Sociometric assessment can be defined as the measurement of interpersonal relationships in a social group. Sociomet-ric measurement or assessment methods provide information about an individual's social competence and standing within a peer group. School-based sociometric assessment often focuses on a child's relationships with regard to social popularity, peer acceptance, peer rejection, and reputation. Some sociometric assessment methods derive information on social relationships by assessing children's positive and negative social perceptions of one another, whereas other methods involve adult (teacher, parent) and self perceptions of children's social competencies or standing. Sociometric assessment methods were introduced in the 1930s and advanced in the journal Sociometry. In the 1950s, several books were published on the topic and sociometric measurements often were part of research and school-based assessments of social relationships. The use of classic sociometric procedures declined in the following decades, due to the advancement of social behavior rating scales and ethical concerns regarding the use of peer nomination methods with children.
There are a variety of what can be referred to as classic sociometric assessment techniques derived from the work of the 1930s, including peer nomination, peer rankings, and sociometric rankings. In the peer nomination technique, children in a social group or school classroom anonymously identify social preferences for their classmates. For example, children may be asked to provide a list of the three classmates with whom they would most like to play and the three with whom they would least like to play. Another peer nomination technique (see Figure 1) is to provide a list of the names of the children in a classroom along with social acceptance items (e.g., “Who do you like to play with?” “Who is most likely to be alone during recess?” “Who gets into trouble the most?”). The children are asked to identify perhaps one to three classmates who they perceive best fit the item description.
An alternative peer nomination method for early readers is to use photographs with an adult reading the items aloud in either an individual or classroom setting while the children provide a nomination for a child, perhaps by assigning a smiling or frowning face to the photograph that applies. Another variation of the peer nomination method is the class play. In this procedure children cast their peers in positive and negative roles in an imaginary play. The class play has the potential advantage of being more acceptable in school settings because the positive and negative role assignments may be perceived as a more discreet method for identifying children's social standing. For each of the methods described, the nominations may be summed for each child and the results are used to identify those children who are perceived as most socially positive or negative by their peers.
Two other sociometric techniques can be described as peer ratings and sociometric rankings. Peer ratings are conducted by providing a list of children's names in the social group or classroom along with a rating for social acceptance items such as “The most fun to play with,”
“The least fun to play with,” and “Has the most friends.” The rating methods that are used may vary, typically ranging from three- to five-point Likert-type responses (e.g., Agree, Neutral, Disagree). In contrast to peer nominations and ratings, sociometric rankings are completed by an adult, most often the classroom teacher who has had the opportunity to observe the children in multiple social settings such as the classroom, playground, and cafeteria. In this method, teachers rank the children on social dimensions similar to those provided by peers.
Each of these sociometric assessment methods has strengths and limitations. Researchers have found that each method appears to be valid for identifying children's social standing. Peer ratings and adult rankings appear to provide the most reliable or stable measurements and, as such, may be more useful than the peer nomination method. A major issue that arises with each of these methods is the concept of social validity, which refers to the acceptance, usefulness, and potential harm of an assessment procedure. The applications of sociometric assessment methods have resulted in controversy and ethical concerns regarding their use. These concerns center on the use of negative peer nominations and the possibility that children will compare responses which may result in negative social and emotional consequences for children who are not positively perceived by their peers. These concerns contributed to the decline in the acceptance and use of sociometric assessment methods, particularly in school settings. However, researchers have found no strong evidence that negative consequences occur for either the children who are rating or those being rated; therefore, sociometric assessment continues to be used as a research tool for understanding children's social relationships.
Although the term sociometrics has been most often applied to the assessment methods described above, in a broader context the term can be applied to related assessment measures of social functioning. These methods tend to focus on children's social competencies and skills rather than measuring only social standing or peer acceptance. Because these methods are more often used in practical applications in school settings, they are briefly described here.
Social Behavior Rating Scales. Social behavior rating scales represent one of the most frequently used measures of social competence. These rating scales are designed for gathering data on the frequency of occurrence of specific skills or behaviors. Some rating scales focus on social problem behaviors and others are designed specifically to assess children's social skills. For example, a social skills rating scale may contain items such as “Appropriately invites friends to play” or “Controls temper in conflicts with adults” which are rated on a frequency scale (e.g., Never, Sometimes, Always). Depending on the measure, ratings can be gathered from parents or parent surrogates, teachers, and when appropriate from the children themselves. Rating scales in essence provide summary observations of a child's social behavior. Gathering data from these multiple sources can facilitate understanding different perspectives regarding a child's social skills in home and school settings. Well designed social skills rating scales have been found to be reliable and valid measures.
