Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN) — In our household, we’re still talking about the critically acclaimed box office smash “Inside Out,” Pixar’s animated look at the emotions inside a child’s brain. It came up most recently when we watched Serena Williams cruise to another victory at this year’s Wimbledon, and my youngest daughter, age 7, remarked that her “Joy” (the character who controls happiness in the movie) must be going wild. During the match, Serena’s “Angry” must have been at her brain’s control panel, we all agreed.
I thought of the movie recently as I learned about a new study that showcases just how critical it can be for a child to be able to understand emotions and relate to the world.
Every parent intuitively knows it’s a good thing to teach their child how to share and play well with others, and how to deal with emotions like anger and sadness, but do most of us have any sense of just how important these so-called social and emotional skills can be to our child’s long-term success?
The new study, a comprehensive 20-year examination of 800 children from kindergarten through their mid-20s published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, found a link between a child’s social skills in kindergarten and how well they were doing in early adulthood.
Children who were helpful and shared in kindergarten were more likely to have graduated college and have a full-time job at age 25. The children who had problems resolving conflicts, sharing, cooperating and listening as kindergartners were less likely to have finished high school and college, and were more likely to have substance abuse problems and run-ins with the law.
The findings are “huge” when it comes to the thinking about how brain health impacts a person’s overall health, said Kristin Schubert, program director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research.
“It’s like a paradigm shift around what it means to be mentally well at an early age and how that dictates how life goes for you later on,” she said.
Emotional skills can be taught
To conduct the study, researchers from Penn State University and Duke University looked at teacher evaluations of kindergartners’ social competency skills, which were conducted in 1991.
Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skills and behavior.
Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems.
For every one-point increase in a child’s social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree, and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25.
For every one-point decrease in a child’s social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.
“We were surprised but not completely surprised” by the findings, said Damon Jones of Penn State University, the lead researcher for the study.
Jones said he and his fellow researchers knew the importance of social and emotional competency in a child’s development, but didn’t quite expect to find as strong a correlation between those skills and a child’s long-term well-being, even with other variables factored out, such as a family’s socioeconomic status and the child’s academic ability.
What’s heartening from the findings, Jones said, is how social skills can be taught and learned throughout a child’s development.
“Some people might look at this and say, ‘Well, if my child measures low on a scale like this, does this mean my child is doomed or … they are sentenced to all these terrible outcomes?’ ” said Jones, who is a research assistant professor of health and human development at Penn State.
The answer is no, he said, pointing to all the effective ways to address and help children develop good social and emotional skills, whether through schooling or parenting.
“The research greatly shows that these are the type of skills that are malleable, in fact much more malleable than say something like IQ or other things that are more likely traits that are more ingrained.”
The implications of the study’s findings are far-reaching, said Schubert of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
First, there’s a message to educators that social and emotional learning can be just as important as cognitive skills.
“Traditionally, we’re focused much more on academic achievement and more and more we’re realizing through many studies that academic achievement is only one part of making somebody successful,” said Penn State’s Jones.
“If we’re sticking with the schools analogy, it takes the discipline, it takes the motivation, the attitude, the ability to work with others and work with adults to be able to succeed in schools and attain degrees.”
Business leaders understand the importance of emotional intelligence, Schubert said. In some ways, they grasped this before many who study early childhood, she said.
“They know they want to hire people who can play well with others because they know it actually impacts the bottom line,” she said.
How to teach emotional learning
Parents, there’s a message here for all of us, too, Schubert said: “This stuff matters.”
“If you talk about sharing and learning how to manage emotions and things, I think most parents say, ‘Yeah, I do that,’ ” but they often concede that they don’t exactly know what to do, Schubert said.
“No one really talks about how you do this, so wouldn’t it be great if we started a dialogue about how there are actually a lot of resources out there to help you do it.”
Enter Sofia Dickens, who became so convinced of the importance of emotional intelligence on life success that she founded a company, EQtainment, which creates board games and toys to help children flex their social and emotional muscles.
“These skills are very simple and it’s something that any parent can work on at home, in their living room, in the car, in the grocery store line, while cooking dinner, while eating dinner,” said Dickens, a mom of three and former television host.
Dickens said parents can play games like “Red light, green light” and “Freeze tag,” which help kids learn how to control their bodies, and can help them learn how to control their thoughts and emotions.
Another way to practice building “grit and resilience and empathy” in kids is spending time reading with them, she said.
“The only way to accelerate the life experience process, since they’re just kids and don’t have a lot of life experiences, is to go on a journey learning from other people’s life experiences,” she said.
“So when you read a book with your children, ask them questions about how the main character might be feeling or what motivates the main character or what you would do if you were in their shoes.”
Dickens was not involved in the new kindergarten study, but said she wanted to shout the findings “from the rooftop.”
“This study (is) replicating what we already know to be true, which is that (emotional intelligence) has possibly the greatest correlation to school readiness and life success and that’s why it’s something that we really want to invest in when it comes to raising and growing our kids.”
What do you think is the best way to teach children strong social and emotional skills? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.