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Necessary social skills related to peer acceptance. (Review of Research).

In early childhood classrooms, approximately 10 to 24 percent of children are classified as popular, while 10 to 22 percent of children are classified as rejected and 12 to 20 percent as neglected. The rest of the children are classified as having an average status of popularity by peers. While both rejected and neglected children are considered unpopular playmates, rejected children are well noticed and neglected children essentially are not visible. What is disturbing about these statistics is that a child's popularity status will remain much the same for many years to come. Across five years of a longitudinal study (Coie & Dodge, 1983; Newcomb & Bukowski, 1984), the popularity of some children remained high, just as the unpopular children continued to be rejected by their peers. The ability to predict future social status of rejected children in particular was more stable than for any other group.

Early childhood educators should be concerned about these rejected and neglected children, since they are more likely to be underachievers in kindergarten (Pellegrini, 1992) and to become socially deviant in adult years (Hartup & Moore, 1990). Neglected and rejected children need help from teachers because the school setting is a primary place for friendship formation and interaction. By teaching certain critical social skills, teachers may be able to help unpopular children become welcomed by their peers. The sooner such intervention can occur, the better.

Areas early childhood teachers can focus on to help unpopular children gain peer acceptance are: 1) successful entry behavior for joining an established play group, 2) acceptance toward peers' entry into play situations, 3) effective verbal assertiveness, 4) engagements in complex pretend play, and 5) demonstration of positive affection toward peers. These behaviors can be good indices for indicating peer acceptance and social competence.

Behaviors of Rejected or Neglected Children

The behaviors of rejected children are different from those of neglected children. However, they do share the commonality that neither group is not welcomed by peers. Rejected children often display aggressive-hostile behavior toward peers (Gottman, 1977; Rubin & Clark, 1983). Children who are physically assertive (e.g., by taking away objects, with or without struggles or threats) are typically disliked by their peers (LaFreniere & Sroufe, 1985). Verbally aggressive children who tease their peers also meet with peer rejection (Mize & Ladd, 1988). Both observational studies and teachers' ratings of children's behavior show that aggressive-hostile behavior leads to peer rejections. Teachers report that greater numbers of social exchanges by aggressive-hostile children were terminated by peers, and that the children rated as aggressive-hostile by teachers also received negative ratings from their peers (Rubin & Clark, 1983).

While aggressive behavior relates to peer rejection, withdrawn behavior relates to peer neglect. Three- to 5-year-old children who play alone, display off-task behaviors, and demonstrate the greatest hovering behaviors (acting shy, anxious, and fearful) are the ones most often neglected by peers (Gottman, 1977; Phillipsen, Bridges, McLemore, & Saponaro, 1999). Withdrawn children also exhibit signs of emotional distress such as anxiousness (LaFreniere & Charlesworth, 1983), and display less positive expressions (Provost & LaFreniere, 1991). Teachers consider withdrawn children to be those who are visibly deviant from peers, anxious, and dependent upon adults for help and directions (LaFreniere & Charlesworth, 1983).

Both rejected and neglected children need intervention to improve their social skills. While aggressive interaction with peers may predict an antisocial personality or other externalizing problems, passive interaction with peers may predict a neurotic personality or other internalizing problems. Therefore, intervention efforts for both aggressive and withdrawn children are urgent (Pellegrini & Glickman, 1990).

Teach Alternative Behaviors and Encourage Self-Confidence

As some children are rejected by their peers because of aggressive behavior, teachers need to consistently teach positive methods for resolving conflicts. Group discussions, puppet shows, role play, and relevant children's literature (an excellent book is When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry ... by Molly Garrett Bang) can be useful tools for teaching alternatives to aggression. Remember that children, especially aggressive children, need practice in using alternate strategies (Kemple, 1992). Teach children that constructive steps to solving a problem may include listening to others' points of view, calmly representing one's own view, and generating a consensus.

