Can children’s behavior in kindergarten predict how they will turn out?

The results from a study published this summer in the American Journal Public Health seem to suggest so. In the early 1990’s, 50 kindergarten teachers, across four states, were asked to rate their students’ social competencies including the degree that each child “cooperates with peers without prompting”, “is helpful to others”, and “is good at understanding feelings”. After following-up with these same children 19 years later, the researchers found that the teacher ratings of students’ social skills were related to some astonishing long-term outcomes. For example, children who were rated as having high levels of social competence were more likely to graduate from high school on time, achieve college degrees, and have stable employment. On the flip side, children who scored low on the social skills assessment were more likely to have been arrested in early adulthood for a severe offence. Importantly, social competence in kindergarten predicted these outcomes over and above the influence of demographic factors, such as child race, socioeconomic status, and the level of violence in their neighborhood.

How can one’s social competencies so early in life predict such extreme outcomes in early adulthood? Some developmental researchers explain these associations between early childhood and adulthood in terms of a developmental cascade. For example, a child who is good-natured, easy-going, and able to get along with their peers will most likely be able to develop strong, positive, relationships with peers as they continue to develop. In addition, having a positive relationship with one’s teacher can allow a child to thrive in school by feeling motivated and engaged. On the other hand, when children are not able to get along with other kids and behave in ways that are difficult for a teacher to manage they are more likely to become isolated from others and be punished for their negative behavior. This can result in difficulty forming positive relationships as well as less motivation and engagement in school.

Does this mean that children with poor social competencies in kindergarten are destined to become high school dropouts and criminals? The short answer is no. Although children with poor social skills may be at a higher risk for some of these negative outcomes, there are many opportunities between kindergarten and adulthood to interrupt these negative developmental pathways. Understanding that development occurs like a cascade also helps us see the opportunities that we have to promote positive development. From my own experiences working with children, I know how difficult it is to empathize and have positive interactions with children who have poor social skills. These are often the children who do not listen, are disruptive, and have difficulty getting along with their peers. However, it is becoming more and more clear that these are the children who are at the highest risk for a host of negative outcomes and therefore need the most attention, help, and patience. Evidence has also been showing us that children’s social-emotional skills are malleable and can grow with lots of positive role-modeling, practice, and support from teachers, parents, other adults, and peers. This highlights, once again, the importance of embedding social-emotional learning into our education system.

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