Grades or Friends, What’s More Important: Why We Should Pay Attention to Social Competence

“The single best childhood predictor of adult adaptation is not school grades and not classroom behavior, but rather, the adequacy with which the child gets along with other children” (Hartup, W 1992).

Social competence is a broad term that describes a child that usually gets along with others, expresses opinions and feelings respectfully, demonstrates a caring attitude and understanding of others, can problem solve, plan ahead, and control impulses, and has a positive sense of self (esteem and confidence).

Social development starts at birth and should “take off” as a child enters preschool and starts to interact with peers outside of the home. We continue to develop socially into adulthood. Every day actions shape a child’s social abilities. What seems like simple acts of sharing and pretend play with peers is really the serious work of a child developing socially and cognitively. Social development is also shaped by those closest to the child. Children learn based upon how their parents and caregivers manage their emotions and their reactions to events and people.

While grades are a tangible measure of how your child is doing, social competence isn’t as clearly defined or frequently measured. It makes sense then that social competence can be overlooked. While academic performance is important, grades aren’t a measure of your child’s capacity to apply knowledge in social contexts and to succeed in a team or work setting. In fact, employer data indicates that it’s the “soft skills” versus technical skills that matter most in getting and keeping a job. Some of the most valued skills are confidence, organization, sensitivity to cultural differences, teamwork, and effective communication skills. Children need opportunities, and even direct instruction, to learn and practice social skills so as adults they can successfully interact with their coworkers, community, friends and intimate partners.

A child with even moderate social competency experiences benefits on many levels, in and out of school. “Data shows that children who are systematically taught social and emotional skills like how to manage their distressing emotions better, empathize and collaborate do better: have fewer problems such as substance abuse and violence, like school more and pay more attention in class – and score significantly better (11%, on average) on academic achievement test scores” (Goleman, 2008).

Being socially competent also pays off within the child’s peer group and influences how he/she is treated. A child struggling socially is more likely to attract negative attention, experience bullying, teasing, negative perceptions and isolation from peers, all of which harm a child’s esteem. However, a child viewed positively tends to be treated accordingly, which contributes to a sense of self-worth and confidence. Put simply, feeling positively connected to others makes us feel better about our experiences, such as school, and ourselves.

For children with special needs, difficulty fitting in can be a daily burden and contribute toward awkward social behavior. In turn, awkward social behavior can then make it even harder to fit in. It can be a vicious cycle. Many of these children experience bullying and isolation at some point both in their educational setting and during extracurricular activities (e.g., Boy Scouts, baseball team, after school program). The result is that some children retreat and either feign or lose interest in connecting with peers, while others develop inappropriate attention seeking behaviors. This obviously is a cause of concern for both parents and children and can be quite an emotionally overwhelming experience. The lack of meaningful connections with peers greatly impacts the child’s feelings about the world and about him/herself.

While it is important for children to develop effective social skills and to feel connected to others, it is also important that parents do not seek perfection. All children experience bad days when it comes to learning to negotiate the social world of school, team activities, and peer groups. Furthermore, popularity does not equate to competence, “…healthy social development does not require that a child be a “social butterfly.” The most important index to note is the quality rather than the quantity of a child’s friendships. Children (even rejected children) who develop a close friend increase the degree to which they feel positively about school over time” (Ladd, 1999).

With a solid foundation in social development, not only will our children have increased self-esteem and a strengthened ability to navigate through the complicated world of relationships, but they will also be more prepared in the workplace, and flourish wherever life takes them.

General Red Flags: Indicators that a Child Needs Greater Social Support

  1. Child feels like he/she doesn’t fit it, is rejected or lonely, and school intervention is not successful at changing this feeling.
  2. Child experiences persistent bullying from peers.
  3. Child doesn’t have that one “comrade” (friend) to confide in, laugh with, and spend time with.
  4. Child is beyond “slow to warm” by never having developed a friendship, consistently on the outskirts of social gatherings (playground, sports, and other events).
  5. Child is aggressive with peers, either verbally or physically, in such a way that he/she’s had a hard time making or maintaining friends.
  6. A child that once experienced friendship is now lonely, isolated and possibly showing signs of unhappiness.
  7. Child demonstrates awkward social behavior that inhibits positive peer interactions.
  8. Child demonstrates controlling behavior that inhibits positive peer interactions.
  9. It’s normal for children to make mistakes in friendships that sometimes cost them a friend along the way, but if a child is not learning from mistakes and is unable to change their behavior to improve social interaction, greater support is needed.

Books & Articles:

Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Random House.

Katz, L. G., & McClellan, D. E. (1997). Fostering children’s social competence: The teacher’s role. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. ED 413 073.

Kemple, K. (2004). Let’s Be Friends: Peer Competence and Social Inclusion in Early Childhood Programs. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kinsey, S. J. (2000). The relationship between prosocial behaviors and academic achievement in the primary multiage classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago.

Kostelnik, M., Whiren A., Soderman, A., Stein, L., & Gregory, K. (2002). Guiding children’s social development: Theory to practice. 4th ed. Albany NY: Delmar.

Simmons, R. (2002). Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. Florida: Harcourt Books

Web Links:

Goleman, D. (2008, Dec 22). Success: The Rest of the Story. Posted to

From, Getting Along Together: Developing Social Competence in Young Children, located at

Parents and teachers can explore Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Development,” as it offers insight into the importance of social development at every stage, from birth to adulthood, Child Development Institute