Good Social and Emotional Skills Linked to Kids' Future Success

Why kindness and friendliness may be just as important as good grades

helping friend with crutches
Empathy and kindness are important skills that may help kids succeed in life. Blended Images - KidStock/Getty Images

When thinking about ways to help kids succeed in life, parents often focus on how well their kids are doing at school and what they're achieving at their extracurricular activities. But a new study suggests that other skills, like being kind or working well with others, may be just as important for kids' future success.

A study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published online in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that kids who had good social and emotional skills in kindergarten were more likely to have better outcomes later in life.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Duke University looked at data from the 1990's in which kindergarten teachers from four different states rated how well their students performed in categories like how well they resolved conflicts with peers, how well they listened to others, how much they helped others, and how well they shared and cooperated with others.

The researchers then tracked these kids for two decades. Using official records, reports from parents, and what the study participants reported about themselves, the researchers recorded positive and negative milestones such as whether or not they graduated from high school, obtained college degrees, or developed a criminal record or substance abuse problems. The result: Kids who had scored high in social and emotional skills in kindergarten were found to have better outcomes as young adults than kids who had scored lower in those skills, says Damon Jones, PhD, senior research associate at the College of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University and one of the authors of the study.

How Kids Who Have Better Social and Emotional Skills Do Better in Life

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, kids who scored higher in the social and emotional competence skills in kindergarten:

  • were more likely to graduate from high school
  • were more likely to obtain a college degree in early adulthood
  • were more likely to have a full-time job at age 25

Those who scored lower on the social and emotional skills, on the other hand:

  • had a higher risk of being arrested
  • had a higher chance of using marijuana
  • had a higher chance of being on a waiting list for public housing

The Important Message for Parents About Social and Emotional Development in Kids

As this study shows, there is a clear link between good social and emotional skills and success later in life, and these skills can be seen as early as kindergarten age. "The point of the study is less about trying to figure out exactly which skills lead to those outcomes and more about early intervention and finding ways to improve these skills at an early age," says Dr. Jones. "This study backs up research that shows the value of non-cognitive skills, and the fact that these skills at an early age may be linked to things like holding a job or obtaining a college degree shows how early it starts."

For school-age kids, it's especially important for parents to keep in mind the value of developing good social and emotional skills as children begin to spend more time on academic demands and extracurricular activities.

"As kids get older, there's less emphasis on social and emotional skills," says Dr. Jones. "And parents and teachers also think, kids are just the way they are and they'll sort it out as they grow." To have kids focus their time and energy on things like reading and math and playing a musical instrument or excelling on the soccer field without paying attention to the value of building skills like sharing, having empathy for others, cooperating with peers, and being nice may ultimately affect how kids fare in life. The key message is this, according to Dr. Jones: Parents, teachers, and mentors can make a difference and influence those social and emotional skills that help lead to success, and it a good idea to start as early as possible.

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