The study of peer status, called sociometrics, is one of the most frequently studied topics in the elementary school years. To figure out where a child falls in a classroom in terms of peer status, scientists give each child a list of the students in their classroom and then ask if they like them, dislike them, or have no opinion. It turns out that these class ratings have some real implications for child development, both concurrently and also well into adolescence.
There are four categories of children based on sociometrics: popular, rejected, neglected, and controversial.
Children who are well liked by their peers are referred to as popular children. This isn’t necessarily popular in terms of being a powerful person within the school; it’s meant more that the person is liked by almost everybody. [a] Children who are well-liked by their peers in elementary school are friendly, sociable, helpful, sensitive – and both adults and children think that. Popular kids have good self-regulation skills, meaning that they aren’t very impulsive or emotionally volatile. Generally, these are the kids you want to be around. They are fun, easy to interact with, and you genuinely enjoy their company. This is why they are well liked by their peers.
A second group of kids are generally not liked by their peers: rejected children. Children who are rejected fall into two categories – those who are disliked because they are very aggressive and those who are disliked because they are very withdrawn/shy. Aggressive-rejected children are just that: aggressive. They engage in hostile, threatening behavior. They are physically aggressive and are likely to engage in disruptive and delinquent behavior, like stealing lunches or destroying another kid’s property. While we don’t really know if rejected kids become aggressive or aggressive kids become rejected, the reality is that it is likely both. Kids who behave aggressively towards their peers are simply less liked and this will get worse over the course of a school year. On the other side, kids who are not liked tend to be more aggressive over time. This suggests a bidirectional relationship where the two things are related – aggressive kids become less liked, and less liked kids become more aggressive. You can think of these kids as the bully of the elementary school years. Remember, though, sometimes the aggressive kids can be popular, but generally, this doesn’t happen until adolescence.
The other type of rejected children is withdrawn rejected. These youth are socially withdrawn, timid, socially anxious, and generally perceived as being shy. Sadly, these kids are often victimized by their peers and many report being lonely. By late elementary school, extremely withdrawn children tend to stand out, and they tend to be less liked than earlier in childhood. It’s important to note that not all shy children are disliked and rejected by their peers – rather, it is the shy children who are immature, emotionally unregulated, angry or deviant who are the ones who get rejected by their peers.
Children who are rejected, either because of aggressive or withdrawn behavior, have some similarities in social skills. These kids process social information a bit differently. These children also seem to interpret social situations with malicious intent. Take for instance a 3rd grader getting bumped into while waiting in line at the cafeteria. A rejected child would interpret this as a personal slight, and be likely to respond in an angry emotional or physical way. Other children would interpret this event as an accident. This is called the hostile attribution bias – when children are more likely to interpret social situations in a hostile or aggressive way. When interviewing rejected children about difficult social situations, such as sharing a toy on the playground, they are more likely to suggest hostile, demanding, threatening ways to solve the problem. One potential reason for these interpretations is that rejected children tend to have lower emotional understandings of others’ feelings and thoughts.
Neglected children are not nominated by their peers as liked or disliked. These children tend to be withdrawn and shy, and tend to be less sociable than other children. In peer interactions, these children tend to back away if an aggressive situation develops. These children perceive themselves as having less peer social support than other children. Aside from being unnoticed by their peers, these children aren’t particularly different from their peers with respect to social skills.
The final group of children is controversial children. These children are liked by a significant number or peers, but also disliked by a significant number of peers. It’s basically a 60/40 or 50/50 split in terms of being liked or disliked by your classmates. Controversial children exhibit some traits of popular children and some traits of rejected children. For instance, they are friendly, sociable, fun, and cooperative, but also are prone to aggressive, disruptive behavior. Interestingly, they are also often socially active and group leaders. At the same time, these kids are often perceived as cocky. When teaching about controversial children, I always described them to my class as the stereotypical hothead jocks in prepubertal form.
The classifications of being popular (well-liked) or neglected (not liked) are quite stable across time and hold true in cultures other than the United States. Furthermore, characteristics that make children popular, like being kind, friendly, helpful, good reading of social situations, make kids popular in every culture. There really are some universal truths out there!…at least with respect to social skills during childhood…It is also true though, that children who are controversial are likely to become either popular or rejected over time. This makes sense – if you are both liked or disliked, eventually some people are going to shift one way or the other, tipping the scale to move you into popular or rejected social status territory.
So, onto the important part…why do we care? Apart from wanting children to have good social skills to be liked by their peers and to make friends, sociometric status has some strong implications for mental health later in development. Children rejected by their peers during the elementary school years are at risk for academic and mental health problems. Children who are not liked have lower engagement in the classroom, tend to do poorly in school, and tend to be on a downward trajectory for school success as they age. Unsurprisingly, popular children during childhood, those who have developed the social skills to be well liked by their peers, tend to have the best emotional and social well being as adolescents and adults.
Before you go door-to-door polling all of your child’s classmates about whether they like or dislike your child, remember that there are quite a few skills that go into being liked in childhood. Some of the most successful peer interventions during childhood work by teaching a child social skills. All children can benefit from these. Here are two clear concrete steps:
1. Discuss and plan peer interactions with your child. How do you approach somebody? What are the ways that you can invite somebody into a friendship? What is a good response to another child being rude or mean to you? Working through all of these questions with your kids can help them develop even more advanced social skills. Talk to your children – it turns out that the more time we spend helping our children successfully navigated social situations, the better they will be at doing it on their own. Now, like everything, parent (or caregiver) intervention can be overdone. The goal is to help your child make a plan, try out the plan (on their own!), discuss how it went, and try to improve upon it.
2. Name emotions (Your emotions, their emotions, random people’s emotions.) Talk about feelings – a lot. When I am angry with my children, I say things like, “I feel frustrated right now.” I keep it simple. First I just say how I feel. Then I’ll get into why I feel that way in a simple sentence or two. When really angry at my children, I have been known to give a cruel developmental psychologist emotional pop quiz. I point at my face and say (in a very low voice), “Look at my face…how do I feel?” (Note: My kids have 100% accuracy at identifying the emotionally mad mom face.)
It is also worth noting that there are a number of professional social skills interventions for children who may need more help than school or home can offer. These programs will help your child learn, develop, and practice emotional and social skills.
It is crucial that children develop good social skills during the elementary school years to help promote long-term health and well being, from both emotional and social, and academic standpoints. As parents and caregivers of children, we need to work hard to provide opportunities for successful social interactions, and help them to develop the skills to be accepted by their peers.