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.

Why you want your teen to talk back

For years I’ve been telling the exasperated fathers of mouthy teenage girls to relax. When she starts dating, I say, the ability to stand up to men will turn out to be a feature, not a bug — so you don’t want to discourage it too much.

new paper in the journal Child Development backs up my logic by demonstrating that teenagers who argue with their mothers are more likely to resist peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Almost all adolescents have friends who are doing something that their parents wouldn’t like if they knew about it, so parents are right to worry about the negative influences of peers. But not all teens are susceptible to bad influences. Indeed, some of them end up helping to straighten out their misbehaving friends.

What factors determine which teen is the influencer and which is the influenced partner in a friendship? Researchers showed earlier that teens whose parents are overly restrictive are more likely to be influenced by their peers. This type of research, though, is complicated by the fact that kids choose their friends, in part because they are similar to start with. Overbearing parents may produce rebellion in their teens, which then leads them to pick equally rebellious friends and copy their behavior.

To get around this problem, the authors of the new study tracked changes in the behavior of an economically diverse group of teens over several years. At age 13, the subjects were asked to talk with their mothers about an area of disagreement, and then at 15 and 16, their drug use was evaluated. Teens who had rapidly reversed their position when arguing with their mothers were substantially more likely to use drugs and alcohol later on, but only if their friends were users. Other factors that increased peer influence were low support from mothers, highly popular friends, and weak teen social skills.

So the next time your teenager is giving you lip, take a deep breath and remember that learning to say no effectively is an important social skill in its own right.