All children deserve the opportunity to live healthy, productive lives. Our society assumes this will happen for all children, but it’s critical that we know the essentials for actually making this happen. We know that the key is to start investing in young people’s futures early and continue those investments throughout their formative years. But, do we know what to invest in?
A just-released study Yesed in the American Journal of Public Health highlights an essential area for investment. This study found that kindergarten children with strong “social competence” skills—like sharing, cooperating, or helping others—were more likely than youth with weaker social competency to go to college or secure good-paying jobs. Conversely, kindergarten children with weaker social competency were more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and need government assistance. Social competency was rated by the kindergarten teachers; then these children were followed for twenty years! The children in the study were primarily white and African American. No specific interventions on social competence were provided to these children over the course of the study and the findings held for both populations of children.
Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, this study provides important guidance for program and policy investments. It demonstrates the links between early childhood social competency and success and health in later adolescence and young adulthood. Most importantly, however, it shows where we can make a big difference in children’s life outcomes.
The findings of this study present a tremendous opportunity, and one that SAMHSA will leverage in its continuum of programs promoting healthy development from birth to adulthood and preventing mental and substance use problems. Findings from this study will be underscored in each of these programs.
SAMHSA’s Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health), provides funding to states to implement new approaches to support resilience and healthy development for children from birth to age 8. This includes behavioral, developmental screenings, home visiting, social-emotional development, and integrating primary and behavioral health care for these young children and their families.
For elementary-school-age students, SAMHSA’s Good Behavior Game (GBG), a classroom-based behavior management strategy that fosters social competence skills like relationship-building and self-regulation. This intervention has a track record for reducing aggressive, disruptive classroom behavior and creating a place where all children can learn and grow. Studies also show that children who participated in the GBG were less inclined toward substance abuse and suicidal thoughts later.
Middle school and high school encompass the “tumultuous years” when youth are highly vulnerable to mental, emotional, behavioral and substance use problems. SAMHSA’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative is designed to address these issues, identify youth at-risk, link with services and supports and prevent youth violence. The initiative includes interventions that may be implemented school-wide or in a more targeted fashion to help young people deal with academic and social problems while fostering a more positive and supportive school climate. SAMHSA’s Now is the Time Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education) grant program, based on the Safe Schools/Healthy Students model, aims to support enhanced coordination and integration of mental, emotional, and behavioral health services.
This study makes it impossible to ignore the importance of helping children develop strong social skills. By investing in our youngest children and giving them the tools they need to build this crucial foundation, we can generate returns well across the lifespan and give every child a chance for a healthy and successful future.