Students face many adjustments in school. From year to year, there are changes in teachers, classrooms, school and class rules and procedures, performance expectations, difficulty of the work, and peers. Their successes in negotiating these challenges predict school success.
School adjustment has been construed historically in terms of children’s academic progress or achievement (Birch & Ladd, 1996). This outcome is important, but being very limited it narrows the search for precursors and events in children’s environments that may affect adjustment. On a broader level, we might think of adjustment as involving not only children’s progress and achievement but also their attitudes toward school, anxieties, loneliness, social support, and academic motivation (e.g., engagement, avoidance, absences) (Birch & Ladd, 1996; Roeser, 1998; Roeser et al., 1998).
Investigators have argued that interpersonal relationships affect children’s academic motivation (Newman, 2000). Connell and Wellborn (1991) contended that involvement, or the quality of a student’s relationships with peers and teachers, is a powerful motivator. Ryan and Powelson (1991) noted that school learning can be promoted by learning contexts that enhance student involvement with others. Research shows that children’s loneliness and social dissatisfaction relate negatively to school achievement (Galanaki & Kalantzi-Azizi, 1999).
Researchers are increasingly studying the role of friendships, or voluntary reciprocal relationships between two children (Berndt, 1999; Birch & Ladd, 1996). Research by Ladd and his colleagues supports the proposition that friendships affect motivation and achievement (Birch & Ladd, 1996; Ladd, 1990; Ladd & Kochenderfer, 1996). Friendships support children in the school environment and assist with their adjustment (Newman, 2000). Students with a friend in the classroom can use that peer as a source of support to deal with problems and avoid becoming lonely. Friends show consistent similarities on many motivational measures including perceptions of competence, importance of meeting academic standards, and preference for challenges (Altermatt & Pomerantz, 2003).
Berndt (1992, 1999; Berndt & Keefe, 1992, 1996) proposed that friends influence one another in two ways: (1) students are affected by the attitudes, behaviors, and other characteristics of their friends; and (2) students are influenced by the quality of friendships. Both positive friend characteristics and intimate relationships affect school adjustment in constructive fashion.
Four motives affect the influence that friends have on students’ school adjustment: need for approval, identification, self-enhancement, and need to be correct. Students want to be liked, so they try to please friends and engage in actions that friends will approve of. Identification denotes the need to think and act like friends. Self-enhancement means that students compare themselves socially with friends and judge their capabilities partly on the basis of these comparisons. Need to be correct refers to a student’s desire to hold correct beliefs. Trusted friends are deemed to be important sources of information for confirming beliefs. Students can focus on what their friends are saying to gain a better understanding of the situation, rather than judging the accuracy of the source. Research supports the influence of each of these motives (Berndt & Keefe, 1996).
Berndt and Keefe (1992) found that when peer pressure operated, it often functioned in a positive rather than a negative manner. Friends often discourage negative behavior, drug and alcohol use, and poor academic performance, and encourage prosocial behavior, good studying behaviors, and academic motivation (Berndt & Keefe, 1996). Friendships can affect students’ success in the transition from elementary to junior high school. Berndt, Hawkins, and Jiao (1999) found that students with high-quality friendships that endured across the transition demonstrated increased leadership and sociability. Conversely, students’ behavior problems increased across the transition if they had stable friendships with peers high in behavior problems.
With respect to friendship quality, research shows that children and adolescents whose friendships have a positive quality display greater prosocial behavior, are more popular, hold higher self-esteem, have fewer emotional problems, have better attitudes toward school, and achieve at a higher level in school, compared with other students (Berndt & Keefe, 1996). Wentzel, Barry, and Caldwell (2004) found that friends’ prosocial behaviors predicted changes in peers’ prosocial behaviors as a function of changes in goals to behave prosocially. Friendships with negative qualities lead to less student classroom involvement and more disruptive behavior. Interestingly, number of friends is weakly correlated with school adjustment. Thus, relationship quality is more influential than quantity. Although much of this research is correlational, Berndt and Keefe (1996) also report longitudinal data showing that friendships with positive qualities increase academic involvement (motivation). In sum, there is good evidence that peers play a dynamic role in students’ school adjustment.
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