Shy and withdrawn children's social skills can be improved by planning opportunities for them to play with younger children (Kemple, 1992). Interactions with younger playmates may build children's social confidence, enhancing their chances of successful play with their same-age peers. Therefore, inviting children from different grade levels to visit each others' classrooms during free-play times provides opportunities for withdrawn children to practice their social skills. Multiage classrooms also serve that purpose. Pairing a neglected child with a child or a small group of children who have demonstrated acceptance to others in a carefully arranged situation, such as play that involves a shared space (e.g., a small tent, a big box, or a play house), also increases neglected children's confidence with peers.

Teach Direct Entry Behavior

Rejected and neglected children also need to learn high-risk tactics for entering a play group. Neglected children typically use low-risk tactics (e.g., waiting to join in and/or hovering around an activity, much in the way of newcomers) when interacting with peers (Putallaz & Gottman, 1981). If children want to play with peers in a class, however, they need to use high-risk tactics for joining an ongoing play group or making a new group. Such high-risk tactics include mimicking others' actions and making group-oriented statements.

Joining a play group is risky, as children who are already in an established group typically do not like disruption of their ongoing play activities (Corsaro, 1981). If a child wants to enter a play group successfully, he or she needs to recognize relevant behaviors related to the group members' play, and to understand the relevancy of these behaviors. Thus, successful entry behavior is a good indicator of children's level of peer acceptance and social competence.

Researchers have studied children's acceptance in previously established play groups (Corsaro, 1981; Dodge, Schlundt, Schocken, & Delugach, 1983; Kemple, Speranza, & Hazen, 1992; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981). Children from 3 to 5 years old who were popular and socially active, or who had mutual friends, enter play groups more easily than children considered rejected or withdrawn, or who did not have mutual friends (Howes, 1988). These socially competent children who were accepted by peers used more successful strategies to enter play groups (Dodge et al., 1983; Kemple et al., 1992; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981).

Popular children ages 4 to 8 tend to use direct initiation methods (Kemple et al., 1992) and show behaviors relevant to ongoing peer activities. These children successfully use strategies that enable them to become more accepted by peers, including: 1) mimicking the activity, 2) showing agreement, 3) giving relevant information, and 4) using group-oriented statements and questions (Dodge et al., 1983; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981). LaFreniere and Charlesworth (1983) noted an interesting shift in peers' reactions to entry behavior, based on the time of year: attention-getting behaviors were positively related to peer status during the spring semester, whereas it had not been welcomed by peers in the fall semester. Negative entry behaviors include: showing disagreement, disrupting play, as well as waiting and hovering. These and other entry skills can be characterized as self-related rather than group-oriented (giving statements about themselves and their feelings, and asking questions for information) and are related to low social status; such children are more likely to be ignored by their peers (Dodge et al., 1983; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981).

One possible reason for certain children's unpopularity is that they usually interact with other unpopular children, and thus miss out on opportunities for practicing appropriate communication skills. In addition, they may not understand the play theme of other children, and so they cannot properly respond to a potential partner's request. Another reason for disliked children's ineffective communication skills can be explained by something known as "emotional protection." Young children are smart enough to know who is popular and who is not. This reputation bias leads peers to reject the disliked children even when these children show positive behaviors. The disliked children develop emotional protection in order to avoid suffering from the effects of rejection. Therefore, the disliked children use nondirect initiation and noncontingent responses to peers as buffers to the emotional suffering associated with peer rejection (Kemple et al., 1992).

Unpopular 2nd- and 3rd-grade children attempt more types of entry behavior and take more time to be accepted when compared with popular children, most likely because of ineffective entry skills and the reputation bias (Dodge et al., 1983; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981). No difference in the frequency of entry attempts related to popularity was found among kindergartners (Dodge et al., 1983).

Regardless of the age difference and the degree of familiarity among subjects, the study results concerning entry attempt behaviors are quite similar and stable across years (Howes, 1988). This means that the entry behavior is a stable and strong indicator of children's social acceptance and competence. Therefore, teaching direct initiation skills related to an ongoing peer activity is a key strategy for increasing peer acceptance for neglected and rejected children.

