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20-year study shows kindergarteners who play nice do better in life

File photo: A new study says learning skills like good social interactions, attention, and self-control in kindergarten may be more important than academics for young children. ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

Good social skills in kindergarten matter, and maybe more than strong early academics, according to a new longitudinal study that followed 5-year-olds into adulthood. 

Researchers at Penn State University looked at teacher assessments of kindergarteners' social skills and tracked them through high school and into their early 20s. They found that kids with better "social competencies" at age 5 — as rated by their kindergarten teachers — were more likely to go to college and hold full-time jobs as young adults.

Children with lower social competencies, the study found, could be predicted to spend more time in special education and have more issues with substance abuse. They also were more likely to drop out of high school and go to prison before age 25. 

The 20-year study has just been published in the American Journal of Pubic Health.

Mark Greenberg, study author and professor of human development and psychology at Penn State, said children who are better able to socialize with peers, exhibit more self-control and negotiate sandbox tussles without a tantrum might actually do better in life than kids who can read and write when they are 5 but have poor social skills.

"The kinds of things that we think only academics would be predictive for, turns out it's wrong," he said. "Turns out children's ability to get along with others and manage themselves well in positive ways affects both their academic outcomes and their labor market outcomes in adulthood."

As preschools increasingly focus on academics with the express goal of helping kids do better in kindergarten, the study shows that children's social emotional learning might matter more.

Greenberg's advice for parents when choosing a preschool is to not prioritize those with strong academic programs over schools that promote social-emotional learning.

Parents should look for  preschools using "a social-emotional learning curriculum that has an evidence base that provides teachers with a kind of structure to build this kind of caring classroom environment," Greenberg said.

In short, young children will get the academics as they proceed through school. Learning social skills, like healthy social interactions, conflict resolution, and self-control, might be harder to learn as kids get older, yet all these competencies will positively affect kids' readiness to learn.