A Little Q & A about Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Traits (MNM 2)

After reading the introduction to this year’s Moms N More material, I’m hoping you’re beginning to become acquainted with the concept of cognitive and non-cognitive traits.   (Click here if you’d like to glance back at that post.)  I also hope you’re beginning to have a few questions . . . perhaps like these:

First:  Can you help me understand more about the difference between cognitive and non-cognitive traits?

Absolutely!  Here’s a little more information.

Cognitive traits involve a person’s natural aptitude for educationally oriented tasks such as computing (math), reading, and writing.  Schools assess these abilities with tests requiring students to demonstrate knowledge of an academic subject by performing well (knowing the right answers).  So, for example, if Sally has a strong cognitive aptitude for math, this can help her earn a high score on her algebra test this Friday.  Many experts link cognitive skills to an individual’s IQ.

Non-cognitive traits, however, have more to do with the manner in which an individual approaches cognitive and other tasks.  These traits—which include qualities like self-discipline, optimism, and emotional intelligence—cannot be assessed using traditional testing methods used in schools.  

However, as you can imagine, non-cognitive characteristics can have a tremendous impact on our test scores, not to mention our overall success in school, at the workplace, and in the community.  For example, John may possess strong reading comprehension skills; however, if he lacks the motivation to perform well on a test, he may not read the questions carefully and, as a result, receive a lower-than-necessary score.  On the other hand, if Michael struggles with reading but is highly motivated to perform well on an exam, he may earn a high score, simply because of how his efforts were impacted by his motivation. So a child's non-cognitive skills can actually trump his cognitive ability in terms of impacting academic success. 

Also important to know is that cognitive traits are relatively static, which means they cannot be substantively changed; however, non-cognitive traits are malleable, or changeable.

In short, a child’s cognitive ability can be seen in her knowledge about content matter, while a child’s non-cognitive traits are seen through her character.

Or, in other words, cognitive skills have to do with aptitudes, while non-cognitive skills have more to do with attitudes.

Next:  Okay, I get the distinction.  But I’d like to know more specifics about the non-cognitive traits.  What are they, exactly?

Ah, just the question I’ve been hoping you’d ask . . . . 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a list-maker.  So I’ve compiled just that . . . a sort of inventory with the names for 34 non-cognitive traits.  Maybe it will help.

Appreciation of Beauty

















Love of learning







Self-Control (Academic)

Self-Control (Interpersonal)

Self Efficacy

Self Esteem

Social Intelligence



Work ethic

By no means is this list comprehensive, but hopefully it provides some specifics about what is meant when people mention the phrase “non-cognitive traits.”  

Okay, that helps.  But where did this list come from?

Here’s a little more background:

The conversation about the non-cognitive traits is increasing amongst leaders from wide-ranging fields including medicine, education, psychology, and business.  My list is a compilation of characteristics mentioned from the following experts.  Journalist and author Paul Tough names grit, curiosity, perseverance, conscientiousness, self-regulation, and optimism as vital components for an individual’s success in school and in life.  He goes on to report how educators at Chicago’s KIPP School have not only identified similar qualities—grit, zest, academic and inter-personal self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity—but have also created a character report card to evaluate each student according to how well s/he demonstrates these traits in the classroom.   Corporate professionals discuss the importance of employees possessing traits like leadership, ownership, and even humility.  Using slightly different language, child psychologist Madeline Levine advises parents to cultivate their children’s resourcefulness, enthusiasm, creativity, work ethic, self control, self esteem, and self efficacy.  One of the longer lists—developed by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson and used as the inspiration for KIPP Schools’ shorter list  —boasts a whopping 24 traits.  These are the sources I used to create my list, but it only takes a few minutes of web-surfing to find more traits; however, many of the qualities overlap or parallel each other.  We’ll talk about that more later.

Alright.  But why are these traits such a big deal?

The non-cognitive traits currently are getting increased attention for a handful of reasons.

First, leaders in a variety of fields are pointing out that a person’s character is at least as important (if not more so) than his or her mastery of content. 

Second, these same leaders are expressing concern that these qualities seem to be on the decline in today’s youth.  For example, employers describe a majority of today’s job applicants as lacking “’communication and interpersonal skills’” as well as “creativity and collaboration.”  Educators, too, are noticing a decrease of qualities like perseverance in today’s students.  College admissions counselors, cites Madeline Levine, describe many current college applicants as “’failure deprived”, and I can’t begin to count the number of the students in my colleagues' and my classes who possess incredible academic ability but, sadly, seem unable to use it in their college work. 

Ultimately, leaders from a range of disciplines agree about two things:

Strong character—not just content mastery—is vital for success in school, work, and the community. 

Even so, today’s youth seem to possess an increasingly meager supply of these incredibly important qualities.

Wow.  That seems like a real problem.  What do you think might be causing this decline? 

Lots of attention is being given to the question of why many of today’s young adults seem to have a short supply of the non-cognitive traits.  Our educational system is one area that’s being examined.  Schools and teachers are under tremendous scrutiny as experts are trying to figure out strategies for helping students strengthen not just their knowledge of academic subject matter, but also the characteristics and behaviors they need in order to more effectively approach and master their school work.

However, what’s also being discussed is the need for parents to play a more active role in cultivating these traits in their children.  During the last few generations, parenting advisors have placed a continually increasing emphasis on the need for moms and dads to cultivate their child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem.  In one way, this makes perfect sense. We want our children to become adults who are strong, capable, independent, and successful.  So in order to reach that goal, we may tend towards parenting strategies which involve surrounding our children with experiences and environments that allow them to feel good about themselves at all times.   But what we don’t realize is that this emphasis is actually producing youth who are being described as “the teacup generation.”  On the surface, these children may look great—even exceptional; however, when the very-real challenges of adult life come their way, they are often fragile and insufficiently equipped.

Okay, I get it.  But what does this have to do with my 
family right now?  After all, let’s face it:  we’re still in diapers around here.

What a great question!  How about we tackle that one—and a few more—in the next post (which you will find by clicking here).

By the way, if you think of other questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment, talk to your MNM coach, leave a comment at the MNM Facebook page, or shoot an email to Rebekah Wilson or to me at annepharr@hotmail.com.


  1. Anne, what a great initial evaluation of cognitive and non cognitive traits. I'm very excited about your research and this study as I've seen this played out over and over again even with my own children and I think it is information that can really help parents.

  2. Thank you Betsy! I'm excited about this study for so *many* reasons and can't wait to see what kinds of questions and conversations emerge from this information.


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