Academic Literature

Soft Skills – Policies aimed at reducing so-called “negative” non-cognitive or behavioral traits, however, could harm children in the long run

There is growing interest in how schools can shape children’s non-cognitive skills (sometimes known as behavioral traits, soft skills, or personality). One reason for this interest is that non-cognitive skills predict a wide range of economic outcomes, such as employment and lifetime earnings, but are also relatively malleable—at least until adulthood. This opens up a role for policy interventions aimed at school children. For example, schools could focus resources on cultivating positive non-cognitive skills (or eliminating negative ones) similar to the way that they develop math and reading skills. My research shows that policies aimed at reducing so-called “negative” non-cognitive or behavioral traits, however, could harm children in the long run.

Together with two co-authors, I have studied how classroom misbehavior relates to both educational attainment and labor market performance. Surprisingly, we find evidence that some non-cognitive skills that manifest as childhood misbehavior in the classroom (and are predictive of lower schooling attainment) are also predictive of higher earnings later in life. This finding challenges prevailing research, which has generally argued that misbehavior in the classroom reflects underlying skills that are bad for schooling and bad overall.

Few would argue against the idea that stronger cognition or better health would improve outcomes on almost any conceivable economic dimension. Some non-cognitive skills, such as grit, also appear to have positive returns in many sectors. In this paper, we illustrate that it is generally not meaningful to think of non-cognitive skill as either good or bad per se. We have demonstrated that the same non-cognitive skill can be productive in one context and counterproductive in another. Our findings suggest that investments in human capital should be evaluated in light of this possibility. In particular, mixed effects of externalizing behavior suggest caution in devising policies that target children with apparently undesirable behaviors or so-called negative non cognitive skills. Such policies may pay off in the short- run by improving educational outcomes, but may also be costly in the long-run by stifling a productive labor market skill. We also show important differences across socioeconomic groups in the returns to skills. This further complicates policies centering around non- cognitive skill formation, suggesting that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds may suffer from an inability to profit from productive skills. Our results are particularly salient given recent efforts to include measures of non-cognitive skills as part of schools’ and teachers’ performance ratings.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at The economic value of Breaking Bad: How misbehavior in school pays off for some kids | IZA Newsroom



  1. Pingback: Soft Skills – 4 Recommendations for coaching | Job Market Monitor - February 12, 2020

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