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Study Shows Social Skills in Kindergarten Pay Dividends in Adulthood

Don’t underestimate the value of social skills a young child displays in kindergarten.

A 20-year study by researchers at Penn State and Duke universities concludes that kindergarteners who share or are “helpful” are more likely to go on to higher education, obtain full-time jobs by age 25, and avoid run-ins with the law than peers who lacked similar “social competence” skills.

The study, published July 16 by the American Journal of Public Health, reported that kindergarten-aged children lacking those positive social skills were also more likely to experience other struggles, including substance abuse and juvenile detention.

“This study shows that helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future,” said Kristin Schubert, program director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research. “From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to college or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted.”

Schubert told CNN that “this stuff matters” when it comes to reaching educational objectives and, eventually, meaningful employment. “[Employers] know they want to hire people who can play well with others because they know it actually impacts the bottom line.”

The study began in 1991 when researchers analyzed data from nearly 753 kindergartners whose teachers evaluated social behaviors, including their ability to listen to others, share materials, cooperate, resolve problems, and be helpful. Students were ranked on these behaviors, using a zero to four point system. Researchers monitored the same students and their milestones, such as college degrees, criminal records, substance abuse problems and full-time employment, up to age 25.

Researchers found that for every “point” increase in kindergarten, a student was twice as likely to attain a college degree early in adulthood and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job by age 25. For every point decrease, a student had a 64 percent higher chance of spending time in juvenile detention, 67 percent higher chance of being arrested by early adulthood, and 82 percent higher chance of both recent marijuana use and seeking public housing.

In April, a U.S. Department of Education study indicated that six of ten children were not prepared for kindergarten with preschool programs and that “starting out from behind can trap them in a cycle of continuous catch-up in their learning.”

“The good news is that social and emotional skills can improve,” said Damon Jones, PhD, senior research associate at Penn State and an author of the study. “This research by itself doesn’t prove that higher social competence can lead to better outcomes later on. But when combined with other research, it is clear that helping children develop these skills increases their chances of success in school, work, and life.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that similar assessments can help schools determine at-risk students that might require assistance or intervention to prevent future problems. It also placed significant value on programs that boost children’s social and emotional development and intervene accordingly to eliminate future problems before they start.

The study also concluded: “The money saved from reduced incarceration costs, drug treatment programs and government assistance, coupled with the increased revenues from higher employment rates makes it especially cost-effective to expand programs that boost social and emotional learning, starting in a child’s earliest years.”

Read more on this topic on Learning Liftoff, including, “Parent’s Guide to Kindergarten Success” and other articles about how to get the most from the kindergarten experience.

Featured Image – Scott & Elaine van der Chijs / CC by 2.0


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Seth Livingstone

Seth Livingstone is a veteran writer and editor who has spent much of his career in sports journalism covering multiple Olympic Games, Super Bowls, World Series, and Daytona 500s. He covered the Boston Red Sox throughout the 1980s and 1990s before joining USA Today and Baseball Weekly in 1999. He maintains his membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America and is a Hall of Fame voter. Seth holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and has also worked as a substitute teacher (all grades and subjects). He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and has two grown children.

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