Study: Early start on social skills keys better behavior

February 23, 2016

Placing a greater emphasis on social skills in early childhood education than is currently the norm could significantly reduce antisocial or aggressive behaviors later in life, new research from the University of Washington College of Education finds.

While intensive, evidence-based social skills training programs remain relatively rare in the nation's early childhood education programs, the UW research published in the Journal of School Psychology demonstrates how those programs offer one of the best opportunities to help children avoid behavior problems that can derail their later academic and life success.

Lead author Holly Schindler, assistant professor of educational psychology, and her collaborators conducted a meta-analysis of more than 30 studies to explore how to maximize the potential of early childhood education to prevent behavior problems. The study recently received the Journal of School Psychology Article of the Year Award for 2015.

The research team, including co-author Soojin Oh Park, assistant professor of education, looked at children in enrolled in three levels of early childhood education programs:

  • Level 1 - Children enrolled in these programs without a clear focus on social and emotional development looked very similar in terms of behavior problems to children not enrolled in any early childhood education program.
  • Level 2 - Children in these programs with a clear but broad focus on social and emotional development had slightly lower behavior problems than children not enrolled in any early childhood program.
  • Level 3 - Children in these programs that more intensively targeted their social and emotional development were associated with additional significant reductions in externalizing behavior problems, up to half a standard deviation more than level 2 programs.

"Programs without a clear focus on social and emotional development are unlikely to have positive benefits for children's behavior," Schindler said. "On the other hand, under conditions aiming to actively support social and emotional development, early childhood education can be a powerful mechanism for reducing externalizing behavior problems."

Level 3 social skills training program enhancements, Schindler said, focus on giving children skills for interacting with others (such as making friends, accepting others or expressing individual needs) and target basic cognitive skills for social problem solving (such as perspective taking and self-control). Implementing these curricula with fidelity often requires intensive professional development and coaching and may incorporate ongoing monitoring of children's progress through assessments.

Those monetary and time costs create barriers to more widespread adoption, and few early childhood education programs presently operate at level 3. While state and federal programs (e.g. Head State) typically operate at level 2, Schindler said, many programs are at level 1.

"Still, the long-term benefits to individuals and society of reducing aggressive and antisocial behaviors are well-documented, including improved school retention, lower dropout rates and higher school engagement," Schindler said. "That suggests that the benefits of implementing a level 3 social skills training program enhancement may be worth the costs for some programs."

Schindler noted that recent research on practices targeting math and literacy have come to similar conclusions to her team's findings around level 3 programs: developmentally-focused curricula can lead to moderate to large gains in the targeted domains of children's development.

"A future direction of study is to explore how to implement integrated curricula and program enhancements across child developmental domains, for example, social skills and language, that retain the critical features and impacts of each area," Schindler said.

Read the article in the Journal of School Psychology.