While knowing the alphabet or understanding what the number three actually means is important, a study 1 spanning 20 years has found that a kindergartener’s social skills are a big part of what determines their success later in life.
The recognition of the significance of early learning on a child’s life is nothing new, however, as one of the study’s authors, Dr Damon E. Jones, notes that in the United States, “social and emotional development has not been incorporated into [early childhood] investments.”
The research, Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness, tracked 753 kindergarten students in the United States for two decades and found “kindergarten students who exhibited traits such as being more likely to share, cooperate, or be helpful with other kids were also more likely to be successful as young adults”.
“In contrast, students who exhibited weaker social competency skills were more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and need greater government assistance.”
Why are social skills important in early childhood
Laurien Beane, Lecturer and Course Coordinator for Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood & Primary), and Bachelor of Early Childhood Education National Online at Australian Catholic University Queensland, says that she agrees that social and emotional skills are equally important as academic skills in the early learning years.
Laurien explains that soft skills are communication skills like greetings and farewells, team work, problem solving, learning how to collaborate on a task with pair work to learn to use each other’s strengths to complete a task, flexibility to learn resilience, being motivated and patient.
The study explains how non-cognitive skills, or soft skills, interact with cognitive skills, or hard skills such as academics.
“Noncognitive skills interact with cognitive skills to enable success in school and the workplace. This is most easily seen in an educational setting.
“Achievement is driven by intellectual ability as well as by the self-regulation, positive attitudes, motivation, and conscientiousness that are required to complete educational milestones.
“Interpersonal skills are also important for children navigating the social setting, and positive interactions with adults are essential for success in school.
“Success in school involves both social-emotional and cognitive skills, because social interactions, attention, and self-control affect readiness for learning.”
Laurien expands on this, highlighting the importance of soft skills for the workforce.
“Soft skills are becoming more and more important for companies whose expectations on their new recruits are changing,” she says.
“For example, companies such as Google and Apple are no longer accepting job applicants who only present with hard skills.
“They realise that they don't want employees sitting in silos programming and not communicating. They want creative and innovative people who can do teamwork, are self-motivated and patient.
“Starting by teaching soft skills in early childhood is the building blocks for their future.”
Are we focusing on soft skills in Australia’s kindergartens?
Laurien says that building those essential soft and emotional skills is part of the underlying curriculum in Australia’s kindergartens, but not necessarily a separate learning area.
“Within the National Quality Framework and National Quality Standards, the Early Years Learning Framework has a large focus on emotional and social skills from birth,” says Laurien.
The problem kindergarten and early learning educators are facing, according to Laurien, is the push down from NAPLAN.
“In Year 3 there is the impact of NAPLAN on those children, which puts the focus on purely academic achievement and can actually have long lasting impacts on emotional readiness for testing in the future,” says Laurien.
“The issue is that NAPLAN in Year 3 pushes down through the years. Year 2 tries to prepare the students for Year 3, Year 1 for Year 2, and Kindergarten for Year 1.
“The academic expectations in kindergarten are very different to what they were before NAPLAN was introduced.
“Kindergarten was really a preparatory year for learning: how to be social, how to develop your emotional resilience, how to work in pairs and in groups collaboratively - all those soft skills.
“Now some centres are choosing to focus on learning sight words and short phrases. And the stress can impact children and parents.
“Teachers are having to navigate knowing how important soft skills are for children of this age while managing with the academic push down from NAPLAN.”
How do you build soft skills with your child?
Dr Mark Greenberg, one of the study’s authors, recommends children attend preschool.
“[Preschool] provides [children] with opportunities to develop self-control and to learn to resolve conflict with peers.
“Parents can also support the development of children's self-control at home and help children to use their communication skills to identify and talk about their feelings,” says Dr Greenberg.
“Parents who model self-control and the ability to talk about their feelings are more likely to have children who also develop these skills.”
Laurien agrees that teaching emotional intelligence is important.
“Parents can help children to understand their broad range of emotion, not just happy and sad.
“In early childhood we do this through the use of puppets to identify emotions, but there is also drawing, role play, and looking at a mirror.
“Children need to feel comfortable knowing that a broad range of emotions is part of being human.
“They also need to learn healthy responses to those emotions – for example, when you’re angry, taking yourself away from the situation and counting to five.”
Laurien also recommends teaching children to be resilient.
“For example, there is something important about ‘upsy-daisy’ when a child falls down. It shows them empathy when they fall, but also how to get back up and try again.”
Laurien says teaching children to build relationships with their peers and members of their community is another key skill.
“Parents can teach children to greet and farewell people in their community. In an education setting you will see an educator smile when they see a child, they are reciprocating the child's smile teaching the child how to communicate and respond to others.”