Julie Baumgardner

As many parents prepare to register their little one for kindergarten, there is often pressure to make sure their child is actually kindergarten-ready. But their focus may not necessarily be on the things that ultimately prepare their child for future success.

Knowing their name, being able to tie their shoes and going to the bathroom by themselves are important for sure. But did you know that social competency skills such as being able to listen, share material with others, solve problems with their classmates, cooperate and be helpful are every bit as important, perhaps more so?

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University analyzed 753 children in Durham, North Carolina, Seattle, Nashville and rural Pennsylvania and found that children who were more likely to share or be helpful in kindergarten were also more likely to obtain higher education and hold full-time jobs nearly two decades later. Students who lacked these social competency skills were more likely to face negative outcomes by age 25, including substance abuse problems, challenges finding employment or run-ins with the law.



The study controlled for the effects of poverty, race, having teen parents, family stress, neighborhood crime and for the children's aggression and reading levels in kindergarten. Still, the researchers found that for every one-point increase in a student's social competency score, he or she was:

* Twice as likely to graduate from college.

* 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma.

* 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job by age 25.

For every one-point decrease in the child's score, he or she had a:

* 64 percent higher chance of having spent time in juvenile detention.

* 67 percent higher chance of having been arrested by early adulthood.

* 52 percent higher rate of binge-drinking.

* 82 percent higher rate of recent marijuana usage.

* 82 percent higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing at age 25.

High-quality relationships and rich social interactions in the home, school and community prepare children for the future. Research has shown this for years, but this study reinforces it. Never underestimate the importance of a stable home in the life of a child.

The good news is, no matter how old your child is, you can help them learn what they really need to know. From parents and extended family to child-care providers and neighbors, everybody can help young children develop these social-emotional skills.



Here are some strategies you can use to help children develop social/emotional competence:

* Let them figure out how to solve their own problems (within reason).

* Instead of making decisions for them, help them make decisions.

* Teach them about emotions and help them understand other people's feelings.

* Give them opportunities to learn what it looks like to share with others.

* Provide experiences where they can be helpful.

* Teach them how to express themselves appropriately with direction.

* Be intentional about giving them instructions and helping them follow through on what you asked them to do. This will serve them well when it comes to listening and following instructions in the classroom.

* Give your child the chance to engage in activities with others where they learn to cooperate without being prompted.

Providing these opportunities is beneficial, far beyond kindergarten. Although it may be easier for adults to make these things happen for their children, easy is not always best. Stepping back and seeing what they can do is some of the best kindergarten prep you could ever do.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at