The Parish School Blog

Aren’t Academics Enough for My Child to Be Successful? Why Social Competence Is so Important

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The push for academic success

As parents today, we all feel pressure from society to push our kids to learn letters and numbers as soon as they start talking. Read earlier, learn math, write clearly and memorize facts about science or other subjects… We buy learning apps and programs like Teach Your Baby to Read. We send them to classes to learn academics at earlier ages so they are prepared for kindergarten. We expect more from younger children than ever before.

And once they begin school, the pressure increases even more. Now, children must be reading in kindergarten, or even better – in preschool! They’re asked to sit for hours doing independent work by 1st grade.

Interestingly, this push for academic success at earlier ages has not led to better results. Reading rates remain the same, dropout rates remain high, and our students seem less prepared for the work force. We’ve all heard the stories of children who were academically successful in high school, only to fail in college and adulthood. Nearly everyone knows there is something missing for today’s children.

Professionals and researchers point out resilience, grit, critical thinking, organization skills, self-regulation, and social competence as all lacking in today’s children. But why? We could theorize about screen time, lack of outdoor play, too much time sitting, pushing down the academic curriculum and much more. But whatever the cause, we know these missing abilities are critical to our children’s success in life.

girl doing homework

What are the top indicators of success in adult life?

Research emphasizes that rather than grades, social competence is one of two indicators of success in adult life (the other is grit). David Bornstein’s article in the New York Times, “Teaching Social Skills To Improve Grades And Lives” summarizes some of these studies. One particular article highlights findings from Duke and Pennsylvania State universities. They found in a 20-year study, that kindergarteners who scored higher on social skills abilities, such as sharing, problem solving and cooperating with peers, were more likely to have a job by age 25 and earn a college degree than those who scored lower. Those who scored lower were more likely to live on public housing, not graduate, be arrested or not have a job.

Two major programs have risen supporting children’s social emotional development across our nation: Social Emotional Learning and Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports. Many schools realize that they must teach more than just the academic standards; they must help children to become more socially competent.

Likely, most people would agree that social competence is important for forming friendships, sharing, playing with others, collaborating and having conversations with others. However, we also use our social learning any time we share space with others, read a fiction book, sit in a classroom, watch a funny video, sit in a business meeting, or even when we choose a greeting card for a friend. When learning academics, our social mind helps us to comprehend what we read, pick out the main idea, infer, learn concepts, write cohesively and clearly, participate in class discussions, and stay organized. Without our social mind, we stay locked in rote learning. In other words, our social competence helps us to be more successful at the academic curriculum, at work and in life. Without social competence, we struggle to get a job, keep a job, and manage the tasks of our life.

friends telling secrets

What does it take to be socially competent?

Social competence involves both social thinking and social skills. We consider the situation or context and what we know about other people’s thoughts, motives, intentions, feelings, beliefs, personalities and preferences. This information is processed and interpreted in our mind (social thinking) and will then inform our behavioral choices in response (social skills).

Social competence also means we realize that our actions affect other people’s thoughts. Our actions and words cause others to have feelings, which causes them to react to those feelings. This, in turn, affects how we feel about ourselves. We call this the Social Emotional Chain Reaction. Michelle Garcia Winner’s approach Social Thinking® defines these processes and offers many teaching frameworks to help others with their social learning.


To determine whether your own child is socially competent, consider whether they are able to:

  • Establish joint attention (they can follow the eye gaze or point of other people)
  • Figure out what others are thinking, feeling or intending
  • Adapt their behavior around a situation and other people’s thoughts
  • Be flexible and shift their ideas or plans
  • Share imagination and picture what someone else is talking about
  • Socially attend to the people around them
  • Interpret social and academic information
  • Solve problems and make decisions
  • Stay organized and complete tasks over time
  • Form and keep friendships

If you’re concerned about your child’s social competence, check out Look for therapists who offer groups that focus on teaching social thinking. For information on Social Thinking® groups at The Parish School or how the approach is implemented in our classrooms, visit