The Importance of Social Competence For Young Children
To successfully interact with others and cope with the complexities, stress, and expectations of modern life, it is vital that all children acquire social competence. Social competence is the ability to recognize, interpret, and respond appropriately in social situations.
During the last two decades, researchers have presented a convincing body of evidence to indicate that unless children achieve minimal social competence by about the age of six years, they have a high probability of being at risk throughout life (Katz & McClellan, 1997). Long-term risks of early challenging behavior include delinquency and conduct disorders in childhood and adolescence and social and emotional difficulties in adulthood including substance abuse and psychiatric illness (Campbell, 1995; Huffman, Mehlinger, & Kerivan, 2000; Kupersmidt & Coie, 1990; Vitaro, Tremblay, Gagnon, & Pelletier, 1994). Adults who failed to achieve minimal social competence as children are more likely to commit violent crimes against others. Girls may be at risk for early pregnancy, single parenthood, and a lack of parenting skills—potentially "mothering the next generation of children with challenging behaviors" (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 1999, p. 12).
Young children need a minimum level of social and emotional competence to function in a group and benefit from the learning environment of the school setting. School success is not predicted by a child's fund of facts or a precocious ability to read so much as by emotional and social measures. A child's readiness for school depends on the most basic of all knowledge, that is, how to learn—with seven crucial capacities: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, capacity to communicate, and cooperativeness (National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, 1992). School success requires understanding of other people's feelings and viewpoints, cooperating with adults and peers, emotional self-control, and the ability to resolve conflicts constructively (Thompson, 2002). This social and emotional school readiness is critical to successful kindergarten transition and success in the early grades (Peth-Pierce, 2001). Children who have difficulty paying attention, following directions, getting along with others, and controlling negative emotions perform less well in school, despite the ability to master academic material (McLelland, Morrison, & Holmes, 2000; Slavin & Madden, 2001).
Children do not outgrow behavioral challenges. Without intervention, behavior problems tend to worsen over time. Lower levels of social acceptance in kindergarten are predictive of deficits in classroom social skills, work habits, and lower academic performance as assessed by grades and standardized achievement test scores in the first and second grade (Parke, Harshman, Roberts, Flyr, O'Neil, Welsh, & Strand, 1998).
Clearly, promoting positive social behavior in young children should be a priority in early childhood education. The cost of failure to intervene early is far too high a price to pay when predictable negative outcomes can be prevented (Center for Human Investment Policy, 2000).
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