Observation Methods. Observation methods are used to gather information about a child's social skills in natural settings, such as in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and on the playground. Observation methods can be highly structured wherein defined behaviors are measured for frequency of occurrence or measured for occurrence during specified time periods or intervals. For example, a child's play behavior may be observed during recess by a school psychologist who records every 30 seconds whether the child was playing alone or with others. Other observation methods are less structured and rely on a narrative approach for describing a child's social interactions. Observation methods often include focus on the environmental variables that may increase or decrease a child's social skills, such as the reactions of peers and adults to a child's attempts at initiating conversation. Observations also can be conducted in what is known as analogue assessment, which involves having a child role-play social scenarios and observing the child's performance. Whereas rating scales provide summary measures that rely on some level of recall, observations have the advantage of directly sampling a child's behavior in actual social contexts or settings, thereby increasing the validity of the assessment. The limitations of observations are that multiple observers are required to ensure reliable assessment (interobserver agreement) and observations are more time intensive. Thus in applied settings they may provide limited information due to time constraints.
Interview Methods. Interview methods are used to gather information about a child's social skill strengths and weaknesses, and to aid in the identification of specific skill deficits for intervention. Interviews can be used separately with children, parents or parent surrogates, and teachers, or conjointly with multiple sources. Interviews can be structured, with a focus on the identification and treatment of specific social skills, or interviews can be less structured, with a greater focus on feelings and perceptions about a child's social skills. As with rating scales, interview data can be viewed as summary recall information which should be validated with direct observation.
The assessment methods described often are combined in a comprehensive social skills assessment that may include rating scales, observations, and interviews. Using multiple methods of assessment is considered best practice because the use of more than one assessment method increases the likelihood that the behaviors which are targeted for classification or intervention are valid, and that specific social skills strengths and deficits are clearly defined. It is also important to use multiple assessment methods to monitor a child's progress and to assess the effectiveness of an intervention.
In educational practice, sociometric assessment most often is used to determine eligibility for special education and for intervention for adaptive behaviors or socio-emotional problems. Children identified with special education needs, such as learning problems, mental retardation, attention deficit disorders, and autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger's syndrome, may benefit from assessment and intervention toward enhancing their social skills. In the general education population, children may benefit who are shy, rejected, or engage in bullying or aggressive behaviors or who simply have limited social skills. Most of the classic sociometric assessment methods are not used in educational practice, partly due to issues with acceptability. Furthermore, although these methods have been found to be useful in research, they may not be viewed as being useful in school settings because they do not lead to specific classification for special education nor do they provide specific data that can directly assist in the intervention process. Related sociometric assessment measures such as rating scales often are used because these methods provide more specific information that can be linked to classification and intervention.
One classic sociometric assessment method that has been shown to be effective in educational practice is sociometric rankings. In this procedure teachers rank the children in their classroom who the teacher views as having social behavior problems, sometimes in relation to internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors. (Internalizing behaviors refer to problems such as depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal; externalizing behaviors refer to problems such as aggression, conduct problems, and hyperactivity.) The use of teacher rankings serves as an initial screening device for identifying children who may need additional assessment and intervention. Once identified, the children are screened further with a rating scale or related method to determine the extent of their social difficulties. Those children who are found to have problems are then referred for more assessment intended to specify their problems and provide an intervention, such as social skills training. Researchers have found this method of assessment, known as a multiple gating procedure, to be acceptable and effective in applied settings.
Assessing and understanding children's and adolescents' peer relations is important in educational settings for several reasons. From a developmental standpoint, it is important to understand how children develop social skills as they mature. Researchers have found that sociometric assessment can be useful in identifying children's social standing and predicting positive or negative social outcomes for children. The establishment of friendships and positive social interactions are important for children's social development and for interacting in the social world, including the school setting. Children with poor peer and adult relationships often experience negative social and emotional consequences that can continue throughout adulthood. These negative consequences can include lower academic achievement, higher rates of school dropout, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor self-concept, social withdrawal, fewer positive employment opportunities, and anti-social behaviors such as aggression and criminality. Researchers have estimated that at least 10%, or one in ten children experience consistent negative peer relationships. Therefore, a large number of children with inadequate social relationships may be at-risk for developing behavioral and emotional difficulties. Children with poor or limited social skills also are at risk for becoming victims of bullying and other aggressive behaviors. Children with disabilities often have social skills deficits and negative peer perceptions that put them at heightened risk.
Given these potentially negative outcomes, social skills assessment is important in educational settings. In research, the identification of the development of social standing and social skills can facilitate understanding the behaviors of socially successful and unsuccessful children. In research settings, both classic sociometric assessment and social skills assessment methods are used to achieve better understanding of social types and behaviors. These behaviors can in turn be used to understand children's and adolescents' social skill deficits and can aid in the design and study of social skills assessments and interventions.
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