Parents who want their kids to succeed have been known to play Mozart in the nursery and quiz their preschoolers with flash cards, but a new study suggests these parents might want to go back to the basics by teaching children to share and take turns.
Kindergarteners with strong social and emotional skills were more likely than their peers to succeed academically and professionally, according to a 20-year study that followed more than 750 children until age 25.
Youngsters whose kindergarten teachers gave them the highest scores on “social competence” were more likely than other kids to graduate high school on time, earn a college degree, and hold full-time jobs.
Social competence involves more than making friends, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Teachers rated kids on the ability to cooperate, resolve conflicts, listen to others’ points of view, give suggestions without being bossy, and other social skills.
Kids with weaker social skills were more likely to develop substance abuse problems, be unemployed, smoke pot, get arrested, live in public housing, or receive public assistance, according to the study, which included children from low-income neighborhoods in Nashville; Seattle; Durham, N.C.; and central Pennsylvania.
For some measures of adult success, good social skills appeared to be more important than academic ability, said co-author Damon Jones, a senior research associate at Pennsylvania State University. Likewise, social competence often proved to be a better predictor than race, sex, or family income.
Children with poor social skills in kindergarten are by no means a lost cause, pediatrician Dina Lieser said. The study provides a hopeful message because it’s possible to improve social skills throughout childhood, said Lieser, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Early Childhood, who wasn’t involved in the study.
A growing number of studies point to the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping the brain and later behavior. A 2011 study found that people who showed more self-control as preschoolers were healthier and wealthier by age 32, even after researchers considered influential factors such as IQ and social class.
A person’s social development starts at birth. Even tiny babies begin to interact with the people around them. They respond to voices. They cry to let caregivers know they need something. They make eye contact and smile at those who feed them, hold them, or play with them.
Adults and older children, intentionally or not, are models for young children of how to behave with other people. In fact, a great deal of children’s social behavior is influenced by what they observe other people doing.
Most children’s social skills increase rapidly during the preschool years. It is important to keep in mind that children of the same age may not have the same levels of social competence. Research shows that children have distinct personalities and temperaments from birth.
Relationships within the family also affect a child’s social behavior. Behavior that is appropriate or effective in one culture may be less so in another culture. Therefore, children from diverse cultural and family backgrounds thus may need help in bridging their differences and in finding ways to learn from and enjoy one another. Teachers can help by creating classroom communities that are open, honest, and accepting of differences.
Much research suggests that pretend play can contribute to young children’s social and intellectual development. When children pretend to be someone or something else, they practice taking points of view other than their own. When they pretend together, children often take turns and make “deals” and decisions cooperatively. Such findings suggest that children in early childhood programs ought to have regular opportunities for social play and pretend play. Teachers can observe and monitor the children’s interactions.
The Social Attributes Checklist* below was created to help check to see whether a child’s social competence is developing well. The intent of this checklist is not to prescribe correct social behavior but rather to help teachers and parents observe, understand, and support children whose social skills are still forming. The list is based on research on elements of young children’s social competence and on studies comparing behavior of well-liked children with that of children who are not as well liked.
Many of the attributes included in the checklist indicate adequate social growth if they are usually true of the child. Illness, fatigue, orother stressors can cause short-term variations in a child’s apparent social competence. Such difficulties may last only a few days. Teachers or parents will want to assess each child based on their frequent direct contact with the child, and observation of the child in a variety of situations.
If a child seems to have most of the traits in the checklist, then he orshe is not likely to need special help to outgrow occasional difficulties. On the other hand, a child who shows few of the traits on the list might benefit from adult-initiated strategies to help build more satisfying relationships with other children.
I. Individual Attributes
▪ Is usually in a positive mood.
▪ Usually comes to the program willingly.
▪ Usually copes with rebuffs or other disappointments adequately.
▪ Shows interest in others.
▪ Shows the capacity to empathize.
▪ Displays the capacity for humor.
▪ Does not seem to be acutely lonely.
II. Social Skills Attributes
The child usually:
▪ Interacts nonverbally with other children with smiles, waves, nods, etc.
▪ Expects a positive response when approaching others.
▪ Expresses wishes and preferences clearly; gives reasons for actions and positions.
▪ Asserts own rights and needs appropriately.
▪ Is not easily intimidated by bullies.
▪ Expresses frustrations and anger effectively, without escalating disagreements or harming others.
▪ Gains access to ongoing groups at play and work.
▪ Enters ongoing discussion on a topic; makes relevant contributions to ongoing activities.
▪ Takes turns fairly easily.
▪ Has positive relationships with one or two peers; shows the capacity to really care about them and miss them if they are absent.
▪ Has “give-and-take” exchanges of information, feedback, or materials with others.
▪ Negotiates and compromises with others appropriately.
▪ Is able to maintain friendship with one or more peers, even after disagreements.
▪ Does not draw inappropriate attention to self.
▪ Accepts and enjoys peers and adults who have special needs.
▪ Accepts and enjoys peers and adults who belong to ethnic groups other than his or her own.
III. Peer Relationship Attributes
▪ Is usually accepted versus neglected or rejected by other children.
▪ Is usually respected rather than feared or avoided by other children.
▪ Is sometimes invited by other children to join them in play, friendship, and work.
▪ Is named by other children as someone they are friends with or like to play and work with.
IV. Adult Relationship Attributes
▪ Is not excessively dependent on adults.
▪ Shows appropriate response to new adults, as opposed to extreme fearfulness or indiscriminate approach.
*(Adapted (with some additions) from McClellan & Katz (2001) Assessing Young Children’s Social Competence and McClellan & Katz (1993), Young Children’s Social Development: A Checklist.)