The primacy of children’s social-emotional skills

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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.

Lea Goldstein

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. 

5 thoughts on “The primacy of children’s social-emotional skills

    I saw this NY license plate, near Park Avenue, and I asked the driver about it. He said that “TRY WAIT” is a common saying in Hawaii, to encourage patience, relaxation, and pausing.

    I think a key social-emotional skill in learning, is just that, patience. Students need to learn that learning takes time. You have to wait your turn at school, and you have to spend hour after hour studying material, over and over again. Boredom and stress are part of the process, but with time and effort, the joy of success will come to learning.

    There is a famous “Marshmallow Experiment,” where the patience of kids was tested, for 15 minutes time. Children who could wait 15 minutes, would be rewarded with a marshmallow. The kids who waited tended to be more successful later, in school and in life.

    In my own school experience, I needed patience to commute, an hour and a half, to and from high school and college, each way, each day. Perhaps, this helped me to succeed, in school.

    Also, in recent years, I patiently, developed a blog: with ideas on school improvement. And I want to thank, Principal Lea Goldstein, for sharing this great wisdom. I hope educators and parents, in the Rochester area take note and take action, right now… “If not now, when?” (Jewish saying)

  2. It is refreshing to read that there are some in our “identity” oriented society who are seeking to discover the simple truth without resorting to the usual preconceived answers. Perhaps it is time to take the approach of what is best for our families and our children even if the answer doesn’t come out to be systemic racism. I applaud Dr. Goldstein for her incisive and well written article and hope that she has the courage to continue her efforts to improve our world notwithstanding the dark forces who will reliably try to drive us backwards by displacing blame and encouraging our institutions to behave in ways which inhibit the progress of the most vulnerable sectors of our society.

  3. Excellent information. Thank You. The challenge for educators in urban settings, where parents are often emotionally and fiscally overwhelmed, is that they may not have the “bandwidth” to engage or even be aware of their children. When I taught in a public school many years ago, on Parent-Teacher nights, we were lucky if one or two of our student’s parents per class came. And usually, it was the high-functioning students whose parents came to speak with us.
    I do not doubt that universal pre-K with properly trained professionals and a well-managed curriculum reaps long-term exponential benefits.
    We need more social workers and family support resources, so every student’s home is visited and parents are encouraged to take advantage of whatever community resources they need to help their child thrive.
    The universal theme teachers raise is that they can only do so much. The student’s home environment plays as much, if not more, of a role in what sort of adult the child will become.
    I’m not being contrary or critical, but I wonder if the studies identified looked at urban public schools and the myriad of challenges students face to show up for class. The RCSD, over the last four or five decades, continually changed management, philosophies, and curriculum. Educators also need stability and a kind word from their principals, main office administrators, and the community. Parents, caregivers, community activists, and school commissioners should all say “thank you for your service” to every teacher they meet. Most of the educators I know got into teaching to make a difference and to share their knowledge of the subjects they teach. It’s not about the pay. The stress and instability wear teachers down. The joy is lost. I wonder how we can bring it back so that all our students can succeed.

  4. “The primacy of children’s social-emotional skills” _ “primacy” _ REALLY???

    So, based on this so-called research _”social skills and [so-called] emotional intelligence,” or the lack thereof, is apparently a major factor that helps to explain the general (in the main) huge academic gap between Black children and white children throughout this thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based nation-state (in every direction _ North, East, South, and West)??? If not, then what exactly is the writer suggesting, especially as it relates to all of the assertions about studying kindergartners???

    Riddle me this: `If white children in particular have such great capacity to “listen to peers [and] show empathy, especially vis-à-vis Black folks and other folks of color, which is definitely being suggested via the existence of the long-standing, infamous, race-based academic gap, and vis-à-vis incarceration, as opposed to “success” rates (all of which are refenced in the article as factors relative to outcomes) _ then when does the staunch, pervasive, hegemony and clear, observable “superiority” attitude and belief systems set in among millions, if not the majority of white folks??? Do the great social skills and emotional intelligence regarding “evidence” such as capacity to “listen to [Black] peers [in particular, and] show empathy _ disappear at some point of development. I mean, how does that work???

    If “empathy includes noticing other peoples’ feelings, trying to understand why they feel that way, and feeling concern for them,” then again, in the main, white folks in general fail miserably vis-à-vis Black folks and other folks of color, at least as it relates to acting on their so-called “concern,” even if it does exist. As the writer seems to be indicating, concepts such as “empathy” are meaningless if they are restricted solely to the cognizant realm. That is, for empathy to take on value, it would necessarily have to manifest in what one is willing to do, and/or not do based on cognition. Otherwise we’re merely talking bleeding hearts and lip-service, which (in and of itself) helps no one, except the bleeders (to feel better about themselves) _ period. This is not a time for bleeding hearts and lip-service. Those days are long-gone (never to return). It’s simply not enough. Nor are half-baked, bogus theories regarding the so-called “primacy of children’s social-emotional skills” enough. There are many other factors that definitely hold much more “primacy” _ such as, for example, those outlined at the links below:

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