Prosocial Behaviour

New research shows that boys from low-income backgrounds who inattentive in kindergarten had lower earnings at age 36 while boys who were prosocial earned more. The study was based on analysis of nearly 1,000 boys from low-income neighborhoods of Montréal. The boys assessed by kindergarten teachers at age six for inattention, hyperactivity, aggression, opposition, and prosocial behaviors and followed up for 30 years. The childhood behavioral assessments were then linked to their tax return records in adulthood.
Boys ranked in the highest one-quarter for inattention at age six later earned around US$17,000; less a year than those in the lowest quarter. Those ranked in the highest one-quarter for prosociality earned on average US$12,000 more than those ranked in the lowest quarter. The study controlled for factors known to influence earnings including other problem behaviors and the children’s intelligence and family background.
Although previous studies have linked childhood disruptive behavior and low self-control to lower earnings; this study is the first to measure earnings using tax records and to show that these behaviors can identified as early as kindergarten with effects persisting across three decades. Crucially, the study shows that after accounting for other disruptive behaviors at age six including hyperactivity, aggression, and opposition only inattention and prosocial behaviors with later earnings.

Childhood inattention and education

Longitudinal studies like this one cannot prove that early behaviors cause lower earnings; A large number of events from kindergarten onwards could have influenced earnings at age 36. One of the most important factors may educational attainment. There is a well-documented link between childhood inattention and education underachievement including failure to complete high school. These represent important barriers to obtaining more complex and often better-paid jobs.
Childhood inattention has also been linked with poor peer relations; anti-social behavior in adolescence and substance dependence; all of which could lower educational attainment and harm occupational attainment and performance. The link between childhood prosocial behavior and higher earnings is perhaps more intuitive. Children who are prosocial tend to have better peer relations, fewer adolescent behavioral problems and better educational attainment; which should positively influence employment opportunities, performance and earnings.

In the long term, childhood behaviors like inattention and prosociality can nudge children towards social and educational pathways; that lead to distinct social and economic outcomes decades later. Our study does not imply that we should push children to attentive and prosocial in the hope that they later make more money although there are many other good reasons to support and promote these behaviors.

Social and emotional learning

School-based interventions emphasize social and emotional learning including self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Programs that reduce inattention include those targeting self-control and executive functions, such as mental flexibility and impulse control; drug treatments in severe cases. One of the limitations of this study is that it focused on boys from low-income backgrounds in a large North American city; so it is unclear how findings will apply to girls or children living in other contexts.
Future studies currently underway will help address these questions. This study adds to an accumulating body of evidence showing that inattention is one of the most important early behavioral risk factors for a range of adverse life outcomes; including lower earnings. Early monitoring and support for children with high inattention and low prosocial behaviors could have a positive impact on social integration and economic participation.