Equipping Kids with Social Skills: Role for CSAs

Thursday, June 25, 2015

There is dispute about whether economic mobility prospects are really decreasing, compared to prior generations. There seems little doubt, however, that the stakes have gotten higher, making consideration of the indisputably low levels of upward mobility in the United States increasingly urgent.

In other words, with greater inequality, the gaps between 'levels' have grown, so one's difficulties in getting up a notch are all the more troubling.

Educational attainment is strongly correlated with one's chances of ascent, and, so, the growing class achievement gap is a prime culprit for the difficulties that poor children have, today, in climbing up and out.

There are many dimensions of these differences in educational attainment, of course, and many potential intervention approaches. In explaining the alarmingly low state of mobility, Putnam affords significant weight to the deficits manifest by economically-disadvantaged children in the area of social-emotional capability. These interpersonal skills help to shape how children experience and engage in education, how they navigate the social relationships that broker opportunities, and how they view themselves and their chances.

There is evidence that they may be particularly determinant of how well children do, mediating the educational experience and equipping young people for successful navigation of life beyond school, too. Putnam's book describes research from Canada showing that these social and emotional skills increase academic achievement and economic opportunity (p. 115). Other analysts have come to similar conclusions, underscoring the academic and workforce implications of these social and emotional abilities, and urging policymakers to prioritize development of these skills, within education reform efforts.

To cultivate social and emotional competency, preschool years may be particularly formative (p. 117), since most executive functions develop between ages 3-5. As much or even more than academic knowledge and skills, these abilities may be cumulative, since social/emotional competencies make later learning more efficient and more effective (p. 111). Significantly, these critically-important 'soft skills' are particularly fostered through parental investments and social engagement, areas even more marked by stark inequities than the arena of, for example, public education. Even those inputs that come from outside the home are highly influenced by parental attributes; high-income children, for example, are more likely to have access to informal mentoring, brokered through their parents' larger and more advantaged social networks.

Putnam outlines some policy interventions that could help to forge these social and emotional attributes, to gird students for greater academic success, including direct income transfers (p. 134) and concentrating economic supports on parents with very young children (p. 246). Others have recommended changes to the classroom that could equip students to better navigate the social and emotional landscapes of education.

In light of research from the SEED for Oklahoma Kids demonstration, however, linked above, assets deserve to be part of this effort, one of the tools brought to bear on this essential task of equipping children socially and emotionally for school and life success. Even compared to other, potentially valuable, approaches, CSAs have much to recommend them for this task:

  • Children's Savings Accounts can be delivered at or near birth, difficult to do with most educational interventions, meaning that there is less time for inequities to set in, before charting an improved trajectory for those most disadvantaged.
  • Approaches like Promise Indiana's cultivation of 'champions' may activate mentor relationships, helping disadvantaged children surround themselves with a cadre of adults invested in their overall well-being
  • CSAs situated within the school may serve to increase personnel's expectations for talented but economically disadvantaged children, cultivating an identity consistent with achievement and fostering an identity consistent not only with academic achievement but also stronger emotional well-being
  • SEED OK's experiences suggest that CSAs can work directly on children and, simultaneously, on parents. This represents the potential for multilevel, multigenerational, effects, universally delivered. While there are other interventions well-suited to building children's social and emotional competency, and, similarly, to equipping parents to engage with their children in ways that foster such development, it is difficult to find many examples of interventions with very young children that can realize such gains with both parents and children, in tandem.
  • Significantly, emerging evidence from SEED OK suggests that these positive effects may be possible even without parents' active saving. This raises tremendous prospects for cultivating these instrumental abilities even before sparking current behavior changes, effects that could go a long way toward ameliorating inequities.

Perhaps most crucially, however, CSAs have the potential to achieve these gains in social and emotional competency, and, then, to catalyze greater achievement among low-income and otherwise disadvantaged youth, with an intervention that aligns with what Americans think about individual effort and ability, how each should be rewarded, and why avoiding 'handouts' makes good opportunity policy. If, as Putnam convincingly argues, making more Americans consider disadvantaged children 'ours' is the greatest hurdle to constructing an economic and educational landscape that will redeem the promise of the American Dream, then we need an approach that people see as consistent with--not corrosive of--our collective narrative.

We may draw increasingly small circles around the children to whom we consider that we owe a significant responsibility.

But we may be convinced to pull more young people into that sphere of concern if the intervention under consideration is one consistent with our idea about how people should get ahead and, indeed, the way the world should work.

If the most effective tool is the one that is really used, then the growing momentum and interest around CSAs--and the growing sense that children's outcomes today are out of step with how Americans want to see ourselves--may suggest that CSAs are the right tool for the job of getting kids socially and emotionally prepared for success.

Our kids deserve an equitable chance to succeed. All of them. That means making sure they can achieve not only competency in the 3 Rs, but also the less tangible 'savvy', as Putnam calls it (p. 216) that enables some to deftly navigate opportunities, dodge obstacles, and chart an upward course.

So our kids deserve Children's Savings Accounts.

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