Social skills and achievement

When I was in first grade, I convinced my teacher that it would be a good idea for me to work on advanced math problems during recess. To me, that seemed like an inspired solution to my social difficulties. An intensely shy girl, I was intimidated by the idea of having to find my way into a group of children, and I already knew that I could reliably distract adults from my shortcomings by flashing my intellect.

Luckily for my future, my mother didn’t fall for it. When the teacher asked for permission to implement my scheme, my mother wrote back: “Sandra doesn’t need to practice math. Sandra needs to practice recess. Make her go outside and play with the other kids.”

Mom was more right than she knew. Research shows that teaching interpersonal skills enhances academic achievement, even when it takes time away from subject-matter instruction. School-based programs to promote social skills have a strong track record of boosting test scores.

A recent meta-analysis evaluated 213 studies of social and emotional learning programs in over 270,000 students. These programs are designed to promote self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. About three-quarters of the programs lasted less than a year, and the remainder one or two years.

On average, the programs improved students’ social skills substantially. To a lesser extent, they also improved attitudes and social behavior, while reducing misbehavior and signs of emotional distress, such as depression or anxiety. About half the studies measured academic achievement, finding an average increase in test scores of 11 percentile points—meaning that a child who was initially ranked 13th in a class of 25 would move up to 10th after the program. Indeed, social skills instruction improves test scores as much as typical targeted academic interventions.

Programs taught by teachers in the regular classroom were as effective as the programs taught by outside experts. The more effective programs built up skills in a series of steps, used active learning strategies (such as coaching and role playing), focused on social skills specifically, and targeted those skills explicitly.

From a neuroscience perspective, these programs probably work by strengthening the frontal cortex. Various parts of this late-developing brain area are responsible for planning and organizing behavior and for monitoring and managing emotions. All those skills contribute to effective learning.

The best news for parents is that the effects of improved social skills and self-control can last a lifetime. Childhood self-control predicts success not only in academics, but also in work, marriage, and friendship. My mother may not have known all the details, but her instincts were right on target that social development is as important as intellectual development to life success.