School Completion and Academic Success: The Impact of Early Social-Emotional Competence
Shelley Hymel, PhD, Laurie Ford, PhD
University of British Columbia, Canada
The vast majority of Canadian youth (aged 18 to 20) graduate from high school (75.8%), and another 12.8% go on to higher education.1 However, 11.4% of Canadian youth leave school early, with a greater proportion of male than female dropouts (14.7% vs. 9.2%). Although dropout rates have declined over the past decade, from 18% in 1991 (School Leavers Survey) to 11.4% in 1999, current figures represent over 137,000 youth who fail to complete a basic education. Early school withdrawal represents a loss for both the individual and community, in terms of reduced potential as contributors to society as well as costs for unemployment, welfare, and other social services.2,3 In economic terms, Cohen (1998)4 determined that a single high school drop out can cost $243,000–$388,000 (US$).
Subject and Problems
What distinguishes school graduates from dropouts? Research suggests that the paths toward academic success and school completion begin at birth and are likely attributable to many different factors, both biological and environmental.5,6 However, research on school completion has focused primarily on the school years, and on risk factors associated with early school withdrawal and academic failure, with particular attention to student academic skills and family characteristics. For example, we know that students who drop out tend to be less intellectually competent, receive lower grades and achievement scores, and are more likely to have been “held back.”1,7 Dropouts are also more likely to come from lower income and single-parent homes.1,8 Their parents tend to be less involved and demanding with their children, provide less educational support,9-13 and are less likely to model educational attainment.1,8 Academic ability and family support are only part of the picture, however. Although dropout rates are higher among lower income and single-parent families, the majority of dropouts come from 2-parent, middle-income homes.1,8,14 Similarly, although school dissatisfaction tops the list of reasons given for dropping out,15,16 difficulty with schoolwork is cited by less than one-third of dropouts.14 Instead, students cite difficulties in teacher and peer relationships, feeling unsafe or that they did not belong at school, and having friends who already left school as their main reasons for dropping out. Thus, in addition to academic difficulties and limited family support, students who drop out fail to develop a sense of connectedness to the school milieu, citing social-emotional factors as being equally important considerations in understanding academic failure and school dropout.17,18
Research: Context and Recent Results
A growing body of research has found that socio-emotional competence is critical for both academic performance and life success,19-23 and that caring relationships and support within the school community are essential for optimal student learning.24-27 A recent social policy review by Raver22 shows that children who have difficulty socially (eg, getting along with peers) and/or emotionally (eg, controlling negative emotions) demonstrate poorer school adjustment and performance. In fact, children’s early interpersonal behaviour predicts academic performance as well or better than intellectual factors,28 and even after the potentially confounding effects of academic behaviour and IQ are taken into account.29,30 These links are evident early on, with children’s social behaviour (eg, aggression) as well as low socio-economic status and early academic difficulties being associated with decreased likelihood of graduation.5,11,13 Moreover, recent longitudinal studies31 suggest that these associations are likely causal, with performance during the early school years being based on early social and emotional development.
Positive peer relationships can be a protective factor, supporting a child’s academic pursuits, with studies showing that peers can serve as effective socialization agents for school engagement and motivation.31-35 As early as kindergarten and throughout school, having a friend and being well liked are associated with higher academic performance, more positive attitudes towards school, and less school avoidance.36,37,31 In contrast, being rejected or friendless at school, as well as being aggressive, places children at risk for poor academic performance, grade retention, absenteeism, and truancy, both concurrently and in subsequent years.7,36,38 However, the impact of early peer relationship difficulties is multifaceted, with poor school adjustment associated with both peer victimization39-41 and peer aggression/antisocial behaviour.42-44 It should be noted that this process appears to be a gradual one. For example, being unpopular and rejected during the elementary school years predicts subsequent school dropout, with rejected children being marginalized and ostracized, gradually disengaging from the school milieu.7 Given their failure to integrate with mainstream peers, it is not surprising that early school leavers are less involved in school extra-curricular activities1 and more likely to associate with other marginalized peers, who place little value on educational success8,10,45
Equally important are relationships with adults. Even after controlling for cognitive ability, later school performance is linked to the early influences of teachers as well as parents.46 Positive relationships with teachers are associated with better academic performance29,30 and more positive attitudes toward school,47 even as early as kindergarten.36 As Raver22 points out, children with social-emotional difficulties can be “tough to teach” and problematic relationships with kindergarten teachers are strong predictors of academic difficulties and school adjustment both concurrently48 and across the elementary years.49 Thus, failure to establish positive relationships early on may begin a downward cycle of school (dis)engagement. Indeed, fewer dropouts (60%) report that they get along well with teachers than do graduates (88.6%).1
Research on the early social-emotional underpinnings of academic performance and school completion is limited. Most studies involve school-aged children, with few studies focusing on the earliest years of school.36 Moreover, the links between school performance and social-emotional difficulties may well be reciprocal,22 with early learning problems contributing to negative social behaviour, and vice versa. Children’s transition to full-time schooling as well as their progress over the first years of school (kindergarten to grade 2) are believed to constitute a critical periods for academic and social development,46 which, in turn, contributes to school success. Given the interface of social-emotional and academic competence, however, it becomes important to understand the precursors of early social-emotional behaviour before children enter school, during the 0 to 5 period. Social-emotional competence is believed to have its roots in children’s early temperament and language ability, as well as their earliest relationships with caregivers, which provide a foundation for subsequent interpersonal relations.50 To fully understand the factors that contribute to school success, therefore it is imperative to broaden our focus and consider an ecological and developmental perspective on the problem, considering biological, academic, familial, and social-emotional factors and their interplay. To date, few studies have examined early social-emotional markers in relation to academic outcomes, although longitudinal studies such as the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth51 hold great promise in this regard.
