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Kinder Kids Make Healthier Community

What if there was a simple way for kindergarten teachers to predict which of their students, regardless of their backgrounds, were more likely to drop out of school, get arrested, use drugs, or have mental health issues? A recent groundbreaking study shows that they don’t need a crystal ball or superstition to get around that. They just need to watch for kindness. Soft skills like kindness, cooperation, and empathy are not typically emphasized in the schooling system. They are nice to have, but not essential to students' success in school or in life, as most people thought. Our schooling system echoes this thinking, as we focus on creating the most rigorous academics and regular testing systems. Developing “hard” skills like math and reading can seem far more practical and important, and somehow a better indicator of later life success for students.

But the recent study, published last month in the American Journal of Public Health, offers a 180-degree turnaround perspective. After following hundreds of students from kindergarten through early adulthood, the study suggests that possessing those “soft” skills is key to doing well in school and avoiding some major problems afterward. In fact, the study even suggests that neglecting these skills could pose a threat to public health and safety.

The study used data from a long-term project that tracked 753 low-income students from the time they were in kindergarten until they turned 25. When these students—who lived in Durham, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; or rural Pennsylvania—were in kindergarten, their teachers rated how well they demonstrated kind and helpful (or “pro-social”) behaviors, such as

  • cooperating with peers

  • being helpful to others

  • understanding others’ feelings

  • resolving problems on their own.

After analyzing a great deal of information about each student, the researchers made a startling discovery:

The level of pro-social behavior that a student showed in kindergarten could predict their education and job prospects, criminal activity, the likelihood of substance abuse, and mental health in adulthood.

Students who were kinder and more cooperative with their peers did better in all of those areas. These students are likely to:

  • Graduate from high school on time

  • Finish college

  • Have stable employment

They are less likely to:

  • Be in special education or repeat a grade

  • Need public housing or receive public assistance

  • Get arrested or incarcerated

  • Abuse alcohol or drugs

  • Have mental health issues

Importantly, these findings held true regardless of the student’s gender, race, or socioeconomic status, the quality of their neighborhood, their early academic skills, or several other factors.

Even with the children’s backgrounds taken into account, those who were rated as more pro-social in kindergarten were more likely to succeed—and avoid problems—in the future.

The results echo findings from other research, such as that feeling socially connected as a kid is more strongly associated with happiness in adulthood than academic achievement is, and that children who participate in programs designed to strengthen their social and emotional skills do better academically. However, in this recent study, the results don’t prove that strong pro-social skills actually cause all of the positive outcomes later in life. Researchers just establish that there is a strong relationship between the two, and future research will have to explore that connection further.

But to the researchers, who are from Penn State and Duke University, the results make a convincing case for investing more in nurturing students’ social and emotional skills—which, according to prior research, are malleable and can be improved, with lasting and meaningful results. So the takeaway is:

Boost your kindness by sending kind thoughts to someone you love—and to someone you don't get along with—with a little guidance from these students.


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