Valuing the X-factor: social emotional intelligence

Did you ever think your five-year old could display such complex emotions as delayed gratification? Or question the existence of life? Or even pick up on the subtle complexities of someone’s “dry” sense of humor?  

This video proves that children can in fact delay gratification—they can actually wait for marshmallows! It would be very hard for my four and six-year old to patiently wait, but wait—instead of waiting I can just hear them ‘bribe’ me into offering the marshmallows. I guess you could call it “negotiate.” But these are all important life skills, right?

As an advocate for young children and someone who has worked in the classroom, I have seen first hand that social-emotional abilities, like expressing empathy, negotiating with peers, playing fairly and sharing, are not intrinsic, but are skills that are learned and can and must be taught. I had the pleasure of working with ZERO TO THREE to implement Early Head Start Programs in the late 90’s and worked with the likes of T. Berry Brazelton and J. Ronald Lally so I know that there are plenty of experts in the field who recognize the importance of early social emotional development—Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman is probably the most prominent.  

But I am still constantly frustrated that the overwhelming focus on the “education” aspect of early care and education seems to have overshadowed the importance of developing young children’s social emotional intelligence in the policy debate. 

That may be changing. A new study based on the outcomes of a cohort of children—now adults—who went through kindergarten program in Tennessee called Project STAR in the 1980s now proves that early care and education can in fact make a huge difference in transforming our young tots into successful citizens. The study, which was covered recently in the New York Times, found that students who had effective teachers in kindergarten “were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds.” They were also less likely to become single parents, and to save for retirement as adults. And they earned much more over their lifetimes. The economists figure that for all the impact they have on children over their lifetimes, great kindergarten teachers should be paid something like $320,000 a year. (That actually sounds a little low, don't you think?)

Project STAR was undertaken largely to test the significance of class size on student outcomes. But while smaller classes may have had some impact on the children’s later success, the economists have guess at the other factors. The author of the article concludes that a plausible guess is that “good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime—patience, discipline, manners, and perseverance.”

As a mother and someone who has worked in the early education field, it’s clear to me that those so-called “soft skills” can make all the difference. With my own children, I made the very deliberate choice to pay attention to the emotions they expressed and tried to convey and model for them my aspirations for them to be the caring individuals. I hope I succeed.