Teach Disliked Children To Give Positive Responses To Peers' Initiation

Popular 4- and 5-year-old children are not only effective in their initiation attempts, but also sensitive to peers' initiations. Popular children accept rather than reject peers' initiations, make contingent responses to a peer's preceding initiation, and give an alternative idea when they reject a peer's initiation (Kemple et al., 1992). The sensitive behaviors popular children use to reject peers were observed in the subjects of the 1981 Putallaz and Gottman study.

On the other hand, unpopular kindergartners demonstrate "bossy" and "contrary" behaviors. For example, they may simply say "no" to a peer's initiation for play without suggesting an alternative (Dodge et al., 1983; Kemple et al., 1992). It is important to help neglected and rejected children be sensitive to peers who initiate entry attempts, since the acceptance of others predicts their acceptance by others in subsequent years. Children who showed more acceptance toward other children's entry behaviors at 3 and 4 years old were themselves more accepted by their peers when they were 4 and 5 years old (Kemple et al., 1992).

Teach Verbal Assertiveness As an Effective Communication Skill

The quantity of peer interactions may not be a good indicator of a child's social competence (Gottman, 1977). Successful achievement of one's goals through interaction with a partner (i.e., effective peer functioning) is considered a good index of social competence with peers (Asher, 1983; Howes, 1987, 1988; Kemple et al., 1992; Wright, 1980). Achieving one's goals through interaction with peers requires skills for maintaining relationships throughout an interaction. Little research focuses on how children maintain relationships, however; it may, in fact, require different social skills and motivations than used for initiating relationships (Rubenstein, 1984). In addition, the communication skills needed for the initiation of relationships may be different from the ones needed for maintaining relationships.

In order to form relationships, children need to use direct initiation strategies and contingent responses. For maintaining relationships, children may need to be verbally assertive. Verbal assertiveness can be considered an effective communication skill, because assertive preschool children who gave commands, both negatively and positively, and who argue during interactions with peers, receive more peer acceptance (LaFreniere & Charlesworth, 1983). Verbally assertive children also are more likely to achieve their goals through interaction with peers. Therefore, it is important to work continuously with unpopular children to improve their communication skills, so that they can convey their messages assertively to peers.

Teach Engagements in Complex Pretend Play

Children's engagement in complex play behaviors correlates with peer acceptance. Four- and 5-year-old children who show more frequent pretend play negotiation and enactment are well-accepted by peers (Doyle & Connolly, 1989). Furthermore, the children who engage in cooperative social pretend play in the late toddler period are well-accepted by peers in the preschool period (Howes, 1988). Teachers also rate children who show more pretend play and more complex pretend play as more popular and more competent with peers (Connolly & Doyle, 1984).

Pretend play, especially cooperative and complex pretend play, is highly valued in early childhood classrooms. Cooperative and complex pretend play is different from other forms of play, such as solitary, parallel, or simple social play, since it involves the use of pretense, as well as social interaction with others within the pretense. In pretend play with peers, children represent their thoughts through shared meaning of events and actions. For example, if a child declares, "I am a shoe store owner" to others, the others should understand the play plot and respond suitably in order to start and maintain the play. Therefore, within the context of cooperative pretend play, children learn how to interact with peers.

It is not surprising that children showing high levels of play are rated by teachers and adults as socially competent, positively expressive (Provost & LaFreniere, 1991), gregarious, sociable, and prosocial (Howes & Matheson, 1992). Teachers can increase children's pretend play by: 1) providing play themes and suitable materials, 2) encouraging children to join in and adopt specific play behaviors, 3) assuming a role and actively joining in the children's play, and 4) modeling the target play behaviors (Christie & Enz, 1992; Feitelson & Ross, 1973; Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977; Smith & Syddall, 1978). When disliked children are able to join pretend play situations, they learn social skills that are necessary for them to be accepted into peer groups. As Vivian Paley (1992) stated, "Play flows out of friendship and friendship flows out of play. The relationship works both ways and equally well" (p. 21).

