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Social Learning Affects Life Outcomes: So why call it Non-Cognitive?

Social Learning Affects Life Outcomes: So why call it Non-Cognitive?

© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Do a Google search on the term “non-cognitive and social skills” and you will see that “well informed” people from universities, government, and media are referring to social skills as being “non-cognitive.”

Having been in this field for several decades now, it’s my understanding that cognition comes from our neurology and our neurology is parked in our brain. So technically if something is “non-cognitive” its origin is non-neural or non-brain based. So are these “experts” suggesting that social skills come from our knee-cap or elbow? Of course not, but this loose labeling of a set of highly complex skills is troubling, to say the least, to me.

Furthermore, do students simply intuit “social skills” or is there actually a world of learning associated with being social? The research is strong in demonstrating that our social abilities are a by-product of many other processes: perspective taking/theory of mind, conceptual processing, executive functioning, social attention, auditory processing, interpretation of nonverbal cues, situational cues, etc. They are also dependent on the situation (context), and the people (cultural and social-emotional factors). Being “successful” in social situations, which we can think of as having “good social skills”, means we are continually and to some extent, consciously, thinking about and considering all these social elements and more, all within each moment of interaction. Is all of that mental work “non-cognitive”?

In any given moment we typically gauge a person’s social abilities by observing their social behaviors. Most of us create our social behaviors with relative ease; it comes “naturally.” The ease by which we do this shouldn’t be confused, however, with the complexity of the underlying processing; there is far more going on below the social-cognitive surface. All of these “non-cognitive” social skills constitute an inner universe that is intricate, complicated, and multifaceted. To navigate the realms of self-awareness, self-regulation, situational attention, motives, intentions and the continuously changing landscape of bi-directional communication and social interaction, our brain is the engine and our social thinking is the fuel that propels us to social success. And there we are – back to the brain, the seat of our cognitive processing. Is there anything “non-cognitive” about it?

Human beings operate on a continuum of social understanding, from those who struggle dramatically because of brain-based social learning challenges to the highly adept social processors who can handle any situation they find themselves in without so much as a twitch of their elbow or eyebrow. To help a person with even strong language and academic learning skills acquire improved social skills, we have to first shift their understanding from self to others: to consider their own and others’ perspectives, emotional self-management, and social self-awareness. (And by the way, that’s exactly what we do through Social Thinking: help teach the many and varied processes that guide our students’ social learning and related social skills. Need I say it? It’s cognitive learning.)

You may think it silly or esoteric to worry about the fact that people—even highly educated people–refer to the process of social emotional learning as “non-cognitive” and that it’s okay to refer to this complex universe of social learning as “just teaching social skills.” I would argue that in these evidence-based times the broad acceptance of social teachings as core to every student’s development depends, in large measure, on how seriously we consider the process of social emotional learning itself.

Obviously our education systems will, and do, struggle to take this seriously and give social emotional skills the attention they deserve if policy-makers, the media, and government education officials continue to refer to all this as “non-cognitive.” It implies an “off the cuff” or “no thinking needed” process that certainly doesn’t warrant our time, attention, or fiscal dollars. This is especially true when viewed through the lens of our current insistence on raising academic scores and in light of hard-to-find funding for learning that is considered non-academic in nature.

To help clarify how “cognitive” all this social emotional learning is, I have been following a slew of research studies that maximize the importance of social emotional learning (e.g. social skills, also referred to as “soft skills” or “nonacademic skills”). Many of these studies received an excellent review in a recent NYTimes opinion piece by David Bornstein, “Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives” (July 24, 2015), even if I have to forgive him for carrying on the myth that these skills are “non-cognitive” in nature. His review of the research included the results of the Fast Track Project which, after more than a decade of following children as they aged, concluded that “Children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college than those who scored low.” Bornstein, in his article, goes on to say,

“These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness — strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.”

