From very early on in their school careers, pupils are judged on their academic performance, with a strong emphasis on English and maths. And in England this year, schools are piloting a new “baseline” test to monitor how well children perform in these key areas at just 4 or 5 years old.
But while we may be impressed if little Casper can count to 20 and knows a triangle from a square, some argue that, at this age, learning to master social and emotional skills matters far more. The ability to focus attention, manage behaviour, interact positively with others, and understand and deal with feelings is what forms a foundation for all learning to come, they say.
Professor Stephanie M Jones, an expert in early childhood development at Harvard University, US, certainly shares that view.
“Social and emotional skills and competencies are foundational to learning to read and learning maths and engaging in scientific enquiry…Having a really strong foundation in them is a wonderful set-up for success in all kinds of areas,” she argues.
“It’s hard to be successful at a learning task if you can’t focus your attention, if you can’t manage your behaviour or you can’t engage in positive interactions with others…so, you can see how fundamental it is.”
She points to several pieces of research that have linked skills such as social competence and self-control in early childhood to life outcomes 20 or 30 years later.
One such study, looking at more than 1,000 people in New Zealand, found that when those with the highest levels of self-control in childhood reached adulthood, their rate of multiple health problems was just 11 per cent, versus 27 per cent for those with the lowest levels of self-control (Moffitt et al, 2011).
Furthermore, only 10 per cent of those with high self-control in childhood had an income under NZ$20,000 (£9,800). This compared with 32 per cent for those with the lowest self-control, even taking into account variation in their intelligence, social class and home lives.
Meanwhile, a US study (Jones, DE et al, 2015) found that the rating a teacher gave to nursery children’s “prosocial” skills was “a consistently significant predictor” of outcomes in education, employment, criminal activity, substance use and mental health two decades later.
“Your success at ages 4 and 5 in interacting with others, in getting along with others, in sharing and cooperating, is linked to those outcomes even after you account for everything that happens in between,” Jones says.
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