What if schools and policymakers were able to predict with a good deal of reliability the troublemakers and the success stories of tomorrow? What if this could be done at the time kids enter kindergarten and done in a cost-effective manner?
Fascinating new research suggests that we may on the frontier of doing just this. The evidence comes from the Fast Track Project, a comprehensive intervention designed to look at how children develop across their lives by providing academic tutoring, developing social skills and regulating behavior. Working in four diverse and vulnerable communities in the US (Durham, Nashville, rural Pennsylvania, and Seattle), the Project identified and recruited almost 900 kindergarteners, in three successive cohorts (1991, 1992 and 1993), and randomly assigned them to a control or intervention group. The Project worked with these kids throughout school, collecting data at key points in time until the present.
As part of the Project, kindergarten teachers applied the Prosocial-Communication Skills subscale of the Social Competence Scale to their students (control and intervention groups).This subscale consists of 9 straight-forward items, for example, whether the child cooperates with peers without prompting, is helpful to others, is good at understanding feelings, or can resolve problems on her own. No rocket science. Nothing complicated. Just 9 questions that teachers answer about their students on a 5-point scale: not at all, a little, moderately well, well, and very well.
Working with results of this subscale at kindergarten for control-group kids only, that is, those kids who did not receive Project interventions, (see also Bornstein’s column in the NY Times) we find some amazing results.
Almost twenty years later, teacher rankings in kindergarten prove to be incredibly prescient. A child’s score on the 9 question subscale predicts a number of key adolescent and young adult outcomes, including which kids graduate from high school on time, get into and graduate college, have stable employment as young adults, receive public assistance, and are arrested. All of this, controlling for key factors like poverty, race, having teenage parents, and aggression and reading levels in kindergarten. You can easily guess which kids ended up where. Kids with higher levels of prosocial skills are more likely to successfully reach key adolescent and young adult milestones. Those with lower levels are more likely to repeat grades, be in special education, and be juvenile criminals or troublemakers. In fact, kids who scored high on the subscale were four times more likely to graduate from college than those who scored low.
Let´s think about the power and potential these results hold. For kids. For schools. For societies. Getting these data is inexpensive and non-invasive. But having these results may prove extremely valuable for identifying at-risk kids at an early age and targeting effective interventions from school-entry onwards. Social and emotional skills are more malleable than others, like cognitive skills, meaning you need to start early but you can make a difference over a longer period of time. Kids need to form and maintain meaningful bonds with their peers, healthy adults, and institutions like school to avoid many of the risks life lures. There are any number of programs out there that can help. Some of which have been rigorously evaluated, such as Fast Track. Data such as those collected by the Prosocial-Communication subscale can inform the selection process and sharpen the targeting. And, if this isn’t enough, by some estimates, the cost-effectiveness of social and emotional learning programs reaches US$11 for each dollar invested (Teachers College, 2015).
Compare this to expensive and difficult to implement initiatives like reducing class size or targeting job training programs to marginal youth (usually the troublemakers) for which returns are either negative or inconsequential.
What if more schools and policymakers took notice of evidence like this? Would the troublemakers receive the support and interventions they need in a timely and cost-effective manner? Would there be fewer of them? Would they go on to become productive adults and would we all see lower levels of crime, mental health and other socially destructive issues?
My guess is yes.