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Peer Relations in Middle Childhood (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Popularity

During middle childhood, some children seem to have many friends and others only a few. However, a central concern of many—if not all—school-agers is popularity. Popularity (also called social status) has been operationally defined by a majority of peer interaction researchers as the number of individuals who name an individual target child as “liked” or “disliked” or as a “friend” or “best friend” (Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993). Children with the most “liked” nominations are considered popular, whereas those with the most “disliked” nominations are considered rejected. Children with few or no nominations are often termed neglected. Children are considered controversial if they are both nominated frequently by some and actively disliked by others.

Boys’ social status tends to be based on social dominance, athletic ability, coolness, and toughness, whereas girls’ status depends more on family background, socioeconomic status, and physical appearance (McHale, Dariotis, & Kauh, 2003). Generally, school-age children with diverse social status classifications differ in behavior and characteristics (Newcomb, Bukowski, & Patee, 1993; Wentzel, 2003):

  • Popular Children.Tend to exhibit higher levels of positive social behavior and cognitive ability and lower levels of aggression and withdrawal than average children
  • Rejected Children.Tend to exhibit just the opposite pattern—more aggressive and withdrawn and less sociable and cognitively skilled than average children
  • Neglected Children.Tend to exhibit less social interaction and disruptive behavior but more withdrawal than average children
  • Controversial Children.Tend to be less compliant and more aggressive than average children

In addition to totaling the number of friendship nominations a particular child may receive, researchers may examine the nominations to see if they are reciprocal. Peer relations researchers often distinguish peer acceptance (i.e., the number of “liked” ratings children receive) from friendship (i.e., the number of reciprocated “friend” choices) (Asher, Parker, & Walker, 1996). The concept of peer acceptance differs from friendship because it refers to children’s relationships within a group rather than the quality of children’s dyadic relationships with individual peers. For example, peer relations researchers sometimes observe classroom or playground social interactions and chart peer relationships based on frequencies of actual contacts between acquaintances (i.e., peers children “know” but with whom they have no close reciprocated ties) (Ladd & Kochenderfer, 1996). Either method (i.e., ratings or observations) is called a sociometric classification of group acceptance and can be summarized in a visual diagram called a sociogram.

Peer acceptance may influence friendships by determining the amount of choice that children have in friends (Azmitia, Kamprath, & Linnet, 1998). Recall that in the transition to middle school, peer group sizes may increase as children attend several different classes in a typical day. For both boys and girls, the anticipated transition produced feelings of anxiety (Pratt & George, 2005). When patterns of attraction to peers were examined across the transition to middle school, researchers found that attractions to aggressive peers and to children who stand out in the peer group increase with age, especially attraction to aggressive boys among girls (Bukowski, Sippola, & Newcomb, 2000).

Girls experience less stability in the number of reciprocated friendships across the school transition than do boys, although they have similar numbers of friends overall. Girls also are more likely than boys to form new reciprocated friendships with previously unfamiliar peers, especially if they had attended relatively small elementary schools (Hardy, Bukowski, & Sippola, 2002). In other words, girls may experience more changes in friends than boys after the middle school transition.

Recall that Alesha and Mandy had just met in middle-school choir and quickly formed a new friendship, as is typical of many middle-school girls.

In a recent study, sixth-grade sociometric status (“liked-most” and “liked-least” scores) predicted eighth-grade school adjustment (Wentzel, 2003). Although the number and stability of friendships do not always contribute to adjustment in the transition to middle school, having supportive friends predicts increasing popularity (Berndt, 1989). A classroom activity called the “Class Play” is described in . This technique has proven useful for determining school-agers’ reputations in their peer groups.

Peer groups, like other organizations, have distinctive structures. In a peer group’s organization, some members are central while others are marginal, for example. In a study of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, peers’ positions in the organization of same-sex peer groups were significantly related to their social status. Peer group members who were marginal in the peer group organization were more likely to be rejected and friendless, whereas those in a central position were likely to be popular and have at least one friend (Lease & Axelrod, 2001). Furthermore, rejected children on the margins of the group were perceived by their peers as “different” in their social behavior (i.e., more odd, inattentive, excluded, shy, or anxious) compared to rejected peers who were less marginal in the peer group organization (Lease, McFall, & Viken, 2003).

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