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Everything I Learned about Succeeding in College and Getting a Job I Learned in Kindergarten

Twenty-year study finds correlation between limited adolescent social skills and crime and substance abuse.

| BY Donald Liebenson

Affluent individuals surveyed by Spectrem Group credit hard work and education as the primary factors in their financial success. To these, they might add, play nice,share, and be respectful of others, according to a 20-year study conducted by Pennsylvania State and Duke Universities and researchers who looked at teacher assessments of kindergarteners’ social skills and tracked them through high school and into their early 20s.

The study, with the heady title, “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” finds that children with better “social competencies,” meaning, in part, that they cooperate, are helpful to others, understand and are respectful of others’ feelings, share materials, and resolve problems on their own, are more likely to earn a college degree and find and keep a job by the age of 25.

Those with lesser social skills demonstrated a higher likelihood of getting arrested, substance abuse and applying for public housing.

“This study shows that helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future, Kristen Schubert, program director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research, said in a statement. “From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to college or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted.”

Researchers analyzed what happened to nearly 800 kindergarteners from four locations after their teachers measured their social competency skills in 1991. The children were evaluated on a range of social behaviors Each student then received a composite score representing his or her overall level of positive social skills/behavior, on a scale from 0  (“not at all”) to 4 (“very well”).

The research team monitored these students and the positive and negative milestones each obtained until they turned 25.

Using a variety of data sources, including official records, reports from parents, and self-reporting by the participants, researchers recorded whether the students obtained high school diplomas, college degrees, and full-time jobs. They also kept track of whether students developed a criminal record or substance abuse problems, among other negative outcomes.

According to the study, for every one-point increase in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten, he or she was: 

  • Twice as likely to attain a college degree
  • 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma
  • 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job at the age of 25

For every one-point decrease, he or she had:

  • 64 percent higher chance of having spent time in juvenile detention
  • 67 percent higher chance of having an arrest record by early adulthood
  • 52 percent higher rate of recent binge drinking and 82 percent higher rate of recent marijuana usage
  • 82 percent higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

The good news, offered Damon Jones, PhD, a senior research associate at Pennsylvania State and co-author of the study, is that “social and emotional skills can improve. This research by itself doesn’t prove that higher social competence can lead to better outcomes later on. But when combined with other research, it is clear that helping children develop these skills increases their chances of success in school, work, and life.” 

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.