Interesting Takes on the Kindergarten Social Competence Study

A new study shows that kindergarten teachers’ ratings of social competence strongly predict important adult outcomes. The study has received much attention in the popular press, including a number of thoughtful reactions:

The gist from a summary by the study’s funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

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.

An optimistic concluding exchange on NPR:

VEDANTAM: You know, Audie, in some ways, it’s a wakeup call. There are many studies now that have found that long-term outcomes are shaped by these social and emotional skills. There’s been a lot of interest recently in early childhood education programs, and some analyses of these early intensive programs suggest the real value is less about boosting cognitive skills like reading and math and more about boosting these interpersonal social and emotional skills. Researchers are finding that these non-cognitive skills – things like self-control or perseverance or conscientiousness – these are building blocks that you need throughout life. Without them, you can’t be a good student; you can’t hold down a good job.

CORNISH: Well, what if you aren’t getting them or you’re not inclined to that naturally?

VEDANTAM: In some ways, Audie, I think it’s actually a very hopeful thing because I think there’s been a lot of work that suggests that these skills are quite malleable, so there’s lots of things that you can do. Encourage children to play socially, develop interpersonal skills. Role-model these kinds of pro-social behaviors. The optimistic thing about this research, Audie, is that it looks like many of these skills actually can be taught and learned and developed, and this research seems to suggest it has really positive long-term outcomes.

And a few choice excerpts from the Fixes blog by David Bornstein in the New York Times:

“Social and emotional learning has always been a critical foundation of education,” observes Ed Graff, the superintendent of the Anchorage School District. “People are now at a point where they’re beginning to see the true value and benefits of it. It’s not something that’s a trend. It’s the fabric of what we do in education. Our next step is to take it beyond education out into our communities and throughout the state. That’s really where the need is.”


[Cleveland] began by collaborating with the teachers union and then introducing instruction in 2008 in kindergarten through second grade, using a program called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies. Later it expanded to higher grades. Through the program, children learn how to recognize, communicate and manage their emotions, read others’ emotions, solve problems and change patterns of negative thinking. School suspension rooms have been replaced with “planning centers,” where students work through problems or practice how to better handle conflicts. Schools have staff teams to lead social and emotional learning efforts and work with families.

Three times a year, the district administers an online survey to gauge progress among its 39,000 students, asking them about safety, school support, peer relationships and social skills. “We have years of data,” Gordon said. “Our current ninth graders have a 30 percent higher rating in their social and emotional skills than the 10th- to 12th-grade students,” who missed the programs. “Our senior leadership team spends time looking at this data just like they do with the reading and math and graduation data. That’s what makes it a priority.”


This year, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University did some number crunching to estimate the economic value of six different social and emotional learning programs that had strong track records. They looked at the programs’ impact on things like future wages and social costs (pdf), and found that the programs yielded an average return of $11 for each dollar invested.

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