Early social skills for the win – Research Rumination

A few years ago, I was listening to the radio during my commute (California commutes, amirite?!). As I listened, an interview came on that spoke to me as a speech-language pathologist. The segment titled “Nice Kids Finish First: Study Finds Social Skills Can Predict Future Success” went on to summarize a recent study (then, in 2015) dealing with social skills. That story stuck with me, and when I thought about what article to dive into for this week’s Research Rumination, it came back to me.

Social skills are an important part of life that, in my humble opinion, often fall to the wayside relative to academics. How important? Social skills, as it turns out, are more than just behaviors that get us through barbecues at a friend’s house or modifying behaviors based on where you are (home vs. church vs. school vs. Cher concert). And as a speech-language pathologist, social skills and social communication, AKA pragmatics, are of particular interest to me.

In the November 2015 study, “Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness,” Jones, Greenberg, and Crowley wanted to explore what, if any, impact social skill competence had on later life outcomes, namely education, employment, use of public assistance, crime, substance abuse, and mental health.

Let’s break it down, SparkNotes style!

Purpose: To determine if there was a connection between kindergarten teachers’ rating of their students’ social skills, and later adolescent and adult outcomes (as mentioned above).

Participants: 753 students from four cities (Durham, NC; Nashville, TN; Seattle, WA; central PA). Data was gathered from a program called Fast Track Project. The initial rating measure was taken in 1991, and follow up data to measure adult outcomes was gathered 19 years later.

Results: Why yes, indeed. There was a connection between the early rating scales of social competence and many of the adolescent and adult outcomes, including:

  • Education and employment: Higher social skill ratings in kindergarten predicted a higher likelihood of on-time high school graduation, completed college degree, obtainment of stable employment in young adulthood, and full-time employment in young adulthood.

  • Public assistance: Higher social skill ratings predicted a lower likelihood of use of public assistance or utilizing public housing.

  • Crime: In the words of the author, “Early prosocial skills were significantly inversely predictive of any involvement with police before adulthood and ever being in a detention facility.” In other words, higher social skills ratings predicted a lower likelihood of involvement in crime related activities including being arrested and appearing in court.

  • Substance abuse: There wasn’t a huge connection between early social skills and alcohol/drug dependence, but it did have a connection with some substance abuse behaviors such as binge drinking and the number of days marijuana was used.

  • Mental health: Higher social skill ratings in kindergarten showed a connection with fewer years of medications for emotional or behavioral issues through high school.

Well, that’s a lot.

The thing about research is that this is “correlation,” and not “causation.” I mean, we all know plenty of people who would benefit from some social skill support that are rather successful. However, there are some pretty interesting connections in this study. If early social competence can be a predictor of future outcomes, early interventions in this area would be highly beneficial. This means that “enhancing [social] skills can have an impact in multiple areas and therefore has potential for positively affecting individuals as well as community public health substantially.”

So, yes! Let’s work on social communication! Let’s work on social skills! Let’s start early!

And your friendly neighborhood SLP and their social worker friends will be here to help.

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