Two social and emotional skills important for academic success
By Andrew McPeak
Growing up, David Aguilar was obsessed with LEGOs. Like many children, he built creations using his imagination, but unlike many children, David built to solve a specific problem: he was born with one hand.
David was born with a specific genetic condition called Poland Syndrome, which prevented his right arm below his elbow from fully developing at birth. His condition made growing up difficult due to how different he felt from other children. LEGOs became both an outlet and a potential solution to his problem. What if he could build an arm to replace the one he didn’t have? His first attempt at age 9 worked, but wasn’t strong enough, so he came back to the problem a few years later. At 18, he gained access to LEGO Technic, a stronger version of the blocks that he was eventually able to use to create your first functional arm. His first working version was strong enough to allow him to do push-ups. His second version included a battery to help him lift heavier objects.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that today David is finishing his degree in biological engineering at the University International University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. His mission ? To create affordable prostheses for everyone who needs them.
What does it take to succeed in school?
So, let me maybe make a weird statement. I believe David’s remarkable story is possible not only because of his intelligence, but also because of his social and emotional skills. For what? Because David’s success story includes failure. On his first lap, everything didn’t work out, so he had to try again.
Recent studies have actually shown that the same social and emotional skills that led to David’s success are shared by students around the world who are doing well in school.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development conducted a survey of over 3,000 students from major cities in 11 countries, including the United States, Helsinki, Finland, China and Russia. The study wanted to try to find links in students between academic performance and social and emotional skills. The social and emotional skills they measured spanned five distinct domains: task performance (such as perseverance and self-control), emotional regulation (such as optimism and stress response), collaboration (such as empathy and trust), open-mindedness (such as tolerance, curiosity and creativity) and Engagement with others (such as assertiveness and sociability). Remarkably, their study showed that two SEL skills in particular had a strong correlation with high performance in math and reading. These two skills were curiosity (linked to open-mindedness) and persistence (related to the execution of tasks).
The findings of this study, which match others made in recent decades, are so remarkable because they challenge our basic assumptions about what it takes to succeed in school. Many of our schools, classrooms, and programs are set up with the belief that there are two kinds of kids: normal kids and smart kids. But what if the biggest divider between successful kids in school wasn’t based on intelligence, but rather on a student’s academic curiosity and persistence in the face of a difficult task?
Four ideas to help cultivate curiosity and perseverance in our students
So if curiosity and perseverance are so important to our students’ academic success, how do we cultivate them? For years, we at Growing Leaders have talked about soft skills like muscles. This is good news for parents, teachers, leaders and coaches. Just like a muscle, curiosity and perseverance can be developed. Let’s look at four practices that great leaders use to develop these two social and emotional skills in students:
Idea #1: Give them a margin
Albert Einstein made some of his greatest discoveries not at school or at work, but at home, while taking a walk or having a cup of tea. Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion and gravity during a year “in quarantine” at home as the Black Death ravaged Europe. The simple act of creating a space for students without the distractions of screens or homework can cultivate passion and insight. It might be the most simplistic idea on the list, but it might also be the most powerful. People without boundaries in their day cannot access their creativity and cannot open up to new ways of thinking about old things.
Idea #2: Allow students to practice self-directed learning
The students you lead today have probably been told what to do all their lives. Whether by parents, coaches, social media platforms, shopping sites or even former teachers, the vast majority of young people today do not have much time for self- to manage. This is why leaders who seek to give students opportunities to develop their curiosity and perseverance should try to give their students goals without giving them directives. Although it’s likely to be a painful transition at first, students who learn to self-teach will gain essential skills to prepare them for the 21st century workplace.
Idea #3: Allow students to choose their own interesting problems
Another great idea for cultivating curiosity and perseverance is to allow students to take more action when tackling assignments and homework. Numerous studies have shown that when students are allowed to work on a problem that interests them, they are much more likely to work longer, harder, and enjoy the process.
Idea #4: Celebrate failures as often as successes
The final idea here is more about the culture of the classroom environment you are trying to create. Today’s students grow up with FOMU, or “Fear of Messing Up”. Our world of always-on cameras and live commentary often gives students the impression that any minor mistake can spell disaster. Why not set the tone for students to fail by creating a culture that celebrates failure? Remind students that every failure is a lesson and that no great has ever succeeded without first failing.
The power of curiosity and persistence
David Aguilar went public with what he learned. In the summer of 2020, he completed “MK-V”, the fifth and most advanced version of his prosthetic arm. Rather than keeping this invention to himself, he posted a video show the drawings and give instructions to others on how to build one for themselves. But David didn’t stop there. After receiving an e-mail from a loving mother, David went to meet his son: little Beknur.
Beknur is a young boy who suffers from a condition similar to David’s, but rather than only missing one appendage, Beknur misses them all. Instead of his arms and legs, he has small working digits. Beknur’s mother contacted David to see if he could help her. and that is exactly what he did.
In 2021, David and Beknur met and David showed him his very own LEGO arm. If you want to watch the video, you can here. It will make your day.
What I love about David and Beknur’s story is that it once again tells how young people are changing the world. When we give our students skills like curiosity and persistence, we don’t just help them with their test scores. We give them a gift that will inspire them to solve problems and serve the people around them.