More evidence of the importance of non-cognitive skill development in young children

In a July 24, 2015 Opinionator piece published by the New York Times, David Borenstein reported on the findings of a major study by researchers from Penn State and Duke University that had been designed to understand how children develop healthy social skills.

The study tracked 753 children whose social and communication skills had been assessed by 50 kindergarten teachers across three geographic areas in the early 1990s to see what had happened to the students 13 to 19 years later.

As it turns out, the assessments in kindergarten predicted the likelihood of “whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teacher’s scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.”

“One major result: Children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college as those who scored low.”

Borenstein points out that “These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness – strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education and succeed in many other areas of life.”

The findings of this study are consistent with those mentioned in a 2012 essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” by James J. Heckman, published in the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of Boston Review. Heckman writes, “An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy…and participation in crime.”

“….both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment…..A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families…..and that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…”

Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is implementing in parts of Indiana). “Programs with home visits (like NFP) affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end.”

One randomized controlled trial of families that participated in Nurse-Family Partnership showed that NFP children had 67% fewer behavioral and cognitive problems at age 6 than children in a control group.

The two-generation approach practiced by Nurse-Family Partnership benefits the entire family in numerous demonstrable ways. For example, Goodwill’s implementation of NFP is resulting in an increase in earned income in 33% of participating households. In addition, among parents with less than 12 years of education at enrollment, 59% have increased their education attainment level as measured one year post-enrollment in NFP.

There’s a growing amount of solid evidence that investments in high quality early childhood development programs generate substantial benefits to society as well as to the participating children. Those programs, such as NFP, that also include wraparound services for other family members yield even greater benefits and, if scaled sufficiently, can go a long way toward reducing generational poverty and a lot of the social problems that accompany it.