In an era where bullies rule the hallways, could it be true that nice kids finish first, after all? If you want to know the secret to your child's future success in life, focus on the heart instead of the brain.
A 20 year study published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that kindergarten children who display social competence traits, such as empathy, sharing and conflict resolution skills are more likely to go on to college and get good paying jobs. Children with poorer social skills are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse alcohol and drugs, and even have trouble with the criminal justice system.
How was the study done?
This study began in the 1990s when teachers were asked to rate the social competence skills of 753 classroom kindergartners. Using a 5-point scale that ranged from "does not show this behavior at all" to "is very good at showing this skill," the children were evaluated on social competencies such as "resolves peer problems," "listens to others," "shares materials," "cooperates," and is "helpful." Eight of these measures were aggregated into a composite score.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University then followed these same children for the next 20 years. Researchers also used reports from parents, official records, and even feedback from the kids themselves to add to their data, controlling for background characteristics, such as socioeconomic level and race.
What were the results?
Dr. Damon Jones, one of the researchers, reports that on key measures of adult success such as gainful employment, attaining higher education, and even enjoying better mental health, social competence was a better predictor of adult success in life than academic ability.
Can social competence be learned?
The good news is that social competence CAN be learned. It is a teachable and learnable skill. You may want to observe your child as she interacts with her peers or other children in the home. Does she listen? Is she helpful? Can she resolve conflicts with others? Dina Lieser, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on early childhood, is quoted as saying that "it is possible to improve social skills throughout childhood."
What can you as a parent do?
If your child is in preschool or kindergarten, you might consider asking her teacher to rate her on the social competence skills used in the study, again using a 5-point scale with 1 being "doesn't show this behavior at all" to 5 being "is very good at this social skill." Note: This is for your information only. It is not something to share with your child. And it is only one piece of data, so don't overgeneralize. You know your child best. The goal here is to build confidence in your child, not to find fault.
There are more and more resources available in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) than ever before. There is an organization called the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) that has additional studies and even a handbook that may be helpful. While this site is meant primarily for use by teachers and researchers, interested parents may also find some useful resources, including the Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning.
Does your school teach social and emotional skills?
More schools are recognizing the need to teach social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has this to say: "Teachers enter the profession to provide a well-rounded education and support the whole student, which includes social and emotional skills development...Teachers have shared with us how important this is - now it's up to us to support them in this essential work." Check with your PTA to find out whether or not your school district teaches social and emotional skills, along with academic skills.
The essential nature of modeling good behavior
Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a parent is to model good social and emotional skills in your home. Are you showing your child how to care and share? Are you modeling good conflict resolution skills with your husband or wife? Are you teaching your children to work collaboratively? As the old saying goes, "Children learn what they live." Model the social skills you want them to have, and watch them blossom.