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Your child's social skills in kindergarten are more important than their academics

Parents of young children tend to worry a lot about whether or not their kids are making adequate gains as they launch into their academic careers.

"Can Johnny read the list of 100 high-frequency words?"

"Does Betty know how to count to 500?"

"Is Tom doing quantum physics yet?"


While early education creates an important foundation for academic skills, many parents would be surprised to know that social skills are actually far more predictive of outcomes into adulthood than early academics.

For example, a study published in 2015 showed that even while controlling for family demographics and early academic ability, the social skills observed in kindergarten showed significant correlation with well-being at age 25.

That's a lot of staying power!

Regardless of how advanced of a reader they were or how much money their parents made, kindergarteners who demonstrated social competence were more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, and stay out of jail than those who showed a lower level of social competence.

So while many parents and schools may be feeling the pressure to cut back on play and social interaction in order to get more "hard skill" instruction time in, it's actually those "soft skills" that are most predictive of long-term success.

Here are five important social competencies you can foster in your child.

1. How to play well with others

Play is a powerful catalyst for development in the early years. By playing with others, children learn to negotiate, problem solve, take turns, share and experiment. You can help your child build these skills by making time for free play with other children.

While dance class, soccer practice and choreographed play dates may have their own value, children need plenty of time engaging in unstructured play with other children, where they may be supervised—but not instructed—by the adults around them.

2. How to problem-solve

It is tempting to swoop in at the first disgruntled squawk and make everything right again. We confiscate the object of the argument, set timers, or send children to play in different areas. We're good at problem-solving because we get SO MUCH practice as parents! And while some of this may be necessary for survival, our kids need some of that practice too.

So the next time your child has a problem, invite them to take part in that problem-solving process. Ask your child to describe what's going on, brainstorm solutions and try one out. You're still an active player, supporting your child through the process, but rather than doing all the solving yourself, let your child own the problem by asking, "What do you think you could do about that?"

Teaching a child to be a problem solver also means that we teach them how to fail and try again, which is another critical "soft skill." When we ask children how their solution is working out, we give them an opportunity to evaluate their experience and make improvements when necessary. We're teaching them that mistakes help us learn and move forward.

3. How to label and recognize feelings

Children who are perceptive to the emotions around them are also better able to get along well with others. You can foster this skill by calling attention to emotional cues and naming emotions. You can do this not only in your home ("I'm looking at your brother's face right now, and I don't think he's having fun." "You looked so happy when you won, your smile was like a laser beam!") but by also talking about the emotions in stories as well. ("How do you think he felt when that happened?")

Storybooks are FULL of conflict and emotion—it's often what drives the plot. These conversations about observed emotions are often easier because your child isn't tied up in the turbulent emotions themselves. From this comfortable vantage point, they're able to be more thoughtful about the emotions on the page and then apply their understanding in real life.

Another thing to keep in mind is that research has shown that excessive screen use may interfere with a child's ability to recognize emotions in others. So make sure that your kids get plenty of time playing and interacting face to face with other humans, rather than with pixels and lights on a screen.

4. How to be helpful

Being helpful to others requires children to look beyond themselves and recognize the needs of others. By noticing and complimenting your child when you notice helpful behaviors, you encourage them to continue.

Give your child simple opportunities to help within your family—putting away groceries, getting the baby's fresh diaper ready, or helping a sibling to get dressed—and then be generous with your gratitude afterward.

Point out the helpers around you and show gratitude together to instill a value of service. This may be as simple as thanking the bagger at the grocery store or taking cookies to the fire station. It can also take a fanciful twist. For my own superhero-obsessed boys, I found that equating heroes to helpers made them feel like Batman just by helping with simple tasks around our home.

5. How to control their impulses

Impulse control is a part of the executive functions directed by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area doesn't completely develop until well into early adulthood, but some of the most rapid development happens in the early childhood years. That's why children need opportunities to practice this growing skill.

That may look like the infamous marshmallow study, where a child must delay gratification and wait before consuming a treat, but it can also look like play time! Movement games that require a child to stop and go like Red Light/Green Light, Dance and Freeze, and Simon Says give kids practice quickly shifting gears and controlling their impulses to move.

Pretend play is also a great way to build these skills. By taking on a new character and an imaginative storyline, children have to plan before acting, take turns and make rules to follow. They also practice thinking outside of their own perspective and act as they think another would, rather than simply following their own impulses.

Our fast-paced society may give you the impression that your child needs to learn more academic skills—and sooner than ever before. However, the reality is that the "soft" social skills they gain in early childhood—through the slow, simple processes of playing and interacting, engaging with their families, and paying attention to the world around them—will serve them much better and for much longer.

Check out some of our favorite toys and tools for building these important social skills!

Plan Toys wooden ring toss game

Plan Toys wooden ring toss game

A fun and simple way to take turns and build concentration in the process, this wooden ring toss game engages kids (and adults!) of all ages.

$30

Plan Toys puzzle cube

Plan Toys puzzle cube

Test and hone their problem solving skills with this colorful wooden puzzle. Ideal for quiet time, the nine blocks can be configured to create a solid cube. It might take some practice!

$10

Boundless Blooms guided exercises and mantra cards

Boundless Blooms guided exercises and mantra cards

Through guided movements, breathing techniques and empowering mantras, these colorful cards are a fantastic way to introduce even the youngest kiddos to mindfulness. Together, you and your child can learn valuable skills to help them calm and better understand their big emotions.

$30

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My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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