What Studying Kindergartners Tells Us About Addiction

Can your social skills in kindergarten predict whether you might abuse drugs or alcohol as an adult? Yes, say the authors of a 20-year retrospective study, published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Kindergarten teachers in low-income neighborhoods in Durham, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Seattle; and central Pennsylvania rated a total of almost 800 kids on “social competence” skills such as sharing, cooperating and helping other kids.

Following up 13 and 19 years later, the researchers found that students who exhibited weaker social competency skills at age 5 were more likely to drop out of high school, need government assistance and spend more days each month binge drinking and using marijuana than their kindergarten peers with higher scores on the skills.

“This study shows that helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future,” says Kristin Schubert, MPH, program director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research. “From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to college or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted.”

Eight Good Traits in Children (and Adults)

The kindergarten teachers used eight measures to assess the social competence of their students:

  • Resolves peer problems on his/her own
  • Very good at understanding other people’s feelings
  • Shares materials with others
  • Cooperates with peers without prompting
  • Helpful to others
  • Listens to others’ point of view
  • Gives suggestions and opinions without being bossy
  • Acts friendly toward others

What Studying Kindergartners Tells Us About AddictionThe eight measures were averaged into a composite score for each child and the researchers, who came from Penn State and Duke Universities, followed the children for the next two decades, examining whether the early social competence assessments could predict how the kids would do in terms of life skills and outcomes by the time they reached early adulthood.

Using official records, reports from parents and self-reporting from the participants themselves, researchers recorded both positive and negative milestones for all students until they turned 25, including high school and college graduation, employment, criminal records and substance abuse problems. None of the children in the study had had any intervention or treatment to improve their social competence skills after kindergarten.

Predicting a Child’s Odds of a Healthier Life

The researchers found that the greater the difference between students’ social competence scores in kindergarten, the more pronounced the difference in how they turned out later in life. For example, for every one-point decrease in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten, the child had a:

  • 67% higher chance of having been arrested by early adulthood;
  • 82% higher rate of recent marijuana usage; and
  • 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

The researchers say the findings could provide important information for determining potential targets for early intervention that might reduce the chance of later in life negative outcome such as drug and alcohol abuse.

But what if you or your child is long past kindergarten? Is it too late to improve social skills that might protect you from substance abuse or allow you to use those same skills to maintain your recovery? “Later on in life, social skills, or lack of them, are more ingrained,” says Damon Jones, PhD, a senior research associate at Pennsylvania State and the lead author of the study, but he adds that “the good news is that social and emotional skills can improve.”

Dr. Jones says there are effective, evidence-based programs that can help people develop skills to withstand cravings for drugs, for example, but often, people don’t know how to find them. He recommends asking counselors and physicians for recommendations, noting that social engagement is often lacking when people turn to illicit substances and compulsive behaviors. It’s often key for the person to re-engage fully with friends, family and/or community when getting off drugs and/or alcohol or dealing with a behavioral addiction, like sex, video gaming or gambling.

“We need targeted interventions for people who didn’t get this growing up,” says Kristin Schubert. “We should not make the assumption that everyone who becomes a parent knows [how to teach their child] this stuff.”

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