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Kindergarteners with good social skills turn into successful adults, study finds

July 16, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
In a report released today, researchers found that kindergarteners’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, provided strong predictors of how those children would fare two decades later. Judy Woodruff speaks to Damon Jones of Pennsylvania State University about the findings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new study says keeping more children on track to high school graduation, a full-time job and out of the criminal justice system could start in kindergarten.

In a report released today, researchers tracked more than 700 children from kindergarten to age 25. They found students’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, held strong clues for how those children would fare two decades later. In some cases, social skills may even be better predictors of future success than academic ones.

Damon Jones, a senior research associate at Penn State University, joins me now to talk about the findings.

Professor Jones, welcome.

First, remind us, when and where did this study take place and what was the original purpose of it?

DAMON JONES, Pennsylvania State University: Well, Judy, our study was aimed at exploring the influential role of socioemotional skills in children in terms of human development in general.

You know, there are a lot of studies that looked at — cross-research disciplines that look at socioemotional skills. Sometimes, they’re called soft skills, sometimes noncognitive skills. And what these represent are kind of key characteristics in children representing things like managing their state, having good relationships, being responsible socially, interacting well with adults, and then getting things done.

It’s really key skills in early development that you can see would be very important in being successful in school and in relationships.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, this was 20 years ago that the study was begun.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And where — it was a national study?

DAMON JONES: Yes, it was a national study, four different sites, Durham, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Central Pennsylvania, and Seattle, Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did you find? What was the striking outcome here?

DAMON JONES: Well, there were a couple of reasons why we wanted to look at this.

First of all, we were really interested to see these really long-term predictions. I think, a lot of times, when people look at socioemotional skills, they may be focused on more concurrent outcomes, like how well the child is doing in school or their relationships.

In this case, we really wanted to look at markers of well-being. And we had great data, where we had — we were able to follow these children for over 20 years, and were able to see these markers of well-being across domains of education, employment, criminal activity, mental health, substance abuse, and use of public services.

And so a kind of secondary goal of the study was, it’s been shown in a lot of research that socioemotional skills are malleable, they’re something that can be improved throughout child development, and there are very effective programs that can do that. So we set out to see if we could assess, if we could actually gauge these relationships at a very young age, which is why we looked at kindergarten age predicting these long-term outcomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you looked at — you basically compared what you saw when these children were very young with what they — what they — how they were doing as adults, and you saw a direct connection.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And can you just give us one brief example of that?


We were surprised to find — and this is — I should point out this is uniquely — these skills were uniquely predictive of these long-term outcomes. So, the outcomes included outcomes that we measured in adolescence. They included outcomes that were measured in mid-adulthood that were based on court records for some criminal activities.

But they were a unique prediction, in the sense that we controlled for other key aspects of the child, early academic ability at age 5, characteristics of their home environment, such as socioeconomic status, their behavior as rated by mothers and teachers. So, that allowed us to see kind of a unique prediction from these early socioemotional skills. And what we find was…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to say, just quickly.


We found significant associations in all those domains, crime, education, employment, substance use, mental health. For instance, children — for each point on the social competence scale, children were twice as likely to receive a college degree by age 25. There were consistent results for the crime outcomes. Children who were lower on…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just — I just want to interrupt you. I’m sorry to interrupt you, Professor…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … just to ask you quickly, what intervention then do you think coming out of this study you think should be made in working with young children to — that might make a difference in their lives later?

DAMON JONES: Well, I think there’s a lot of hope here, because so much research is showing the value of these skills.

Now, what we did wasn’t determining causal, although we did control for a lot of variables in our statistical models. But there’s a lot of research that shows there are really effective evidence-based programs that can help improve children’s socioemotional skills.

And by looking and being able to gauge these skills at this age, to able to see where they may be headed 20 years down the road, could really inform policy for planning intervention for these type of things, given that we know it’s something that is malleable, it’s something that is vital for their development, along with academic ability and academic instruction and parental investment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a…

DAMON JONES: And there are ways it can be addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a fascinating set of findings. And I know a lot of people are going to be taking a very close look at this.

Professor Damon Jones at Penn State University, thanks very much.