From the studies that do exist, we know that a significant number of children display social-emotional difficulties that interfere with their relationships with both adults and peers, affecting their school engagement, performance, and their potential to become competent adults and productive citizens.52 One in five youth display problems severe enough to warrant mental health services.53-55 In light of these findings, dealing with social and emotional problems in the schools is one component of a larger educational mandate — to prepare students to function effectively in a complex social world. British Columbia’s Ministry of Education has taken a unique step in this regard by making social responsibility one of four “foundational skills,” as important as reading, writing, and numeracy. Evidence-based, early intervention programs that enhance social-emotional development are needed,22 along with efforts to evaluate the efficacy of new, promising programs (eg, Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy). Provision of adequate teacher training in social-emotional development is also critical. We have long recognized the importance of early intervention (eg, Perry Preschool Project, Head Start), but such efforts need to be based on a solid understanding of the early precursors to social and emotional behaviour and the complex ways in which characteristics of child and family interact with the social context in which a child functions, recognizing the importance social-emotional functioning in facilitating school completion and academic success across the school years.
- Bowlby JW, McMullen K. At a crossroads: First results from the 18 to 20-year-old cohort of the Youth in Transition Survey. Ottawa, Ontario: Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada; 2002. No. 81-591-XIE.
- McCaul EJ, Donaldson GA, Coladarci T, Davis WE. Consequences of dropping out of school: Findings from high school and beyond. Journal of Educational Research 1992;85(4):198-207.
- Tremblay RE. When children’s social development fails. In: Keating DP, Hertzman C, eds. Developmental health and the wealth of nations: Social, biological, and educational dynamics. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 1999:55-71.
- Cohen MA. The monetary value of saving a high-risk youth. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 1998;14(1):5-33.
- Audas R, Willms JD. Engagement and dropping out of school: A life-course perspective. Ottawa, Ontario: Applied Research Branch. Strategic Policy. Human Resources Development Canada; 2001. No. W-01-1-10E.
- Shonkoff JP, Phillips DA. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2000.
- Hymel S, Comfort C, Schonert-Reichl K, McDougall P. Academic failure and school dropout: The influence of peers. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social motivation: Understanding Children’s School Adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:313-345.
- Gilbert S, Devereaux MS, eds. Leaving School: Results from a national survey comparing school leavers and high school graduates 18 to 20 years of age. Ottawa, Ontario: Human Resources and Labour Canada; 1993.
- Christensen SL, Sheridan SM. Schools and Families: Creating essential connections for learning. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2001.
- Ekstrom RB, Goertz ME, Pollack JM, Rock DA. Who drops out of high school and why? Findings from a national study. Teachers College Record 1986;87(3):356-373.
- Ensminger ME, Slusarcick AL. Paths to high school graduation or dropout: A longitudinal study of a first-grade cohort. Sociology of Education 1992;65(2):95-113.
- Howell FM, Frese W. Early transition into adult roles: Some antecedents and outcomes. American Educational Research Journal 1982;19(1):51-73.
- Rumberger RW. Dropping out of middle school: A multilevel analysis of students and schools. American Educational Research Journal 1995;32(3):583-625.
- McMillen M, Kaufman P. Dropout Rates in the United States: 1992. Washington, DC: National Centre for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, US Department of Education; 1993. No. NCES 93-464. Available at: https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=93464. Accessed February 22, 2017.
- Goertz ME, Ekstrom RB, Rock D. Dropouts, high school: Issues of race and sex. In: Lerner RM, Petersen AC, Brooks-Gunn J, eds. Encyclopedia of Adolescence. Vol 1. New York, NY: Garland; 1991:250-253.
- O’Sullivan RG. Validating a method to identify at-risk middle school students for participation in a dropout prevention program. Journal of Early Adolescence 1990;10(2):209-220.
- Rumberger RW. High school dropouts: A review of issues and evidence. Review of Educational Research 1987;57(2):101-122.
- Hahn A. Reaching out to America’s dropouts: What to do? Phi Delta Kappan 1987;69(4):256-263.
- Goleman D. Emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1995.
- Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996.
- McClelland MM, Morrison FJ, Holmes DL. Children at risk for early academic problems: The role of learning-related social skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2000;15(3):307-329.
- Raver CC. Emotions matter: Making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. Social Policy Report 2002;16(3):3-18.
