A preoccupation with test-taking and grades has left today's youth long on academic practice but short on social and emotional skills, according to a Minneapolis youth organization.

Starting Thursday, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board hopes to reset that balance by helping kids develop more resilience, creativity and "stick-to-itiveness."

"Social and emotional skills have not been valued in the way that other things are valued, I think," said Ann DeGroot, executive director of the board, which oversees youth activities outside the schools in Minneapolis. "We've focused a lot in this current time on grades — very important — but not the only thing that is important."

She said she hopes that a presentation Thursday will inspire local youth groups not just to teach social and emotional skills but also to measure how well children are developing these skills.

Concerns about today's youth transcend economic backgrounds. Numerous books and scholars have bemoaned an "entitlement generation" of children from well-to-do families who lack basic decisionmaking and practical skills because their parents give them too much support in order to keep them successful. The Youth Coordinating Board is focusing more on children from low-income homes, kids who often become self-reliant by necessity but lack the support and resources at home to develop these skills to their advantage.

"There are things that affluent schools and affluent parents are doing that make it harder for kids to develop those skills," said Paul Tough, author of the new book "How Children Succeed" and the featured speaker at Thursday's event.

"A lot of parents protect their kids from risk and failure. It makes it harder to develop skills like self-control. … But it's not really a big public policy issue to figure out how to help well-off kids do better. It's a much more pressing public policy issue to figure out how to help more disadvantaged kids do well in school and graduate from college."

Building youth leaders

Programs to teach self-reliance already exist. The Minneapolis Beacons Network, a partnership of youth organizations, forms a leadership team of middle- and high-schoolers each year to discuss social problems and develop solutions on their own.

"It gets you out of your comfort zone," said Lindsey Fatze, an eighth-grader who is part of the Beacon leadership team from Olson Middle School in Minneapolis. "You have to meet new people and you have to talk to new people or it's going to be really boring."

At a meeting Tuesday night, two Edison High School juniors in the leadership program described the slogans their group will be producing on wristbands and shirt buttons — Keep Calm and Pass the Knowledge On — to promote school unity and prevent bullying and violence.

"It hopefully escalates," said Joseph Anderson, 17, "to more than just a little project we did inside of a school."

Solutions don't have to be exhaustive, said Jenny Wright Collins, director of the Beacons network, and can be threaded into activities that children enjoy.

"Other people think, 'Oh, that just looks like fun' or 'That's just fun and games,' but what we're doing really is intentional and it's building not only skills for these young people but also a sense of belonging and connection and ownership in their school and their community," she said. "Without that, it's hard to imagine how successful we're going to be able to be in preparing our young people."

At the Jerry Gamble Boys and Girls Club in north Minneapolis, after-school activities are organized in a way that children take responsibility for following the rules. Around a card table Friday, longtime youth worker John Bryant played a card game called Fives with three children while others waited in lines behind the players.

"Coach Bryant needs a four to win?" he said enthusiastically before flipping a card from the deck. "There it is. Awwwwwwww!"

As the players applauded or groaned over their luck, they scrambled out of their chairs so the next players in line could sit down. There was no pushing, shoving or fights over who was next — or any instruction from Bryant.

'A chance to figure it out'

"We don't always want to go in there and tell them what needs to happen," said Marcus Zackery, who directs the Boys and Girls Club's activities in north Minneapolis. "We try to give them a chance to figure it out on their own."

He linked the need for more social and emotional development of children directly to the racial achievement gap in Minneapolis — one of the worst in the nation. On one recent standardized reading test, 85 percent of white students in Minneapolis tested as proficient compared with 41 percent of black and American Indian students.

Students who lack the courage or verbal skills to approach their teacher for help are going to struggle, he said. "There's pressure to close the gap. There's pressure to make sure these kids are graduating from high school, but if we don't get the social and emotional part of it under control, these kids are going to have a hard time learning."

Grading on the 'grit' scale

Tough's book describes the example of the KIPP charter schools in New York, which were created in 1995 to help disadvantaged students get to college. Despite success in high school, many of the first KIPP graduates dropped out of college. A closer examination found that those who graduated from college weren't those who got the best grades in KIPP schools, but those with optimism and resilience.

While grades might be easier to measure, character can be measured as well, DeGroot said. A "grit" scale developed by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth is one example of a scientifically validated method of measuring maturity and self-reliance.

Some might believe that a child is simply born with strong character, but DeGroot said programs such as those in Minneapolis show there are many proven ways to teach social and emotional skills to children. The next step is to actually use some kind of measurement to make sure children are developing those skills.

"There are some real serious issues that children have," she said. "Measuring the things we currently measure doesn't get at the whole picture of the child."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744