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The Key to Unlocking Success for the Whole Student: Five Formative Success Skills Defined

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January 02, 2024


When you hear the phrase “student success in school” what comes to mind? Does a child’s social-emotional wellbeing top your chart? For many, a child’s grades, projects, tests, and assessment scores in comparison to his or her peers usually top the list. More often than not, a child’s success in school is measured by letters and numbers with words like “advanced” or “basic” attached.

Within education, there has been a drastic and, albeit, detrimental shift from the individual child to the individual test score.

Like running a well-oiled business, many educational environments have turned their focus from the individual student to numbers and performance. As a result, our children have been suffering. You may ask yourself “Suffering? How? When the focus shifts from the whole person to an inconsistent number, only a small portion of the picture is seen and this small piece has impacted the paths that educators and parents have chosen for our students.

In education, we are to be reminded that we are not running a business; we are influencing and shaping the lives of the future. This is, certainly, far more important than the newest tech craze (sorry, Apple). To help refocus our attention on the whole child, retired principal and author Thomas R. Hoerr examines five key components to better “prepare students to succeed in life, not just in school”.

The Formative Five Keys to Unlocking Success in Students

Hoerr calls upon educators to shift their focus on these “formative five” success skills. This is as a way to help students be “good and productive” people throughout their lives. Hoerr notes “…when you identify individuals who are successful, regardless of your criteria and whether they are friends, co-workers, family members or famous people, there are certain success skills that they have in common.” These five skills that all successful people share are:

  • Empathy
  • Self-control
  • Integrity (Honesty)
  • Embracing Diversity
  • Grit

Let’s start with empathy. Although Hoerr believes that each of the Formative Five success skills is equally important, he begins with empathy. This is because, as he indicates, its absence seems all too apparent these days.

The ability to teach students to see things from another perspective, (to be in someone else’s shoes), is an essential part of developing successful students.

Hoerr suggests taking the time within your classroom teaching to delve into context in literature. Look at competing motives in history and listen to disparate voices within the community. This can help a student to truly understand other’s perspectives and to feel empathy for them.

The second of the Formative five is self-control which is key in today’s society leaking with impulsivity and immediate gratification. Hoerr states that. we need to help our student reflect on their present habits, determine which ones (those that are realistic) they wish to develop and then plan the practices that will cause them to internalize behaviors. There are obstacles, as Hoerr points out, and if we actually anticipate such obstacles, we can then plan accordingly.

Teaching the third success skill of honesty seems obvious. From birth, we’re taught the significance of being honest with others and ourselves. However, as Hoerr indicates, it’s not enough to teach and reward honesty. As educators, we must reinforce a sense of integrity in our students. Many of us equate integrity with honesty, but in fact, Hoerr differentiates the two: “Integrity is a step beyond honesty; it is acting on a principle or belief in a public manner”.

He continues to provide a deeper differentiation between these two characteristics. He says that “honesty is doing the right thing and being true to our word while integrity is stepping out and standing up in a way that becomes a statement to others”. In other words, honesty and integrity both require action, but integrity impacts others in an entirely different manner. Think of those individuals who left their imprint upon history such as Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. They left their imprint because of their integrity: because they visibly followed their beliefs.

Thomas Hoerr explains diversity through the idea of “embracing”. Hoerr reminds us that diversity is beyond understanding and accepting but more about embracing those who represent different backgrounds and beliefs. Hoerr states that we must show students how to embrace differences as our world becomes more and more interactive. Technology is quickly bridging the communication gap between countries and cultures faster than you can read this paragraph. Collaboration between varying cultures and countries will become part of our everyday interactions and those who embrace diversity will carry the advantage.

The last of the Formative Five is referred to as “grit”. Hoerr describes grit as an individual’s ability to not become discouraged and an overall refusal to not give up. He continues to explain that as educators we need to help our students understand that people who come out on top don’t choose the easy road. Instead, these people are willing to try to learn from their mistakes and recognize the role of effort in their own success.

Educators must play a roll in students success

As educators, we know that each student can demonstrate varying strengths within core academics. Just as strengths in certain academics are prevalent, strengths within these success skills will vary. Hoerr emphasizes that just as every student can benefit from academic instruction, each will benefit when we focus on the Formative Five.

We must bring opportunities to incorporate empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity and grit in order to celebrate what is important will prepare our students for life-long success.

You can listen to Tom discuss more about the importance of the Formative Five skills on this episode of ASCD Learn Teach Lead Radio


Courtney Stich is a parent, educator and freelance writer. She loves everything from crafts to lesson planning, event coordinating to anything that focuses on teaching and learning. For close to ten years she was a Language Arts educator; always diving into new ways of bringing literature to life for students. As a stay at home mom, she has begun to take her love for teaching and learning and share it with her own children. She hopes to expand her experiences to a broader audience through her writing.

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