CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study suggests that children develop critical learning-related social skills - including independence, responsibility, cooperation and self-regulation - as early as age 3, and that those social skills are important for early academic success once children get to kindergarten.

The study, conducted by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Michigan, was published this week in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

"The importance of social skills is obvious for teachers, but some parents may lose sight of that importance in the push for early academic development," said Megan McClelland, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at OSU and lead author on the paper.

McClelland and Frederick Morrison, a professor at the University of Michigan, studied 72 children and their families in a two-year study in the Midwest. They found that although many children were rated as having high levels of learning-related social skills at three and four years, others had comparatively lower levels of these skills.

This has important implications for parents and teachers, McClelland said, because not all children are developing adequate learning-related social skills in pre-school. Previous research by McClelland and Morrison linked these social skills with early academic success once children make the transition to kindergarten. They also found that children who don't have strong learning-related social skills are at increased risk for academic difficulties throughout elementary school.

"What is exciting about tying social skills to academic success is that it may be possible to teach these learning-related social skills to children who are lagging behind academically," McClelland said. "It is a situation ripe for intervention."

Among the skills displayed by 3- and 4-year-olds that lead to early academic success are good listening skills, following directions, self-control, good attention skills, cooperation, and reasonable "task persistence."

McClelland said parents of children who don't demonstrate all of those skills shouldn't try to force their children to acquire them. Gradual, gentle encouragement is more likely to be effective.

"If young children don't show these social skills, parents can trying working with them little by little, through reading interesting stories, socializing with other children, or using fun activities that may lead to better listening or expanded attention spans," she said.

"What parents shouldn't be doing is insisting that their 3-year-old do flash card drills every day."

McClelland said children develop social skills at different rates just as they learn at different rates and in different ways. She also has found that a child's characteristics - such as temperament - as well as aspects of parenting, are important for children's social development.

Parents of children who don't have good social skills shouldn't panic, the researchers say, although as children make the transition to kindergarten, these social skills become increasingly important.

Nurturing social skills will better help children make a successful transition to kindergarten than will forcing early academic skills, McClelland said.

"Ask any kindergarten teacher what's important and it isn't the ABCs, or the 1-2-3s," she said. "It's motivation, cooperation, and the ability to sit still and listen."


Megan McClelland, 541-737-9225

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