Recently, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the reported decline in children’s reading, writing, and math test scores “heartbreaking and horrible.” Whether these declines are due to the pandemic or other factors, educators are increasingly concerned that a high percentage of American children are struggling academically.
Yet, as a K-8 school principal, I believe we need to address an issue that is of even greater urgency than academics: our children’s social-emotional health.
Here’s why: Reliable studies have shown that it is a child’s demonstrated social skills at the age of five that can best predict a person’s future success. To be more specific, researchers can collect data about kindergartners from their teachers and accurately predict whether Michael, Camila, Jia, or Treyvon are likely to become productive, prosperous members of society or to spend their lives entangled in the criminal justice system.
In one such long-term study reported in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers interviewed kindergarten teachers about each of their students: how well they could share, listen to peers, resolve minor issues, show empathy, etc. Using the collected data, researchers rated each child’s social-emotional competence, adjusting for various developmental and social influences including gender, family circumstances, and academic capability.
Then, nearly two decades later, the researchers reconnected with the former kindergarten students to gather information about their current lives. The results? The children who scored highest on social-emotional aptitude in kindergarten were the most successful young adults.
The authors found “statistically significant associations between measured social-emotional competence in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.”
In short, it was kindergartners’ social skills and emotional intelligence that accurately predicted whether 20 years later they would be succeeding in college or confined to prison, whether as young adults they would flourish or fail. Indeed, for every one-point decrease in social competency at age five, an individual had a 52 percent higher rate of binge drinking, a 67 percent greater chance of being arrested in early adulthood, and an 82 percent higher chance of becoming jobless or homeless.
In sum, while many people—parents included—assume that academic skills predict a bright future for our children, in fact they are not the skills that truly forecast real-life success.
This study, part of a growing body of literature, confirms my own experience over the years as a school principal: I’ve seen too many children with impressive scores on IQ and other cognitive tests but who also display maladaptive behaviors like anxiety, impulsivity, and aggression. Sadly, despite their superior intellects, they struggle in school in the non-cognitive realms—with peer relationships, accountability and in other areas where success is not measured by raw scholastic ability. Based on long-term studies like the one I described above, their futures do not look bright.
Parents, teachers, and policy makers need to realize that early social-emotional interventions in childhood can positively affect the lives of our children, their families, and our communities. We need to work to together to discover the most effective ways to help parents build their children’s social-emotional skills, and to assist teachers in incorporating social-emotional skill-building into their curriculum.
I encourage parents at their next parent-teacher conferences to ask teachers how they are incorporating social-emotional learning into the classrooms. And at home, please try to do more of the following:
■ Talk to your children, and really listen. Caring, loving, consistent parents are the primary builders of children’s self-confidence and security. When a parent gives their undivided attention to their child, the child realizes he is worthy of attention. When parents trust their child to do developmentally appropriate jobs and responsibilities, the child believes that he is trustworthy.
■ Recognize the importance of emotions. Encourage your children to express their emotions. By asking “What’s wrong?” you are encouraging them to share why they are lonely/bored/angry/frustrated. But remember, it’s the behavior/reaction that we want to correct, not the emotion.
■ Teach and model empathy. The ability to understand and share others’ feelings doesn’t necessarily come naturally; it must be taught. Empathy includes noticing other peoples’ feelings, trying to understand why they feel that way, and feeling concern for them. When you notice your child showing empathy, encourage and reinforce it.
When we help our children build their social-emotional skills, we teach them how to successfully manage and navigate life’s challenges. As they become more adept at interacting with others, they increase the chances for their own future success
Lea Goldstein, an educator and parent of five children, earned a Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Rochester’s Warner School. For 18 years she has served as principal of Derech HaTorah of Rochester, a Jewish day school, and previously taught elementary school for 17 years.