Understanding a Child’s Reputation at School–The Good
A child’s social status in the school community is defined by how liked or disliked a child is by others he is likely to associate with. Early into their school experience, much of what children think of each other comes from what adults (teachers, neighbors) say about and to them. Around second grade, children begin to talk about and evaluate each other. This is when a child begins to have a “reputation” with peers. There are four categories of social status (Popular, Average Accepted, Neglected, and Rejected); which were discovered in studies of classroom behavior beginning in the 1980s. The first two, “Popular” and “Average Accepted” are much less, if at all, troublesome in terms of child development. These categories were determined in the following way: children in an elementary school classroom were shown a class roster and a picture of each child in the class. While looking at this roster and these pictures, they are asked to list the three other children that they would most like to play with and the three they would least like to play with. Psychologists counted how often each child on the roster was listed by another as “most liked” and “least liked.” Popular children are selected by many other children as one of their “most liked” playmates and are not selected by any as a “least liked” playmate. About 17% of children are in this well-liked category. Note: If you ask children, “Who is popular?” they are likely to name the most assertive children, not the most well-liked. Having a child labeled as average accepted is nothing to be ashamed about. These children are chosen by some children as “most liked,” but by no one as “least liked.” About 45% of children fall into this category.
Now, the Not-So-Good
Neglected children appear on almost no one’s “most liked” or “least liked” list. They are overlooked by their classmates, and represent about 18% of children. Neglect can be divided into two categories–Temporary and Chronic. Temporarily Neglected children may make friends more slowly and eventually change their social status to average accepted, usually by the following year. However, when a neglected child is also shy, highly withdrawn, or sad, he/she may be Chronically Neglected year after year. If your child has been neglected for more than one year, you should be concerned about your child’s social problems, and try to come up with solutions, as described in the following examples.
Ten year old Josie is a quiet but bright girl who, before her family moved away, maintained close friendships with three girls at her old school. As a result of the move, Josie retreats into reading more books instead of making friends with her new classmates. Her parents are quite concerned that she doesn’t have any new play dates.
The other girls in her new class did not notice her at first, as they were busy within their own circles of friends. But Josie does well in school and within a few months, other classmates are calling her for homework assignments and she begins to make new friends.
Josie’s problems came from her family’s relocation rather than from her own behavior. Her parents did what they could to help this. She has made friends before. She knows the social graces for acceptance in school. She knows how to behave with best friends. She was sad over loosing her old friends, but within a few months she recovered. Her parents can help this situation change more quickly by encouraging Josie to select children from her school for play dates. They then swing into action and arrange these play dates with her and the other children’s parents. In chapter 4 of my book, Friends Forever, I show parents how to use their neighborhood school to promote friendship, in Chapter 6 I explain how parents can “network” to find friends for their children and in Chapter 12, I show how to have successful play dates.
Though he is a chatterbox at home, seven year old Alan takes a long time to “warm up” around new peers. At school he plays by himself on the swings and slides at recess. Although he has regular play dates with two other boys at his school, he doesn’t try to find them at recess. The other boys are playing basketball and soccer and even though he says he likes to play those games, he is reluctant to approach them to ask to join in. It is hard for the boys to engage him, so they soon give up.
Many children’s initial response to a situation in which they feel uncomfortable is to be quiet. The shy child can be seen as an extreme case of this essentially normal response to a new situation. A teacher’s first response should be to wait and see if the child is extremely shy or just very slow to warm up. The teacher should not call special attention to a child like this, it makes them more uncomfortable.
Shyness is a problem that is specific to one type of situation: initiating play with others. Shy children are often very good playmates once children get to know them. There are a few simple low risk steps that socially successful child take in this type of situation (watch from the sidelines, ask to join in, try others if you are turned down). In Chapter 7 of Friends Forever, I show how these steps can be taught by parents.
Kids who are shunned socially often have significant problems in peer relationships. They appear on many or all of their classmates “least liked” lists and on no one’s “most liked” list. They are social outcasts with highly negative reputations. They are not simply overlooked, but actively avoided by their classmates. About 15% of children are in this category. Rejected children may not be aware of their negative reputation, since few of their peers engage them. Unfortunately, the primary way this rejection is communicated is through teasing and sometimes bullying. Other children will give clear reasons for the bad reputation and subsequent teasing, such as, “he always messes up our games,” or “he tries to boss us around.” Once a negative reputation takes hold, the other children remember the negative things a child has done but may be unaware or disbelieve appropriate things the same child has also done.
Psychologists have found that most of the children who were rejected in school remain rejected years later, in the absence of effective treatment. Being rejected is a “red flag” for later social problems, including sadness and loneliness. Most rejected children have a tough time changing their status, and those who are also aggressive may be in special trouble. Studies show that rejected and aggressive children are at higher risk for more serious problems.
It is usually no simple matter that children are rejected by others; sometimes, they have specific bad habits which either cause their rejection or add to it as rejected children misunderstand others, don’t learn important skills, or fail to understand the rules of behavior other children consider important. While the other children become more skilled at social etiquette with age, rejected children are constantly committing social errors, behaving in ways which cause others to single them out. As rejected children are avoided by others, they become even more cut off from their peer group and are prevented from learning social skills and rules of behavior. Being isolated in this way interferes with their future social development.
If a child is rejected, parents should take this seriously. Their current social status may not predict that the child will be poorly adjusted as he/she grows up, but this outcome is more likely than if the child is accepted by peers. Although studies show constancy of rejected status over the years, children can be taught to correct their social mistakes and, as children often realign their friendships at the beginning of each new school year (when their classmates are realigning theirs), the formerly rejected are given new opportunities to make lasting friendships. There is now hope that involved parents can improve their child’s social adjustment. My book includes chapters that help parents to curbing their child’s interests that prevent friendships, helping their child become a good sport and a better host on a play date, encouraging wise friendship choices, taking the fun out of teasing and helping their child with several common social problems. There is now hope that parents can help their child become more socially accepted.