While federal programs such as No Child Left Behind emphasize the importance of academic skills to school success and achievement, there is growing interest in how social skills develop and how they contribute to learning.
Research presented at the 2007 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development by a team of Michigan State University researchers indicate that a child’s social skills at age three could predict his or her future social and academic performance.
Important social skills in early childhood include emerging abilities to manage feelings and behaviors, recognize social cues from others and engage in positive interactions with peers.
Findings from related studies by the MSU research team include:
- Children dealing with higher levels of stress in their lives were more likely to demonstrate lower social skills when in class with other children who had low social skills.
- Family malnutrition at age four can predicts behavior problems at a later age.
- Parental care, such as use of positive behaviors and general involvement with their children’s school, influence positively their children’s performance both in the short and long term.
"Early intervention is an important tool for enhancing and supporting early development,” said Holly Brophy-Herb, an associate professor of family and child ecology who led the research team. “But we must also focus on how interventions work, whether they are curricular interventions or comprehensive early intervention services, such as Early Head Start (EHS), under what circumstances and for whom.”
Early Head Start is a national intervention and support program for income-eligible families and provides comprehensive services to families prenatally until the child is three years old. The Brophy-Herb led group is currently working with EHS providers in six Michigan counties to evaluate an infant/toddler curriculum, targeting early social and emotional development that was developed by the MSU team and their EHS partners. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The MSU research team is also part of a National Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Consortium, which has been engaged in a study of EHS eligible children and their families since 1996. With 3,001 families participating, this research was conducted at 17 sites across the country, including the one at the Jackson Community Action Agency, an MSU partner.
Findings reported by the national consortium reflect the long term impacts of EHS:
- Overall, EHS children performed better on measures of cognition, language and social-emotional functioning than their peers at age three. In addition, they were less likely to be in the “at risk” category of cognitive and language functioning.By age five children who had received EHS programming as infants and toddlers continued to show fewer behavior problems and more positive approaches to learning.
- Parents of EHS children were more supportive of their children’s emotional, cognitive and language development when their children were three years of age. The same results were observed at assessments when the children were five years of age.
- When impacts were examined by race/ethnicity, African American children continue to show the greatest benefits. They were more likely to be enrolled in formal programs following EHS than those children not in EHS.
These findings have boosted the long-held belief that early childhood intervention is key to helping children who are at risk of behavior problems, poor developmental health outcomes, decreased school readiness and higher dropout rates.
Brophy-Herb and colleagues on the MSU research team, with the EHS Consortium, are currently engaged in a grade five follow-up of the children and families.
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