Why Social Skills Matter to Kid’s Academics

Do you remember learning to read in school? I vividly remember the nervousness I felt when the teacher asked me to read aloud for the whole class. I was a pretty good student, but even I felt put on the spot in these moments.

Now imagine that you are a student who is struggling to read. You might mispronounce words or not know how to even start reading a new word. How would you feel in front of all your classmates?

New studies are showing in more detail how these two issues—literacy and social skills—might be even more linked that we previously thought.

A recent research study in Child Development examined the relationship between early literacy and social behavior. This report actually included two similar studies of early elementary-aged children (grades K-5) from low-income backgrounds. The students were assessed on literacy skills, aggressive behavior, and pro-social behavior (i.e., helping others) (as reported by teachers). The studies showed that:

  • children with lower literacy in 1st and 3rd grades were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior two years later (but the reverse was not found)
  • the relationship between lower literacy and aggressive behavior strengthened over time (between 3rd and 5th grade)
  • children who showed more pro-social behavior in 1st grade were more likely to have higher rates of literacy two years later

These findings make perfect sense when you consider the social dynamic of early elementary school. Children who struggle to read may be teased by peers. Without guidance in social and emotional skills, this could lead to aggressive behavior in the form of retaliation. If these struggling students do not receive tutoring or emotional support to cope with teasing, this aggressive behavior may continue year after year.

These studies dovetail nicely with several other recent reports showing the link between academic development children’s social skills. One study showed that academically struggling students who participated in a social and emotional skills training program actually significantly improved their academic skills.

Why is this the case? Simply put, different aspects of children’s brains don’t work in isolation. If a child is emotionally distressed because of teasing or other social issues, they cannot focus well on academic subjects. Research proves this out as well. One study of German kindergartners showed that those who had better emotional knowledge (e.g., identifying emotions, reading feelings, etc.), had fewer attention problems in school. The researchers suggest this is because once kids understand the emotions of others, it becomes more routine and this frees up their brain to focus on other tasks.

Overall, we see from these studies that a strict focus on academics alone is not the path forward for our kids. Kids, much like adults, do not function in mental isolation. Their emotional and cognitive worlds are tied up together and can either compliment or compete with one another. As parents, we can encourage schools to focus on the whole child for better overall outcomes for all kids.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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