A 20-year retrospective study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that kindergarten students who are more inclined to exhibit “social competence” traits—such sharing, cooperating, or helping other kids—may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs. In contrast, students who exhibit weaker social competency skills may be more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and need government assistance. This brief provides an overview and major findings from this study and implications for further action.
How the Study Worked
In the early 1990’s, kindergarten teachers from four Fast Track Research Project locations—Durham, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., Seattle, Wash. and central Pennsylvania—rated the degree to which a cohort of 753 kindergarteners demonstrated social competence skills in their classroom interactions using an eight-point scale. The children were evaluated on capabilities such as “resolves peer problems,” “listens to others,” “shares materials,” “cooperates” and is “helpful” on a 5-point scale from “not at all” to “very well.” Eight of these measures of social competence were averaged into a composite score for each child to represent the overall level of positive social skills and behavior they exhibited.
Researchers Damon Jones, PhD and Mark Greenberg, PhD from Pennsylvania State University and Max Crowley, PhD from Duke University then followed these children for the next two decades, examining whether these assessments could predict how these same children would fare by early adulthood.
Using data sources including official records, reports from parents, and self-reporting from the participants themselves, researchers recorded both positive and negative milestones for all students until they turned 25. They noted whether the students obtained high school diplomas, college degrees and full-time jobs, and also recorded whether students developed a criminal record or substance abuse problems, among other negative outcomes.
Using statistical models, which control for background characteristics, researchers were able to associate the degree to which kindergarten students with higher composite scores in social competence had better outcomes as young adults. The children included in this study did not receive any additional intervention or treatment to improve their social competence skills after kindergarten. For the total sample cohort, 58 percent were boys, roughly 50 percent were European American, 46 percent were African American, and 4 percent were of other ethnic backgrounds.
Overall, research findings show that teacher-rated social competence in kindergarten was a consistent and significant indicator of both positive and negative future outcomes across all major domains: education, employment, criminal justice, substance use and mental health. Study results also showed the greater the difference between students’ social competence scores in kindergarten, the more pronounced the difference in their outcomes by the age of 25. Children who scored “well”—at the higher end of the spectrum for social competence—for example, were four times more likely to obtain a college degree than children who scored “a little”—at the lower end of the spectrum.