In recent years, the trend in education is to make kindergarten more rigorous academically. There’s been an upswing in parents hiring tutors for their five-year-olds; however, research finds social skills are more important developmentally at this age than academics.
Perusing Palo Alto Unified School District’s standards for kindergarten, there is no mention of social and emotional well-being and skills. All of the standards measure academic achievement. Here are some examples:
- identifies uppercase and lowercase letter names
- identifies individual letter sounds
- asks and answers questions about unknown words in text using meaning, structure, and visual cues
- with prompting and support, retells familiar texts
- with prompting and support, identifies basic similarities and differences between two texts
- reads at grade level
- prints many uppercase and lowercase letters
- capitalizes the first word in a sentence and the pronoun “I”
- recognizes and names ending punctuation marks
- uses a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to convey a message
- understands that words are separated by spaces in print
- refining use of phonetic spelling; some recognizable words
Counting and Cardinality
- counts a number of objects (up to 20)
- writes and represents numbers from 0-20
- counts to 100 by ones and tens
- names and represents a group of objects (up to 20)
- compares two or more sets of objects (up to 10 objects in each group) and identifies which set is equal to, more than, or less than the other
Operations and Algebraic Thinking
- fluently adds and subtracts within 5
- identifies, describes, and extends simple patterns
- represents addition and subtraction with objects, drawings, equations, etc.
- uses concrete objects to solve addition and subtraction story problems (for two numbers that are each less than 10) 1
It is only under “Listening/Speaking” that any criteria reflect social skills:
- follows agreed-upon rules for discussions
- speaks audibly and expresses thoughts and ideas clearly
As a former Kindergarten teacher and current substitute teacher, five- and six-year-olds are obsessed with their perceived concept of fairness. Developmentally, social skills are predominant in their behavior, yet schools place an emphasis on academic standards.
Research supports what kindergartners naturally know: This first-year formal schooling should be a time for promoting social and emotional development rather than solely academics. A study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness” confirms the importance of social skills. This study took data when children were in kindergarten and then followed up 19 years later when most of the participants were 25 years old.
Our analyses included 4 education and employment outcomes representing attainment through age 25 years. Kindergarten prosocial skills were significantly and uniquely predictive of all 4 outcomes: whether participants graduated from high school on time (OR = 1.54; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.09, 2.19; P < .05; Table 3), completed a college degree (OR = 2.00; 95% CI = 1.07, 3.75; P < .05), obtained stable employment in young adulthood (OR = 1.66; 95% CI = 1.13, 2.43; P < .01), and were employed full time in young adulthood (OR = 1.46; 95% CI = 1.02, 2.08; P < .05). For the 2 outcomes spanning school ages, we observed a negative association for number of years of special education services (IRR = 0.54; 95% CI = 0.44, 0.67; P < .001) and number of years of repeated grades through high school (IRR = 0.79; 95% CI = 0.65, 0.97; P < .05).
Two of the 3 outcomes representing public assistance in young adulthood were significantly linked to early social competence. Early prosocial skills were negatively related to the likelihood of living in or being on a waiting list for public housing (OR = 0.55; 95% CI = 0.36, 0.85; P < .01; Table 3) and of receiving public assistance (OR = 0.63; 95% CI = 0.43, 0.91; P < .05). We found no significant association for receiving unemployment compensation in young adulthood.
Results for justice system outcomes demonstrated consistent patterns across different ages and variables. Early prosocial skills were significantly inversely predictive of any involvement with police before adulthood (OR = 0.65; 95% CI = 0.45, 0.94; P < .05) and ever being in a detention facility (OR = 0.61; 95% CI = 0.40, 0.94; P < .05).2
What Social Skills are Important?
Psychology Today identifies three processes involved in social skills:
- Seeing: Used to identify social cues, noticing other children’s behavior, monitoring reactions
- Thinking: Interpreting other’s behavior, predicting responses, evaluating effective strategies
- Doing: Interacting in positive ways
Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D. gives the following advice:
Considering the three processes underlying social skills — seeing, thinking, and doing — can help you understand where your child might be stuck and suggest ways to help your child move forward. For instance, during a play date or a trip to the playground, you might be able to help your child see more effectively by making observations that draw your child’s attention to relevant cues (e.g., “Carlos seems frustrated right now.” “Priya and Abigail are taking turns on the slide.”).
If your child is struggling to figure out how to respond to a social dilemma, you might be able to support your child’s social thinking by providing insights to explain the other child’s behavior. You could also help your child brainstorm possible responses and evaluate their likely outcomes.
Finally, you might be able to create opportunities for your child to practice “doing” social skills by role-playing tricky situations, planning strategies ahead of time for tough situations, or arranging appropriate activities.
For instance, children who find it hard to make eye contact may find it easier to “look at people between the eyebrows.” This comes across the same as eye contact but may feel less threatening for children. 3
For some children, social skills come naturally just like academic skills do for others. For other children, teachers and parents need to promote and teach these behaviors specifically. It should be an integral part of the kindergarten curriculum.
Puppets and dramatic play offer the perfect opportunity for educators to instruct on these skills. Just like it is easier to close the achievement gap in the early years, it is also easier to close the social skills gap.
Motherly.com identifies the following pro-social competencies as key to development:
You can think about your own social skills and contemplate the processes of seeing, thinking, and doing involved in each. You can then think about your children and where they might benefit from increased competencies.
One kindergarten impulse I find when working in classrooms that is predominant, as mentioned above, is a focus on fairness and the behavior as others. Children love to identify when other children are talking when they are asked to be quiet, running in the halls when they should be walking, lying down when they are supposed to be sitting on their bottom during circle time, etc. This can be annoying, but it offers a wonderful opportunity to redirect into self-regulation and self-reflection of their own behavior.
What I find especially frustrating as a substitute teacher is an emphasis and time spent getting kids to line up in a certain way and walk quietly. I am not sure this is even developmentally appropriate for five- and six-year-olds. They are social creatures and want to interact with their peers, not walk down the hallway military style. Alternatively, small groups of children can walk quietly down a hallway and learn how to whisper and exhibit proper behavior.
An effective kindergarten curriculum would include time for free play in a centered-base classroom. Children would interact with educational materials, as well as each other. This would allow for an opportunity for social and emotional growth. There must be a balance between academics and social skills.
The overemphasis on academics in the younger grades creates feelings of unworthiness and dislike of school creating further social problems. Alternately, setting the foundation for later academic and social success should be the goal once children formally enter elementary school. Early childhood educators know the importance of social skills and research backs them up.
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