Teach Disliked Children To Show Positive Affection Toward Peers

Quality of affection is an index of children's peer acceptance and general social competence (Rubin & Clark, 1983). Popular 4- to 5-year-old children show more positive affection than do unpopular and disliked children (Howes, 1988; LaFreniere & Sroufe, 1985). Children who show negative affection are not likely to be popular (LaFreniere & Sroufe, 1985).

Individual differences in children's affection is stable across 2 to 6 years old and is predictive of their social competence during the next developmental period. The lack of positive affection in the late toddler period moderately correlates with teachers' rating of hesitancy in the preschool period; while positive affection with peers in the preschool period strongly correlates with ratings of sociability with peers in subsequent years (Howes, 1988). Positive affection toward peers is expressed through smiling, hugging, comforting, turn-taking, sharing, and helping. Teachers can model and teach these behaviors.


The first step toward intervention is to identify what behaviors teachers and adults can teach that will help disliked children gain peer acceptance. Effective direct entry into ongoing play group, acceptance of peers' entry, assertive communication skills, engagement in complex pretend play, and demonstration of positive affection are key social skills that rejected and neglected children should learn. Disliked children who learn how to initiate and maintain play, especially cooperative pretend play, with positive affection will more likely change their reputation and be accepted by peers.

Insufficient research focuses on the effective ways of teaching social skills to young children. In the meantime, the following teaching methods can be used: 1) teaching alternative behaviors to aggressiveness, such as reading others' emotional cues and using negotiation skills; 2) facilitating small-group or one-to-one peer play interaction for withdrawn children; 3) modeling the use of entry behaviors, communication skills, and complex pretend play; 4) creating environments that support interaction with younger children and complex pretend play; and 5) developing classroom rules that help eliminate rejection, such as "everyone can play" (Paley, 1992, p. 36).

Vivian Paley (1992) demonstrates that teachers can play important roles in helping every child to be included in peer interaction. The classroom rule Paley imposed on her class was, "You cannot say `You cannot play.'" This rule makes children's entry into an ongoing play group easier. It also gives disliked children more opportunities to initiate and learn social skills with peers. Therefore, this rule can reduce the possibility that disliked children will achieve a negative reputation.

However, Paley shows that the imposition of the rule is not easy: It takes time, is dependent upon discussions with children about empathizing with rejected peers, demands a sustained effort to convince children about the justification for the rule, requires continuous encouragement of acceptance through storytelling, and depends upon children having opportunities to share good things that happened with the rejected peers while they were playing. Indeed, recent research shows that teachers' constructive feedback on disliked peers positively influences 1st- and 2nd-graders' perceptions of disliked children (White, Jones, & Sherman, 1998).

Peers serve unique functions for each other by providing opportunities for learning and developing the social skills essential to get along and influence others (Rubenstein, 1984). Peers also provide emotional security and help each other develop a valid sense of their own identity (Rubin, 1980). Every child has a right to be involved in a peaceful classroom in which acceptance, not rejection, is valued by teachers and peers. As Paley (1992) pointed out, "Utterances of peer rejection, such as `You can't play; don't sit by me; stop following us; I don't want you for a partner; go away,' would be unforgivable in-suits if spoken at a faculty meeting, but our responses are uncertain in the classroom" (p. 15).

Teachers usually assume that their role must be passive in guiding children's peer relationships during free-play times, although they actively assign work partners for instructional purposes. Children can distinguish work partners from play partners (Oden, 1982), and they are willing to accept assigned work partners while being reluctant to accept some as play partners. When classroom culture changes to accept everyone in a classroom during play time, the habit of rejection toward a certain group also is changed. Rejection happens to some children every day. They are deprived of opportunities to practice social skills that are necessary to peer acceptance. When peers reject particular children, it is our responsibility as teachers to create everyday classroom situations that are supportive of the disliked ones. Thus, all children in a class may benefit from having opportunities to be accepted by all of their peers.


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Yanghee A. Kim is Assistant Professor, School of Education, Delaware State University, Dover.
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Author:Kim, Yanghee A.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:100NA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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