It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Marathon

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally Published in Youth Today Newspaper

In the “good research is a footnote to common sense” department, a new Harvard University study has found that positive developmental experiences in kindergarten have long-term beneficial effects – including higher adult earnings. 

The basic story is this: A team of economists examined the life paths of 12,000 children who had participated in a highly regarded education experiment in Tennessee during the 1980s. By age 30, the young adults who had learned much more in kindergarten – compared with peers from similar backgrounds who had gained less from early education experiences – were less likely to have become single parents and more likely to have gone to college, to be saving for retirement and to earn higher incomes. In assessing these results, the researchers hypothesized that the work habits children acquired in high-quality kindergarten classes – such as patience, discipline, good manners and perseverance – accounted for the critical difference.

This interpretation will come as no surprise to youth workers. We have long understood that the road to productive adulthood is paved with opportunities to acquire and practice a wide variety of life skills. While most of us never really bought into the argument that we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, we believed that the foundations of good work habits and solid interpersonal skills are laid in early childhood and reinforced, day by day, through adult-guided practice. That is the essence of parenting, teaching and youth work. The very language we use to describe our work – youth development – connotes this basic insight.

The importance of life skills and the complex nature of acquiring them are reinforced in a wonderful new book by Ellen Galinsky, titled Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs (HarperCollins, 2010). Galinsky devotes separate chapters to each skill: focus and self- control; perspective-taking; communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and self-directed, engaged learning. 

If Galinsky’s seven life skills sound familiar, maybe that is because they map so nicely onto the “new basics” that we’ve heard about over the past 15 years. For example, in their landmark study titled Teaching the New Basic Skills (The Free Press, 1996), researchers Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy reported that the skills most valued by employers are critical thinking, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and teamwork – in addition to literacy, numeracy and technology skills. Subsequently, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an alliance of leaders from business, education and human services, affirmed the importance of these so-called “soft skills,” in combination with academic and technology knowledge. 

Of course, as youth workers, we recognize that productive adulthood means more than mere participation in the labor force. It also entails active involvement in family life and citizenship.  Galinsky’s framework is an excellent guide that can help parents, teachers and youth workers connect the dots between early childhood and productive adulthood as they prepare young people for success in all three arenas.

Take, for example, the “essential skill” of communicating. The developmental tasks in early childhood – learning to speak and to understand the meaning of words – form the basis of more complex tasks, such as reading (decoding, then comprehending) and writing. But as young people acquire these skills, we raise the ante and expect them to make judgments about what exactly they want to communicate, and to discern how their utterances are understood by others. Clearly, effective communication is an essential element of productive adulthood, and yet it is the very skill that teachers and employers feel is most lacking in young people today.

Youth workers can play a central role in helping adolescents and young adults acquire this and other life skills. We can model clear communication and active listening, and we can design rich experiences that foster skill development through theater programs, poetry slams, debate clubs and public advocacy opportunities. Many programs that build solid communication skills also foster development of other essentials. Think of what young people gain from participating in youth leadership activities such as Study Circles (also known as Everyday Democracy). Using this methodology, young people work in groups to research community issues that concern them, identify possible solutions, present their ideas to adult leaders (such as elected officials) and work in youth-adult teams to take a course of action. 

Finally, as youth workers, we recognize that building life skills takes time. We know we’re coaching long-distance runners.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.