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'Social Competence' in Kindergartners Linked to Adult Success

social_competence.jpgChildren who share easily, resolve problems on their own, and cooperate with their peers are less likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, or need government assistance, says a new report published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health. 

In some cases, the researchers found that these "social competence" measures were more meaningful than other evaluations that—on the surface—would seem to have a more obvious connection to life outcomes. For example, measures of childhood aggression did not significantly predict later criminal activity.

For every one-point increase on a five-point scale, children were twice as likely to earn a college degree; 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job. On the down side, for every one-point decrease, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested by adulthood, and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing. 

"We were surprised to find links between these early social competence scales and outcomes within every domain that we looked at," said Damon Jones, as assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University and one of the study's authors.

The paper, "Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness," was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation wrote an executive summary to accompany the social-competence findings.


The findings come from a study of about 750 youngsters who were tracked from 1991, when they were in kindergarten, until they turned 25. The children were from four communities—Durham, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; rural Pennsylvania; and Seattle. About 58 percent were boys, half were white, 46 percent were black, and 4 percent were from other ethnic backgrounds.  

The children were part of the Fast Track Project, which was measuring the effectiveness of an early-intervention program. Some children received the intervention, which focused on academic and social-skills development, and some children did not.

For this report, the researchers wanted to separate out the effects of the intervention. So, they focused on children in the control group, who were believed to be at risk for behavior problems, but who were intentionally excluded from the Fast Track program so that they could serve as a comparison group.

The researchers also included a set of "normative" children included in the Fast Track study. Those children didn't show any risk factors, but they attended the same schools as the Fast Track children. 

One implication from the research is that an easy-to-administer measure can alert teachers and parents to problems early, before they compound throughout a child's life, Jones said. Another important point, he said, is that these social-competence skills are malleable. Intervening early to help children gain social competence could be valuable not just for a child's academic career, but for life outcomes outside of school. 

"These are characteristics that really may matter a ton," Jones said.

Photo: Four-year-olds Elijah Reyes and his classmate Alyzandra Lopez work together on a "buddy" activity at Kenilworth Elementary School in Phoenix in 2012.—Laura Segall for Education Week

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