STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of the things we need to learn right away in school, even in kindergarten, is how to get along. Research shows that teaching social skills in those early years is crucial. It can help people stay out of trouble well into their adult lives. NPR's Maanvi Singh visited an elementary school where a vital lesson is learning how to be friends.
MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: Today in Thomas O'Donnell's kindergarten class, we're reading about Twiggle, the anthropomorphic Turtle.
O'DONNELL: Who can tell me why my friend Twiggle here is sad?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Because he didn't have no friends.
SINGH: We're at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore, and Twiggle's helping us learn about emotions.
O'DONNELL: Who can describe what he looks like and how he feels right now? Is he looking up or down?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Down.
SINGH: Yeah, Twiggle's feeling low. But don't worry. He eventually befriends a hedgehog, a duck and a dog. And along the way, he learns how to play, help and share. All of this is part of a program called PATHS, or Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies. It was first developed in the '80s. Matthew Henson is one of about 1,500 schools in the U.S. that are using this model. Every week students, get two 15- to 20-minute lessons on themes like self-control and treating others with respect. Today in O'Donnell's class, the kindergartners are learning how to be good friends. They talk about times when they helped.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I like when you help me read books.
SINGH: And times when they shared.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I like when you share the (unintelligible) and you help me build all the stuff that I needed to build.
KENNETH DODGE: In the same way that we can teach reading literacy, we can teach social and emotional literacy.
SINGH: That's Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke University. He spent the last few decades figuring out the best ways to do just that. PATHS and other educational programs he's worked with are all based on this body of research. It shows that kids who act up a lot in school and at home, even really young kids, are more likely to have problems later. They're more likely to have mental health problems and commit crimes as adults.
DODGE: Could we do something about that to prevent those problems from actually occurring?
SINGH: To answer that, they came up with a basic framework that combined PATHS lessons with one-on-one counseling. And then they created an experiment to test it out. They identified about 900 high-risk kindergartners around the country. Half the students got emotional intelligence classes and the counseling for 10 years. The rest went to school as usual. By age 25, those were who enrolled in the special program had lower rates of arrests and fewer mental health and substance abuse issues. So what's the catch? Well, it is expensive.
DODGE: About $50,000 per child across a 10-year period of time.
SINGH: That's for the full intensive program. Schools can also pick and choose elements. It's pricey, but it does cost less per child than juvenile detention or rehab programs later on.
DODGE: This is a model that in the long run will save dollars.
SINGH: And research suggests that it does work. Several studies have found that PATHS and other programs helped all students do better academically. The Clark K-8 School in Cleveland has been using it for years. So I asked a fifth grader, how's it going?
TOMMY: You have to talk with people with respect and treat people how you want to be treated.
SINGH: That's Tommy DeJesus Jr. He's been exposed to the PATHS curriculum since he was in kindergarten. And he says he continues to use his social skills he learned from good old Twiggle, like the other day when he saw that a friend was being teased.
TOMMY: They were making fun of his shoes and how he dressed. I said, just because you have shoes and he doesn't, that doesn't give you the right to bully him.
SINGH: And the cool thing was they listened. I'm Maanvi Singh, NPR News.