The Surprising Importance of Popularity in Kindergarten and What Teachers Can Do

Were you popular and well-liked in high school? How important were others’ perceptions of you during your teenage years? No matter how long ago it was, it can be hard to forget the social hierarchies that emerged in high school or the sway they held over day-to-day life. Before delving headlong into high school flashbacks, however, think back even further. Do you remember whether being popular and likeable was important in elementary school or even earlier?

Although everyone has their own unique experiences, Dr. W. Thomas Boyce (University of California, San Francisco) and collaborators found that social hierarchies emerge as early as kindergarten1. If this seems surprising or alarming, consider that many animal species arrange themselves in some social order at early ages2, 3. That said, students who are of low social status (likeability and popularity) demonstrate diminished mental and physical health and educational success compared to high social status students4, 5, 6, 7. Moreover, the harmful effects of social hierarchies can begin in kindergarten1 and persist through adulthood6, 7. Students occupying a low versus a high social position in their grade 6 classes, for instance, were significantly more likely to suffer from mental health disorders (anxiety, depression) and physical illnesses (cardiovascular disease, diabetes) decades later, independent of socioeconomic status7.

Research by Boyce also indicates that there may be factors that protect children from the adverse effects of low social status. One such factor is teachers’ ‘learner-centered’ pedagogical practices. Learner-centered practices: (1) encourage students to actively contribute to classroom content and assessment decisions, (2) respect and support the unique developmental and cultural differences of each student, and ultimately, (3) value interacting with students in an egalitarian manner, that is, as dynamic co-creators of the learning experience rather than passive consumers of it8.

Specifically, Boyce and colleagues found that teachers’ egalitarian practices almost completely eliminated a link between kindergarten students’ low social status and mental health problems1. This was especially the case for female students of low socioeconomic status. Additionally, those who were in more versus less learner-centered classrooms engaged in helpful and kind behavior at a greater rate, particularly for low social status but high socioeconomic status students.

Teachers’ choices of pedagogical practices may play a significant role in diminishing the adverse effects of social hierarchies on students’ health. What’s more, learner-centered teaching styles are associated with students’ propensity to behave prosocially in the classroom. Accordingly, as Boyce concludes, this research “renders even more crucial and compelling the provision in early childhood settings of more supportive, egalitarian, and generous social environments”1 (p. 4).  


1 Boyce, W. T., Obradović, J., Bush, N. R., Stamperdahl, J., Kim, Y. S., & Adler, N. (2012). Social stratification, classroom climate, and the behavioral adaptation of kindergarten children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 17168-17173.

2 Grosenick, L., Clement, T. S., & Fernald, R. D. (2007). Fish can infer social rank by observation alone. Nature, 445, 429–432.

3 Hawley, P. H. (1999). The ontogenesis of social dominance: A strategy-based evolutionary perspective. Developmental Review, 19, 97–132.

4 Holder, M. D., & Coleman, B. (2008). The contribution of temperament, popularity, and physical appearance to children’s happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 279-302.

Östberg, V. (2003). Children in classrooms: Peer status, status distribution and mental well-being. Social Science & Medicine, 56, 17-29.

6 Almquist, Y., Modin, B., & Östberg, V. (2010). Childhood social status in society and school: Implications for the transition to higher levels of education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31, 31-45.

7 Almquist, Y. (2009). Peer status in school and adult disease risk: A 30-year follow-up study of disease-specific morbidity in a Stockholm cohort. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 63, 1028-1034.

8 Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.




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