As nearly 4 million children head off to kindergarten this week, a new report indicates that their social and emotional skills are as important for academic success as cognitive skills, such as knowing the ABCs and 1-2-3s. The report, commissioned by the Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network (FAN), a group of private foundations and federal agencies, indicates that social and emotional school readiness is critical for young children's early school success-and may even set the stage for success later in life. This is a major advance in the understanding of what it takes to prepare a young child for school.
"As we begin this new millennium, the foundations and federal agencies that comprise FAN have joined together to insure that we make it a national priority for our young children to enter school socially and emotionally ready to learn, which sets the stage for their success in future life skills, such as those needed in the workplace," said Betty Hamburg, M.D., Visiting Professor, The Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Expert Consultant to FAN.
A socially and emotionally healthy, school-ready child has many, though not necessarily all, of the following characteristics: he or she is confident, friendly, has good peer relationships, tackles and persists at challenging tasks, has good language development, can communicate well, listens to instructions, and is attentive. Although these attributes seem obvious, they cannot be taken for granted, nor do they always develop naturally as a child increases in age. Those children who enter school without these basic social and emotional competencies are not ready to learn, are less likely to be successful in the early years of school and may face a cascade of behavioral, emotional and academic problems through out their young lives.
"This new report shows that it is just as important for children to be able to form good relationships with their peers and teachers as it is to decode spelling words and master the use of a crayon or pencil," said Peter Jensen, M.D., Director, Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health, Columbia University, and Expert Consultant to FAN. "Policy makers, early child care practitioners and parents must know that children's social and emotional readiness for school allows them to learn effectively."
The report, A Good Beginning: Sending America's Children to School With the Social and Emotional Competence They Need to Succeed, is based on two papers commissioned by FAN that review the risk factors for early school problems and selected federal programs that address children's social and emotional readiness for school. The report identifies some of the risk factors linked to children's early school problems, such as ineffective parenting practices and the low socioeconomic status of the family. Other risk factors include a young child's low birth weight, poor cognitive functioning (the ability to learn), and early behavior problems (for a complete listing, see Huffman et. al).
"Strikingly, several of the risk factors for early school problems appear to be related to a child's difficulty in establishing and maintaining early, important relationships - relationships with their parents, peers, and teachers," said Lynne Huffman, M.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Stanford University School of Medicine and author of the commissioned paper, Risk Factors for Academic and Behavioral Problems at the Beginning of School.
Research on protective factors- those factors that guard against early school failure in groups of children at risk for such problems-is less well-developed. Research suggests that, for at-risk children in particular, parents (and other consistent caregivers) can play an important protective role in developing the social and emotional competence of their young children. While many risk factors for early school problems and some protective factors have been identified, the report calls for research to develop and strengthen programs that will reduce the risk of poor early school outcomes.
The report also indicates that the federal government is investing substantial resources in improving the lives of America's children through many programs. The State Children's Health Insurance Program, expansion of the Medicaid program and provision of Head Start services, as well as demonstration programs such as Starting Early Starting Smart, offer the opportunity to improve the health and well-being of young children. But more can be done to improve the implementation of many current programs, and efforts must be made to integrate new research findings into the design of new programs.
"There is a great need for collaboration and coordination among federal agencies that serve young children and their families -- such coordination is very limited," said Doreen Cavanaugh, Ph.D., Associate Director, National Maternal and Child Health Policy Center, Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University and author of the commissioned paper, Resource Guide to Selected Federal Policies Affecting Children's Social and Emotional Development and Their Readiness for School. "Now is the time to acknowledge the growing consensus among professionals in the early childhood care system that children's social and emotional readiness for school is crucial to their early success -- and move toward a seamless, multidisciplinary system of early childhood care that transcends traditional policy boundaries."
The two commissioned papers, which examined the scientific evidence on social and emotional school readiness (Huffman et. al) and surveyed selected federal programs targeted at improving the well-being of young children (Cavanaugh et. al), are available in the book, Off to a Good Start: Research on the Risk Factors for Early School Problems and Selected Federal Policies Affecting Children's Social and Emotional Development and Their Readiness for School. Both the book and the report are available through the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Public Inquiries Branch at (301) 443-4513 or on the Internet at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/childhp/fdnconsb.htm.
The Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network (FAN) is a group of public and private agencies and foundations interested in issues of child development and public policy. FAN strives to improve the links between research, practice, and policy as it furthers public understanding of key issues affecting children. FAN members include The Annie E. Casey Foundation; Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; The Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health, Columbia University; The Commonwealth Fund; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the following components of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), including the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), The Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), NIH; and The US Department of Education, The Early Childhood Institute/Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).