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Social and academic functioning are interrelated cornerstones of positive youth development, yet little is known about how the relationships between these functional domains vary by type of achievement and timing of assessments over key developmental periods. Plausibly, the relationship of children’s social competence (cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and self-control in social situations) with academic functioning differs for teacher assigned grades (school achievement) versus standardized assessments (cognitive achievement). Moreover, the relationship between social and academic functioning likely changes as children begin secondary school, as normative processes of biological and social maturation as well as increasingly complex demands for functioning may strain adaptive capacities and influence later functioning. This study aims to disentangle the timing and direction of potentially recursive relationships involving children’s social competence, school achievement, and cognitive achievement from 3rd through 9th grade, accounting for adolescent social (demographics, parenting) and maturational factors (timing of puberty and secondary transition).
Data from 1,048 children in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) were analyzed using longitudinal structural equation modeling. Mothers reported children’s social competence from 3rd – 9th grade on the Social Skills Rating System. Teachers rated children’s reading and mathematics achievement; cognitive achievement was individually assessed via the standardized Woodcock Johnson Achievement Test-Revised. Analyses adjusted for demographic factors, timing of transition to middle school, clinician-assessed age of pubertal onset, and parenting quality.
Results presented in Figure 1 and Table 1 identify: 1) developmental pathways from children’s social competence in grades 3 and 5 to later school achievement in grades 5 and 6; 2) developmental pathways between children’s school and cognitive achievement in both directions across all grades; 3) the magnitude of developmental pathways and contemporaneous associations involving social competence and school achievement increase as children begin secondary school, while the magnitude of the relationships between school and cognitive achievement decrease during this same period; and 4) that demographic characteristics and adolescent social and maturational factors are important to average levels of functioning, but do not alter the direction and timing of developmental pathways between domains of functioning.
The increasing importance of social competence upon entry into late childhood and its relationship to children’s later school achievement suggests that social competence promotion in late elementary school may yield the most powerful effects on school achievement in middle and high school. Data underscore the need for research to include extended follow-up periods to understand lagged effects and developmental changes in cross-domain functioning. Moreover, the decline in the effect of children’s cognitive achievement on their subsequent school achievement during this time period suggests the need for research on how to foster school achievement commensurate with cognitive ability during this developmental transition. These population-level findings suggest the importance of providing programs universally to equip older children and young adolescents with the skills to navigate their increasingly complex social and academic environments during the transition to adolescence and secondary school.