Preparing children for 21st century success: seven key skills

Internationally recognised paediatrician, author and social entrepreneur Dr Laura Jana says early childhood is everybody’s business. She is on a mission to change the paradigm and the public conversation about the skills needed for success in the 21st century. 

Dr Jana spoke with ECA, ahead of her international keynote address at the 2022 ECA National Conference ‘Passion to power: our future profession’ in Canberra (5-8 October) about her dedication to addressing the most pressing needs of children, families and communities. 

This is part one of a two-part blog series and delves into the seven key skills outlined in Dr Jana’s book on equipping children for their future. Part two will focus on how families and early childhood services can prepare children to succeed in the 21st century. 

ECA: In your book, The Toddler Brain, you outline seven key skills needed to equip children for the future – can you please introduce our readers to these? 

Dr Laura Jana: As a paediatrician actively involved in both the health and education sectors and committed to understanding, communicating, and effectively as possible supporting the needs of children, families and communities, a few things were becoming increasingly clear to me seven or eight years ago:  

  1. Everyone from parents, teachers and paediatricians to governments, business leaders and economists were focused on identifying (and then cultivating) the skills most needed to succeed/thrive in today’s globally complex, technology dependent and rapidly changing world.
  2. There was, in fact, a set of skills that were (and continue to be) increasingly identified as critically important across the entire age-span, from birth through adulthood, yet even as the importance of these ‘soft, non-cognitive and other’ skills was becoming increasingly clear, they lacked a name or something to call them, and
  3. A ‘laundry list’ of broadly coveted skills have their foundational development and can be purposefully cultivated in the earliest years of life—an opportunity firmly grounded in the science of early brain and child development, as well as the science of learning. 

With this in mind, I set out to intentionally create a name and a framework that would not only simplify and summarise these skills to make them more easily seen, identified and relatable, but also to hopefully create a shared terminology that would allow all of us—across sectors and across the entire age continuum—to realise we have highly shared/common goals when it comes to investing in our children’s future. 

With that as background/impetus…. the word I came up with to describe these very valuable, key skills is ‘QI Skills’, with ‘QI’ pronounced ‘key’ (although also known/recognised as being pronounced ’chee’.) The reason(s) behind my selection of this word was: 

  1. The word means some permutation of positive life force/positive energy, not only in contemporary Asian culture, but spanning across cultures, continents and centuries. This certainly fits/applies to a category of clearly important but long under-valued/recognised skills, as they are now well understood to have very positive effects on life outcomes!
  2. QI has been recognised as something you can be born with, but also ias something that can be developed (‘yuan qi’), an aspect of these skills that I wanted to make sure to convey. Take empathy for example (an aspect of WE Skills): far too many people believe you’re either born with it or you’re not, when learning and brain science compellingly reveal it can be developed (starting in very early childhood, with identifiable regions of the brain involved).
  3. QI as a description of these ‘other’ skills works well when it comes to emphasising the more traditional reading/writing/arithmetic-type ‘content/technical’ skills—which I have taken to referring to as ‘IQ Skills’ are still important, they’re just not the only skills that are important. Given that much of 20th century (and into the 21st century) education has focused squarely (if not exclusively) on these IQ Skills, calling these other skills QI Skills helps establish them as the complement to IQ Skills (IQ | QI). Among other aspects, this really helps bring awareness and structure to aspects of the ‘whole child’ approach, as well as capture the importance of things like SEL/emotional intelligence, etc for success in not only education outcomes but well beyond! 

As for the seven skills, they are (in very abbreviated form):

