An article recently published details the results of a study showing that pro-social behavior among kindergartners is a strong indicator of which children will be successful later in life–E. Jones, Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health. e-View Ahead of Print. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630. What the researchers did was to have the children rated by their teachers on their social behavior in kindergarten. They then tracked the students for the next 13 to 19 years into young adulthood. What is perhaps most surprising about the results of the study is that contrary to expectations the most significant indicator of future success isn’t how early the child read, or how much, or whether they were ahead in math; in fact, intellectual skills weren’t implicated at all—the most significant indicators were emotional ones, whether the child shared materials, whether they were able to solve peer problems, did they cooperate with others, and did they listen. These were the skills that predicted later success, whether the children would finish college or get a good job. Those who were helpful and shared in kindergarten were more likely to graduate college and have a full-time job at 25.
But what if you didn’t develop those behaviors at an early age? Could you develop them at a later stage? The positive news is that social behaviors are quite changeable. There are many things you can do to develop interpersonal skills and engage with others at almost any age; the behaviors can be taught, learned and developed.
The study has significant implications for our students and the way that we educate them. And here is where the value of a STEM education has a perhaps unexpected but deep role to play. Almost all of the activities that are part of a STEM curriculum require interaction, communication and participation. They require students to share ideas and materials, to assist each other on projects, assignments and builds, and to resolve conflicts and disagreements amicably or the project will fail. It is equally true of scientific experiments and research that often require teams if not entire laboratories of researchers, and the sharing and presentation of results. Applied tasks like a robotics build also require cooperation and communication—the build would be impossible without them as each team member relies on the expertise and participation of every other. Team members are expected to be considerate, compassionate, and respectful of others on their own team and of other teams too. An education, therefore, which engages students directly, challenges them to participate and interact, and to share and strive to overcome personal differences has a role to play not only in educating intellectually, but also socially and emotionally.