Social Competence

Social competence can be defined in various ways, but most commonly as the set of skills necessary to get along with others and behave constructively in groups. This encompasses skills like empathy, emotional regulation, perspective taking, cooperation, friendliness, and social problem-solving skills.

Research shows that students with social competence often do better academically and have more positive personal relationships (Galindo & Fuller, 2010; Ladd, Herald, & Kochel, 2006; Smith & Hart, 2004; Stepp, Pardini, Loeber, & Morris, 2011).

Using research to identify the sub-skills that most likely contribute to academic success, we have chosen to focus on perspective taking, cooperation, and social problem-solving skills. Perspective taking is the ability to picture what peers are feeling and thinking, and accurately interpret and understand peers’ intentions. Cooperation is defined as working well with peers to accomplish a task. Social problem-solving is defined as resolving problems in ways that maximize positive consequences and minimize negative consequences for oneself and others.

To complete a group task, students need constructively to navigate group interactions (Ladd, Herald, & Kochel, 2006; Smith & Hart, 2004). Social problem-solving skills are important in the school context because students are faced with multiple one-on-one and group interactions with peers and teachers. These social interactions require strong social problem-solving skills (i.e. conflict resolutions skills) to resolve disagreements in constructive ways. Perspective taking is needed to be successful across social interactions, and interactions in a school context are no exception. In order for a student to work well with peers and constructively solve problems, the student needs to be able to take the perspective of his/her peers and picture what they are feeling or thinking. Perspective taking also helps students interpret and understand the intentions of others. Social skills and the ability to work cooperatively are increasingly important in our society as we become more interdependent and linked through technology and travel.

Research on Social Competence

Social competence is a precursor to social acceptance. Studies show that students who are not socially competent are more likely to experience peer rejection compared to their socially competent peers. Students with low peer acceptance are more likely to have negative school attitudes, avoid school, participate less in the classroom, and have lower levels of academic achievement compared with students who are accepted by their peers (Smith & Hart, 2004). Students with low peer acceptance are also more likely to have low emotional well-being and feel lonely (Smith & Hart, 2004). One research study involving children from European American families found that those with lower levels of social competence at age four exhibited more internalizing behaviors (e.g. depression, anxiety) at age ten, and more externalizing behaviors (e.g. problems with attention and self-regulation) at age fourteen (Bornstein, Hahn, & Haynes, 2010).

In contrast, successful social interactions improve students’ self concepts, perceptions of peers and teachers, connectedness to school, and ultimate academic achievement (Ladd, 1990; Ladd, 1999; Morison & Matsten, 1991; Smith & Hart, 2004; Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, & Castro, 2007). Research also suggests that social competence is associated with positive outcomes for both younger children and older youth. For example, analysis of data on Latino kindergarteners from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found social competence to predict stronger cognitive growth in mathematical understanding (Galindo & Fuller, 2010). Other research focused on economically disadvantaged bilingual preschoolers found a relationship between social competence and academic achievement and English proficiency (Oades-Sese, Esquivel, Kaliski, & Maniatis, 2011). Meanwhile, a longitudinal study with “at-risk” adolescent males found that high levels of social competence was associated with less involvement with delinquent peers, as well as greater levels of educational attainment in young adulthood (Stepp, Pardini, Loeber, & Morris, 2011).

Thus, it appears that social competence may affect academic outcomes by shaping a student’s feelings of connectedness to the school based on her/his interactions with peers. Additionally, social competence affects a student’s emotional well-being and the ability to cope in a school setting.

Strategies for Improving Social Competence

Use characters from literature and historical figures to encourage students to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and imagine what the characters are thinking, how they might be feeling, and why they make certain choices. Then, encourage children to do the same for a family member, a friend, or a teacher.

Give students frequent opportunities to work in groups with different children. Frequently mix up groups, and deliberately place those students together who typically do not have the chance to interact.

Use cooperative learning strategies or assign students different roles in group work, such as discussion leader, recorder, and questioner. Debrief on why it is important to work as a team and how everyone’s role is important.

Teach students conflict resolution strategies including allowing each person involved to share their perspective (thoughts and feelings) and clarify intentions, looking for a solution together that might work for students, using and being a mediator, and expressing an apology/offering forgiveness for any harm done.


Bornstein, M., Hahn, C., & Haynes, O. (2010). Social competence, externalizing, and internalizing behavioral adjustment from early childhood through developmental adolescence: Developmental cascades. Development and Psychopathology, 22, 717-735.

Galindo, C. & Fuller, B. (2010). The social competence of Latino kindergarteners and growth in mathematical understanding. Developmental Psychology, 46(3), 579-592.

Ladd, G. W. (1990). Having friends, keeping friends, making friends, and being liked by peers in the classroom: Predictors of children's early school adjustment. Child Development, 61, 1081-1100.

Ladd, G. W. (1999). Peer relationships and social competence during early and middle childhood. Annual review of psychology, 50(1), 333-335.

Ladd, G. W., Herald, S. L., & Kochel, K. P. (2006). School readiness: Are there social prerequisites?. . Early Education and Development, 17(1), 115-150.

Morison, P. & Matsten, A. S. (1991). Peer reputation in middle childhood as a predictor of adaptation in adolescence: A seven-year follow-up. Child Development, 62, 991-1007.Oades-Sese, G., Esquivel, G., Kaliski, P., & Maniatis, L. (2011). A longitudinal study of the social and academic competence of economically disadvantaged bilingual preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 47(3), 747-764.

Smith, P. K. & Hart, C. H. (Eds.). (2004). Blackwell handbook of childhood social development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stepp, S., Pardini, D., Loeber, R., & Morris, N. (2011). The relation between adolescent social competence and young adult delinquency and educational attainment among at-risk youth: The mediating role for peer delinquency. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(8), 457-465.

Valiente, C., Lemery-Chalfant, K., & Castro, K. S. (2007). Children's effortful control and academic competence: Mediation through school liking. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 53(1), 1-25.