  1. ME:  Self-awareness/self-control, impulse control, focus and attention. They involve being in control of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and incorporate many of the aspects recognised as executive function skills.
  1. WE:  These are the people skills that in the general sense include skills like communication, cooperation, teamwork, active listening, empathy and perspective taking. In early childhood terms, they are the ‘put your listening ears on, learn to play well with others, and in the same sandbox’ skills so commonly cultivated in preschool.  ME & WE, in a formal sense, were meant to represent/encompass the formal definition of emotional intelligence.
  1. WHY:  Questioning and curiosity. These skills involve asking all sorts of questions (not just ‘why?’) to better understand how the world works.
  1. WILL:  Motivation and drive, grit and perseverance, ‘stick with it’ attitude, etc. When it comes to motivation, the WILL Skills represent the type known as intrinsic motivation.
  1. WIGGLE: WIGGLE Skills are meant to emphasise/convey the importance of physically interacting with the world, as we know that physical and intellectual restlessness/curiosity go hand in hand.  Instead of the ‘sit still and don’t touch, don’t poke, don’t grab’ approach, WIGGLE Skills recognise the importance of and encourage hands-on opportunities for children (and adults!) to physically explore and interact with the world around them to enhance learning (not to mention engagement/motivation/purpose)
  1. WOBBLE: Intelligent risk-taking, resilience, and the ability to failure and adapt—all ’skills’ previously without any name to call them but clearly recognised as valuable in a rapidly changing world—are what define the WOBBLE Skills. The word ‘wobble’ comes from the expression ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!’—the marketing slogan from the 1980s marketing campaign for the internationally popular Hasbro toy known as weebles. These toys were (and still are) egg-shaped toys with faces/characters painted on them that are weighted on the bottom such that they would wobble back and forth, but never actually tip over—instead always ending up standing/upright. With huge value based on the ability to overcome obstacles and learn from failures in today’s world, WOBBLE Skills are highly valued (as are the WILL Skills, which often are employed along with WOBBLE).
  1. WHAT IF:  The seventh, and culminating QI Skill are the WHAT IF Skills, which include imagination, innovation, and creativity. While WHAT IF is also a question, unlike the WHY Skills, WHAT IF involves not just asking questions about how the world works but imagining how the world could be. In other words, the ability to imagine something not immediately in front of you. Like all the other QI Skills, there are specific areas and networks in the brain now identified as being involved in creative thought. And like the others, this set of skills is highly valued across the lifespan (example: global survey of 1,500 CEOs found that creativity was the single most valued skill).  All that said, WHAT IF Skills also include hope, and the ability to imagine a world or circumstance better than the one you’re born in to or are facing—a ‘Hope is QI’ message that I make sure to close every talk/presentation with (as I advocate for ‘QI for All’)

ECA: How can early childhood educators support those seven key skills and set the foundation for children’s future health and wellbeing? 

Dr Laura Jana: What I have found is early childhood educators who are providing quality education and care are, almost certainly, cultivating these skills. That said, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how foundationally important all of the day-to-day interactions they have with young children are in the connecting of neurons in the developing brain and the life trajectories of young children (which includes health, education, and overall wellbeing).   

By overlaying the QI Skill framework on all of the activities in early childhood that are age appropriate and based on child development, the first thing QI Skills do is help early educators more clearly recognise, identify, and truly ‘see’ these skills and then help cultivate (while avoid inadvertently squelching) them. 

From a very practical, ‘in the classroom’ standpoint, it also helps early educators recognise the QI Skill development value of what otherwise might seem like background activities—things such as talking, cooing, singing, playing, reading, talking about feelings, learning to ‘read other people’, etc.  At the same time, it sheds new light and helps some early educators rethink their potentially limiting/rigid approach to such common ‘challenges’ as a child who continuously asks questions, or always wants to touch/grab/poke things and/or can’t sit still. Instead of just seeing these behaviours as a challenge to the educator’s authority or disruptive, early educators can instead see them as being valuable skills in concept, and then focus their efforts on how to help children learn to direct them in such a way as to be productive/not disruptive but still appreciated. 


Keep an eye out next week for part two of this blog series on our social media channels and The Spoke. 

Explore the full ECA National Conference program and book your ticket here.


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Laura Jana

Dr Laura Jana is a US-based paediatrician, early educator and social entrepreneur dedicated to addressing the most pressing needs of children, families and communities. Laura first gained international recognition through her work with world-renowned paediatrician Dr Spock, and she has more than 20 years’ experience collaborating with parents, educators, government and non-profit organisations, corporations and the media to ensure best outcomes for children. She is the owner of a 200-place early learning centre, an advisor to the world’s largest toy company and is currently a faculty member at Penn State University. Laura is also an early literacy advocate and award-winning author of more than 30 books for children and parents. Her most recent publications, The Toddler Brain and Jumping into Kindergarten, focus on the social–emotional and other skills needed to succeed in the 21st century and their foundational development during the first five years of life. She is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and has given three TED talks and several presentations on early childhood to cross-sector audiences, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The World Bank and the UK Parliament.

One thought on “Preparing children for 21st century success: seven key skills”

    Mrs Jagdeep Gill says:

    Thankyou Dr Laura Jana you have inspired me to do more then just educate the children I have in my care everyday they enrich me , i had the opportunity to not just learn how the brain works with Dr Joe Dispenza but to also acknowledge today from your speech on the QI Skill which i learned and had forgotten about in my early childhood year of learning Karate QI pronounced Chee was the first thing we learned thankyou again Dr Lara

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