Building Non-Cognitive Skills into a Blended Model

Building Non-Cognitive Skills into a Blended Model

“But I was using those scissors first!”

Watching De’ja and Kimora fight over a small pair of blue safety scissors, I have to remind myself that they are the highest performing students in my class. It continues to amaze me that students who are so academically successful can be so socially challenged.

Working with young children demands that classroom instruction go beyond academic skills. Teachers of young children must find the time, in an already tightly scheduled day, to engage students in routines that promote the growth of non-cognitive skills such as persistence, grit and self-regulation.

This year, I am moving from teaching kindergarten to first grade. Most non-educators may see this as a small jump, but as I prepare for my new class of first graders, I am reminded of how far removed these two grades are. As a kindergarten teacher I used the “Tools of the Mind” curriculum, a program that is completely designed around promoting self-regulated learning. Since Kindergarten is classified as “Early Childhood”, I can get away with chiseling out portions of my day to focus on these so-called “soft skills.”

As a first grade teacher, however, there are very different expectations for my students and me. I know that this is a huge year for academic growth, and that it is important that all of my students finish the year at or above grade level (many studies have shown that gaps in the primary years are significantly harder to close after 3rd grade). And while this is why I wanted to move to first grade, I do not want to sacrifice the routines and procedures that promote “soft skills.” I have read so much about their importance for lifelong success (How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough), and am now a believer that the intentional building of soft skills can and should be a part of any good schooling experience.

Dunne. Classroom pic

I am a week away from meeting my new class, and feel stuck between two worlds. I have been struggling with my schedule, hoping to find any flexible time I can to devote to teaching soft skills and providing meaningful opportunities for my students to practice using them. After much thought and guidance, I have decided use a station rotation model in my classroom. While this blended model will provide my students with time in differentiated small groups and time on individually paced, dynamic math programs, I am most excited about the routines and structures this block will run on. This blended model will demand student self-regulation in how my students monitor their work when they are not with the teacher and in how they engage with their peers in the partnered workstation. I will take the key social elements of the Tools curriculum and find a way to integrate them in my blended math block.

Breaking down traditional classroom structures allows for much more than innovation around content mastery. Blending primary classrooms will open up our time as teachers and allow us to devote more time to teaching and practicing skills such as self regulation, grit and social awareness to young students like De’ja and Kimora. How do you make time for these important skills in your day?

Dunne. The Very Busy First Graders pic

Written by Meghan Dunne

Meghan Dunne


  1. I’m excited to hear more about your progress this year, Meghan. Teaching students to become independent, cooperative learners is a challenge, but an important one; I’ve observed that the most successful teachers develop explicit lesson plans for teaching non-cognitive skills and treat it like any other lesson. Best of luck to you and your students!

  2. Keri Brown

    Meghan, I really enjoyed reading your outlook and learning. I am a student at the University of South Alabama, and I am studying Elementary Education. I am currently in EDM310, which is a class about blogging and using technology in the classroom. Your thoughts about soft skills are so interesting to me. I always hear teachers talking about how busy the school day is and how hard it is to fit in anything else in the busy schedule. I feel like your idea of using the station rotation model will allow for the development of soft skills as well as letting your students interact and learn with their peers. I would love to know more about your first grade classroom this year and how this works for you. I am really interested in teaching either kindergarten or first grade. Good luck this year!

  3. Thank you so much for writing this piece. I believe that non-cognitive skills are important at all levels but it is more seamless if students start learnin these early. So much of adult life is not what we know, we have google for that, but how we interact, problem solve, negotiate, work in teams etc. All of these skills need to be cultivated with intention.

  4. Having taught first grade for ten years, my mantra is slow down, practice, practice, practice, expect them to, and never do anything for the students that they can do for themselves. Slow during the first month(at least); students have to understand what the procedures are, and what is expected of them, and you have to establish a relationship with them before you can take off working on standards. Practice everything you need them to do on their own, practice until they can all do it, OR they know who to ask for help(not me). Expect them to think and problem solve on their own. Give them tools and access to supplies to fix their own mistakes(tape and a stapler are powerful tools to a young child). Never do things they can and should be learning to do on their own, even tying shoes. Teach them to rely on each other or themselves. So many parents are rushed and don’t spend time letting their children problem solve. They can sharpen pencils, work out sharing, put on a bandaid, fix a ripped paper, I’ve never heard these skills referred to as soft skills before, I’d call them life skills.

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