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What Really Matters in Kindergarten

Social and emotional skills may be more important than you think

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Curious, Creative, Caring, and Confident™
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A study suggests that helpful, caring kindergarten children fare better 20 years later compared with youngsters who are less socially adept. Here’s what you need to know.
What Really Matters in Kindergarten
If you’re like many parents, you’re probably spending your kid’s preschool years helping him prepare for kindergarten.

He’s mastered his numbers and aced the alphabet, and he ties his shoes without difficulty. Now it’s time to make sure his social and emotional skills are in place.

In a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found a link between a kid’s social and emotional skills in kindergarten and his well-being two decades later.

In the study, kids who were more likely to share with other kids in kindergarten, or were more likely to be helpful (according to teacher evaluations) were more likely to finish college and hold a full-time job years later than were kids who social skills were lacking.

See Also: Raise a Socially Skilled Child

In addition, socially and emotionally savvy kindergarteners were found less likely by age 25 to engage in substance abuse and less likely to have brushes with authorities, said Penn State University and Duke University researchers who conducted the study.

For the study, investigators asked the students’ teachers to evaluate the children, using a short list of pro-social behaviors. The areas of concern included conflict resolution, listening, sharing, cooperation, and the degree of helpfulness the study kids displayed. Teachers then rated how well kids performed the pro-social actions in kindergarten, with options ranging from 0 (not well at all) to 4 (very well).

The findings were nothing short of startling. For every one-point increase in a kid’s social-emotional score, a child was:
  • Twice as likely to earn a degree in college; 
  • 54% more likely to obtain a high school diploma; and
  • 46% more likely to score a full-time job at age 25. 
And for every one-point decrease in the social-emotional rating, a child had a:
  • 64% higher chance of spending time in juvenile detention; 
  • 67% higher chance of being arrested by early adulthood;
  • 52% higher rate of recent binge drinking and 82% higher rate of recent marijuana use; and
  • 82% higher chance of living in or waiting or for public housing.
So how do you encourage a preschool kid to get onboard with sharing and caring habits in the few short years before kindergarten? These tips will get you started.

1. Promote problem solving without fighting. If your child and a friend wage a war over one of her favorite possessions, step in and demonstrate how to engage with the object together or take turns with the coveted item. (Hint: Set your kitchen timer and let each child know when it’s time to fork the toy over.) Reassure your child that she’s not giving her toy away—she’s letting her bestie enjoy it. Explain that if she shares her doll with her playmate today, her pal will be more likely to share toys at her house tomorrow.

2. Set a good example. Let your child see sharing and caring in action. Demonstrate courtesy and generosity at home and in public. Some ideas: Let your child choose which game to play first, and then suggest a different game when it’s your turn. Dig into a special dessert together or let him take a taste of your smoothie. At dinner, ask him (politely) to pass the rolls. Show him that you and your partner share drawers, dressers, and closets. If you let your friend borrow a book, remind your child that you’re sharing.

3. Pour on the praise. When your child demonstrates social skills, acknowledge her efforts immediately and enthusiastically. She’ll love that you’re excited and happy about her efforts and actions.

4. Encourage cooperation and teamwork. Promote large projects and long-term activities that encourage your child to work with others. Assemble puzzles (take turns adding pieces). Paint a fence one weekend. Wash the car, bathe a pet, donate clothes, or rake the leaves together.