For most kids, the transition to fourth grade is like merging into a social fast lane. Gone are the comforts of early elementary social stability: here to stay (for a while!) are gossiping, teasing, and unblinking peer scrutiny. A fourth grader's love of labels leads to pigeonholing from others, as terms such as “athletic,” “loser,” and the ever important “popular” begin to stick.
“In fourth grade, you see a real desire to be perceived as popular,” says veteran guidance counselor Mary Pat McCartney. “You need friends, and need to be seen as getting along with people.” For this reason, she says, social hierarchies form: as children vie to be perceived as “all that,” they negotiate a complicated structure of values, prejudices, and social pitfalls.
A fourth grader's sense of gradients, as opposed to absolutes, contributes to the newly complex social scene. “You start to see kids trying to delineate the levels of friendship – they understand that there are acquaintances, friends, and best friends, and that these designations are fluid” says McCartney. This means that kids can be “bff” (best friends forever) one minute and sworn enemies the next, and makes for a tumultuous time of social upheaval.
Though it sounds pretty scary, your fourth grader doesn't have to go it alone. Now is the time for increased parental involvement, especially if your child is being excluded, teased, or bullied. “If you start to get the idea that your child is being isolated by others, as a parent you need to get involved,” says McCartney. “Get to know the parents of kids in the class and choreograph social opportunities, or get involved in activities outside of the classroom.” Ask your child about how things are going at school, but ask others, too. Talk to your child's teacher or guidance counselor to get the inside scoop on your child's peer relationships.
“It's not very healthy, but it's normal,” says McCartney, of the social behavior exhibited by fourth graders. Though teasing, gossiping, and pigeonholing can be emotionally destructive, they are the natural consequence of growing up a social creature, and represent a learning process that will result in healthy, well-adjusted individuals.
Although it's essential to stay involved, your fourth grade child needs to navigate this stressful time on her own. She'll make it out unscathed if she knows that you've got her back, no matter what.