major economic and social problems in America — crime, teenage pregnancy, high school dropout rate, adverse health conditions — can be traced to low levels of skills and social abilities such as attentiveness, persistence and working with others.

These so-called “soft” social skills are neither soft nor unimportant. Professor Heckman found hard evidence that these capabilities are essential ingredients for success in life. Lifecycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. In fact, early development of effective social skills greatly influence the successful development of the IQ and ultimately, personal and social productivity.

2. Early investment produces the greatest returns in human capital.

Professor Heckman found that early nurturing, learning experiences and physical health from ages zero to five greatly impact success or failure in society. The most economically efficient time to develop skills and social abilities is in the very early years when developmental support is most effective.

Today’s challenges are real — record rates of high school dropouts, a lack of college graduates, increasing rates of obesity and chronic diseases, rising crime and a growing underclass. Professor Heckman’s work proves that prevention through early childhood development is more life- and cost-effective than remediation. It’s time to invest in upstream solutions for future generations while we continue to address today’s problems.

3. America’s advantage will come from helping the disadvantaged.

Professor Heckman shows that disadvantaged families are least likely to have the economic and social resources to provide the successful early developmental stimulation every child needs as a basic opportunity for future success in school, college, career and life. Poor health, high school dropouts, poverty, crime — America will continue to create costly economic and social burdens if it fails to provide disadvantaged families with the resources they need for effective early childhood development.

Providing developmental resources pays dividends for the disadvantaged child and society as a whole by providing better education, health and economic outcomes.

4. Quality economic returns come from quality investments in early childhood development.

Professor Heckman studied decades’ worth of data from early childhood development programs that gave disadvantaged children and their families developmental support.

This form of comprehensive early childhood development provides children and their families with the resources for early nurturing, learning experiences and physical health that lead to future success, breaking the cycle of disadvantage.

Professor Heckman’s economic analysis of these programs reveals that investing in early childhood development for disadvantaged children provides a great return to society through increased personal achievement and social productivity.

5. Early childhood development is a smart investment.

This graphic shows that the highest rate of economic returns comes from the earliest investments in children, providing an eye-opening understanding that society invests too much money on later development when it is often too late to provide great value. It shows the economic benefits of investing early and building skill upon skill to provide greater success to more children and greater productivity and reduce social spending for society.

James J. Heckman is a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He received a Nobel Prize in economics for his econometric work and he derives his satisfaction from the social changes he makes possible with his work. Through the university’s Centre for the Economics of Human Development, he has conducted ground breaking work showing that quality early childhood development heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large.

Heckman has shown that there are great economic gains to be had by investing in early childhood development. His research shows that the social return on educational investment is highest in the first few years of life. Then the seeds are laid for the development of many non-cognitive skills. This turns out to be more important than cognitive skills later on in primary and secondary education.

Heckman, James. The Heckman Equation brochure. Source 

About Sensory Edge 174 Articles
Articles written by SensoryEdge are a combined effort of the SensoryEdge publishing staff. At SensoryEdge our focus is to educate, inform, and inspire each person caring for children to be and do their very best. It is not always easy and sometimes we don't take action (or we take the wrong action) because of a lack of understanding the real issues. We hope that the conversations that occur here will help in some small way better the lives of children, their families, and the professionals who work with them.