Success Starts Early: What We Can Learn From a 5-Year-Old's Social Skills

Jul 16, 2015, 4:05 PM, Posted by

Groundbreaking research from a 20-year study has found that the social skills a child exhibits in kindergarten are linked to their health outcomes in early adulthood.

Children playing at playground.

As I was thinking about writing this blog, I did what I typically do when I need some insight—I asked my kids for help. I asked my 7-year-old son what he thought about sharing. He said, “Sharing is the nice thing to do. You should share your things with your little brother or sister.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it makes you feel good and they might just share back with you too.”

So simple, right? And so hard to teach at times!

As a busy working mom of two young children, my days are filled with helping my kids learn how to get along in the world. From learning to feed and dress themselves, to learning how to get along with others and how to recognize and deal positively with their emotions. It’s a job I wouldn’t trade for the world! And it is also one that can be daunting at times, requiring the utmost patience and perseverance. Some days I wonder if I am doing all I can to help them grow up healthy and I know many parents feel the same way.

The good news is that today, more than ever, we have incredible insight into what parents, caregivers, and teachers can do to ensure that children grow up healthy. We now know that what was once thought of as “nice” skills to have, like being a good sharer and empathetic, are actually critical to life long health, happiness, and success.

In a newly released study in the American Journal of Public Health, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers found that the social skills a child exhibits in kindergarten were linked to their outcomes—both positive and negative—two decades later in early adulthood.

Researchers from Duke and Penn State University tracked what happened to nearly 800 kindergarten students from four different locations after those students were evaluated on their social competence skills by their teachers at the age of five. For each child, teachers recorded answers to eight simple questions, such as: Did they share with other students? Were they helpful to the teacher? Did they cooperate or follow directions? These questions then formed the basis of an overall score for each child that represented his or her overall level of positive social skills and  behavior.

Using everything from official records to reports from parents and self-reporting from the participants themselves, the researchers then noted the positive and negative milestones of each student for the next 20 years. The results were dramatic.

Students with lower social competency in kindergarten were also more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, or face challenges finding employment. Those students found to have strong social competency skills, on the other hand, were more likely to obtain higher education, full time jobs, and overall good health and success.

These weren’t just small differences either. For every one-point increase in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten, he/she was twice as likely to attain a college degree.  For every one-point decrease in a child’s score, he/she had a 67% higher chance of being arrested by early adulthood. For more findings like these check out the full report.  

While these results are striking, they build upon growing body of research showing there is a strong link between early childhood development and long-range outcomes of youth. We know that the vocabulary our children hear early on will impact how well they can read by third grade. We know whether a child has access to enriching summer experiences can influence whether he/she stays in school and graduates. And we know that exposure to traumatic and stressful events like violence make it more likely children will have health problems as adults.

Now we also know that the social skills a child has or lacks at an early age can help us forecast the success and health of that child later on. If an easy-to-use, simple assessment can tell us what children may be headed in the wrong direction, why aren’t we using those assessments to target interventions that support these children before it’s too late?

Though many social and emotional developmental programs have a proven track record of building social competence, they unfortunately are not yet in widespread use. We need to provide more families and schools access to these beneficial resources, especially during a child’s early years—the peak time for absorbing new information.

All parents know that the joy and love of raising a child is also accompanied by worry. We worry about everything from health to safety to development and education. That worry is often linked to the nagging question in the back of our minds: Am I preparing or helping my child enough to succeed?

Luckily, it isn’t too late. Research also shows us social and emotional skills can be taught and learned. Even more than that, intervening early not only helps ensure more children have a chance at a successful future, but will potentially save our country significant dollars from the reduced costs of incarceration, government assistance and drug treatment programs.

Here at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are committed to building a Culture of Health in America, especially for children and families. This research now tells us just how important social and emotional development is to ensuring all our children grow up to be healthy, happy, and successful. It’s time for us to focus on supporting families so that we all can provide children with a strong foundation for social and emotional development from the start.

In the meantime, my younger son, who is 4, just ran off with his older brother’s Legos! Time to intervene—my work isn’t done yet!

Learn more about how children's social competence impacts their well-being in adulthood by reading the latest report >