- Wentzel KR, Asher SR. The academic lives of neglected, rejected, popular, and controversial children. Child Development 1995;66(3):754-763.
- Battistich V, Solomon D, Watson M, Schaps E. Caring school communities. Educational Psychologist 1997;32(3):137-151.
- Goodenow C. Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescence 1993;13(1):21-43.
- Noddings N. The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press; 1992.
- Ryan RM, Powelson CL. Autonomy and relatedness as fundamental to motivation and education. Journal of Experimental Education 1991;60(1):49-66.
- Horn WF, Packard T. Early identification of learning problems: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology 1985;77(5):597-607.
- Wentzel KR. Does being good make the grade? Social behavior and academic competence in middle school. Journal of Educational Psychology 1993;85(2):357-364.
- Wentzel KR. Social goals and social relationships as motivators of school adjustment. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social Motivation: Understanding Children’s School Adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:226-247.
- Ladd GW, Kochenderfer BJ, Coleman CC. Classroom peer acceptance, friendship, and victimization: Distinct relational systems that contribute uniquely to children’s school adjustment? Child Development 1997;68(6):1181-1197.
- Berndt TJ, Keefe K. Friends’ influence on school adjustment. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:248-178.
- Connell JP, Wellborn JG. Competence, autonomy, and relatedness: A motivational analysis of self-system processes. In: Gunnar MR, Sroufe LA, eds. Self processes in development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1991:43-77. The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology; vol. 23.
- Kindermann TA, McCollam TL, Gibson EJr. Peer networks and students’ classroom engagement during childhood and adolescence. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social Motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:279-312.
- Ryan AM. Peer groups as a context for the socialization of adolescents’ motivation, engagement, and achievement in school. Educational Psychologist 2000;35(2):101-111.
- Birch SH, Ladd GW. Interpersonal relationships in the school environment and children’s early school adjustment: The role of teachers and peers. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social Motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:199-225.
- Berndt TJ, Keefe K. Friends’ influence on adolescents’ adjustment to school. Child Development 1995;66(5):1312-1329.
- McDougall P, Hymel S, Vaillancourt T, Mercer L. The consequences of childhood peer rejection. In: Leary MR, ed. Interpersonal Rejection. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2001:213-247.
- Haynie DL, Nansel T, Eitel P, Crump AD, Saylor K, Yu K, Simons-Morton B. Bullies, victims and bully/victims: Distinct groups of at risk youth. Journal of Early Adolescence 2001;21(1):29-49.
- Hodges EVE, Perry DG. Victims of peer abuse: An overview. Reclaiming Children & Youth: Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 1996;5(1):23-28.
- Juvonen J, Nishina A, Graham S. Peer harassment, psychological adjustment, and school functioning in early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology 2000;92(2):349-359.
- Cairns RB, Cairns BD, Neckerman HJ. Early school dropout: Configurations and determinants. Child Development 1989;60(6):1437-1452.
- Kupersmidt JB, Coie JD. Preadolescent peer status, aggression, and school adjustment as predictors of externalizing problems in adolescence. Child Development 1990;61(5):1350-1362.
- Ladd GW, Birch SH, Buhs ES. Children’s social and scholastic lives in kindergarten: Related spheres of influence? Child Development 1999;70(6):1373-1400.
- Rumberger RW. Dropping out of high school: The influence of race, sex, and family background. American Educational Research Journal 1983;20(2):199-220.
- Entwisle DR, Alexander KL, Olson LS. Children, schools, and inequality. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press; 1997.
- Skinner EA, Belmont MJ. Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology 1993;85(4):571-581.
- Birch SH, Ladd GW. The teacher-child relationship and children’s early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology 1997;35(1):61-79.
- Hamre BK, Pianta RC. Early teacher-child relationships and the trajectory of children’s school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development 2001;72(2): 625-638.
- Rubin KH, Bukowski W, Parker JG. Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. In: Eisenberg N, ed. Social emotional and personality development. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons; 1998:619-700. Damon W, ed. Handbook of child psychology; vol 3.
- Willms JD, ed. Vulnerable children: Findings from Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press; 2002.
- Greenberg MT, Domitrovich C, Bumbarger B. The prevention of mental disorders in school-aged children: Current state of the field. Prevention & Treatment 2001;4:1-48.
- Offer D, Schonert-Reichl KA. Debunking the myths of adolescence: Findings from recent research. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 1992;31(6):1003-1014.
- Offord DR, Boyle MH, Racine YA. The epidemiology of antisocial behavior in childhood and adolescence. In: Pepler DJ, Rubin KH, eds. The development and treatment of childhood aggression. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1991:31-54.
- Romano E, Tremblay RE, Vitaro F, Zoccolillo M, Pagani L. Prevalence of psychiatric diagnoses and the role of perceived impairment: Findings from an adolescent community sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 2001;42(4):451-461.
How to cite this article:
Hymel S, Ford L. School Completion and Academic Success: The Impact of Early Social-Emotional Competence. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Vitaro F, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/school-success/according-experts/school-completion-and-academic-success-impact-early-social. Updated May 2014. Accessed June 12, 2021.