Learning Soft Skills in Childhood May Prevent Hard Problems Later

Learning self-control keeps at-risk kids out of criminal trouble, study finds

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Academic learning is usually in the spotlight at school, but teaching elementary-age students “soft” skills like self-control and social skills might help in keeping at-risk kids out of criminal trouble in the future, a study finds.

[Related: Survey: Soft Skills Attractive Among Hiring Managers]

Duke University researchers looked at a program called Fast Track, which was started in the early 1990s for children who were identified by their teachers and parents to be at high risk for developing aggressive behavioral problems.

The students were randomized into two groups; half took part in the intervention, which included a teacher-led curriculum, parent training groups, academic tutoring, and lessons in self-control and social skills. The program, which lasted from first grade through 10th grade, reduced delinquency, arrests, and use of health and mental health services as the students aged through adolescence and young adulthood, as researchers explained in a separate study published earlier this year.

In the latest study, researchers looked at the “why” behind those earlier findings. In looking at the data from nearly 900 students, researchers found that about a third of the impact on future crime outcomes was due to the social and self-regulation skills the students learned from ages 6 to 11.

The academic skills that were taught as part of Fast Track turned out to have less of an impact on crime and delinquency rates than soft skills, which are associated with emotional intelligence. Soft skills might include teaching kids to work cooperatively in a group or teaching them how to think about the long-term consequences when they make a decision, whereas teaching physics is an example of a hard skill.

“The conclusion that we would make is that these [soft] skills should be emphasized even more in our education system and in our system of socializing children,” says Kenneth Dodge, a professor of public policy and of psychology and neuroscience at Duke who was a principal investigator in this study as well as in the original Fast Track project.

Read more at NPR.