By Allison Bond
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Preschoolers who sing, tell stories and eat dinner with their families tend to be emotionally healthier and better adjusted socially than kids who don't have such routines, a recent study has found.
Researchers examined the number of daily routines that more than 8,500 children practiced with their families. They found each ritual was linked to a 47 percent increase in the odds that children would have high so-called social-emotional health, which indicates good emotional and social skills.
Social-emotional health "allows children to express their feelings, understand others' emotions and develop and sustain healthy relationships with peers and adults," said Dr. Elisa Muniz, the study's lead author and a pediatrician at Bronx Lebanon Hospital in New York.
Such development plays a key role in enabling kids to thrive in the classroom, researchers said.
"There is strong scientific evidence that children who possess these abilities to a greater degree are more likely to succeed in school," Muniz said.
The researchers used data from a long-term study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics to gather information about kids and their families as it relates to childhood development and readiness for school.
Children in the study were taken from a national sample of those born in 2001, and data about them were collected from questionnaires, childhood assessments and interviews of the child's main caregiver. The study followed children from birth until they began kindergarten. The recent report used information about the children that had been collected when they were preschool-aged.
Researchers examined how often children participated in five family routines: having dinner as a family at least five times a week; reading, storytelling or singing at least three times a week; and playing at least a few times a week.
Kids' mothers also rated their child's social-emotional health using a 24-item survey. The children were an average of just over four years old.
Muniz and colleagues found that about 17 percent of the children had high levels of social-emotional health, and that children who took part in more family routines were more likely to be socially and emotionally advanced. The exception was reading, which was not clearly linked to social-emotional health.
For example, 11 percent of the children who had no family routines had high social-emotional health, compared to 25 percent of those whose families engaged in all five routines. Three-quarters of the children participated in at least three family routines.
The study was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Researchers said the results weren't surprising given how important ongoing nurturing interactions with caregivers are to young children's health and development.
"When you are happy and secure, you are much more able to learn and interact in healthy ways," said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who was not involved in the study.
"When (children) are unhappy, insecure or unsure of their environment, energy goes into dealing with that, and not into learning," she told Reuters Health.
Family routines also help build skills that are crucial for success in academic and social settings, she noted.
"The routines in the study can help with what we call 'executive function': skills like problem-solving, negotiation, planning and delayed gratification. Having good executive function skills is absolutely important for school success," said McCarthy.
Parents can foster kids' social-emotional health in many ways, including practicing the routines in the study. Yet the goal - spending time together to foster communication and loving relationships - can also be achieved through other activities that suit each family's schedule and interests, researchers said. These include taking family walks, making dinner together or having a family movie night.
"Every family is different, and every family knows best what will work for them," said McCarthy.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1ne22KX Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, online February 19, 2014.