A fascinating longitudinal study by Schweinhart and Weikart, which began in the 1960s and followed students over the next 20 years, was published in 1997. In this study researchers began by looking at the type of education provided to preschoolers. They studied three distinctly different groups of children: those provided with a play-based preschool experience, those provided with a play-based preschool experience combined with direct adult guidance, and those provided a “direct instruction” experience where academic teaching was the focus of the preschool experience. As they followed these students and explored their academic learning as well as their social emotional development, they discovered that:

  • Those in Direct Instruction showed early academic gains**
  • By the end of 4th grade, trends had reversed or evened out across all three different groups of students
  • At a 15-year-old check of all students: Academically there were no differences between the three groups but the Direct Instruction group showed twice the number of “acts of misconduct”
  • At 23-years-old, those in the Direct Instruction group demonstrated greater difficulty getting along with others, greater mental health challenges, were more likely to commit a crime, and 39% had felony arrests compared to 13.5% of the persons from the other two groups. Additionally, 19% were cited for assault with a deadly weapon, compared to 0% of persons from the other two groups.

** this same data has been replicated many times across a variety of studies.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the growing attention to the impact technology is having on children’s social emotional development and school readiness skills, well before they step foot into a classroom. Pivotal technology changing years included 2007 when the iPhone was introduced, followed by the introduction of the iPAD in 2010. According to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of families with children age eight and under who owned tablets grew from 8% to 40%. Even more remarkable, the percentage of children with access to a smartphone or tablet jumped from 50% to 75% of those surveyed. Two additional years have lapsed; the figures are undoubtedly even higher.

The research is just beginning to support the real concerns of parents, teachers, and pediatricians who are asking how much screen time is just too much for children’s social development. And many of the findings point us back to play, face-to-face interaction, and non-academics as being the driving force for social development.

  • In a 2011 article issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Babies and Toddlers Should Learn from Play Not Screens,” the AAP summarized key findings from their 2011 policy statement on media use. Among the findings were that “Young children learn best from—and need–interaction with humans, not screens” and that “Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play.”
  • Screen time recommendations from the nonprofit group, Zero to Three (2014), stress that moderation is best: “the need for limits is still important because research clearly shows that it is active exploration of the real, 3-D world with loving, trusting caregivers that is most critical for healthy early development.”
  • “Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic Versus Intellectual Goals For Young Children” by Lillian G. Katz, PhD (2015), is a free publication and important reading for all who care to help guide this and future generations to have the best tools available to them for use across their lives. Katz poses that education, needs to go beyond play and academics to also address “intellectual goals”, which she defines this way: “Intellectual goals and their related activities, on the other hand, are those that address the life of the mind in its fullest sense (e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc.), including a range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities.”

The evidence is strong: play skills and other non-academic skills facilitate critical thinking and actually contribute to, not detract from, other aspects of academic development. They also encourage us to be good members of our community, and provide an opportunity to improve conflict resolution skills, emotional self-management, etc.

Just to summarize, I find my knee-caps and elbows quite useful; please note that even they need neurology to function. Social skills are helpful but they do not stand on their own two feet. Our brain is the source of all learning.


Michelle Garcia Winner is the creator of the Social Thinking methodology and founder/CEO of Social Thinking. A prolific writer and international speaker, she specializes in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges at the Social Thinking Center, her clinic in San Jose, California. Michelle helps educators, mental health professionals, and parents appreciate how social thinking and social skills are integral to a person’s success in school, in the community, and in their career.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011, October 19). Babies and toddlers should learn from play, not screens. Retrieved from ScienceDaily.

Bornstein, D. (2015, July 24). Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives. Retrieved from The New York Times.

Common Sense Media. (2013). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Retrieved from Common Sense Media

Hu, E. (Narrator). (2013, October 28). What you need to know about babies, toddlers and screen time. [Radio broadcast episode]. Washington, DC: National Public Radio. Retrieved from NPR.

Katz, L.G. (2015). Defending the early years: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children. Boston, MA: Defending the Early Years; University of Illinois: Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting.

Lerner, C. & Barr, R. (2014). Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight. Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old. Zero to Three: Washington, D.C.

Schweinhart, L.J. & Weikart, D.P. (1997). “Lasting differences: The HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through age 23.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 12. pp. 117-143.

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