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School Social Dynamics : Throughout their school careers, youth construct their identities and status through their social interactions and peer relations. As early as preschool, students develop social structures of distinct peer groups and are selective in their peer affiliations (Snyder, Horsch, & Childs, 1997). Such selectivity is sustained across the school years as youth create and modify their identities, behaviors, and values through their peer associations and social roles (Cairns & Cairns, 1994).
Through processes of selectivity, social hierarchies emerge as some individuals and peer groups have greater social prominence and power than others (Adler & Adler, 1996; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Typically, the popular, or cool, groups are composed of athletes, cheerleaders, members of the student government, and their friends. However, popularity and social power breed envy, jealousy, and discontent within and among groups (Merten, 1997). Therefore, maintaining one's social position can be a high-stakes game in school, and all students, including the most popular, are socially vulnerable as peers use aggressive strategies to enhance their own status at the expense of others (Adler & Adler, 1995; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Merten, 1997).
Interpersonal conflict in school reflects natural social dynamics that emerge as students attempt to protect or improve their own social positions and the boundaries of their peer group. To do this, youth develop a variety of aggressive strategies, including gossiping, name calling, manipulating friendships, abandoning existing friendships for friendships with higher-status peers, bullying, and directing physical attacks on unpopular students or adversaries (Adler & Adler, 1996; Cairns et al., 1989; Evans & Adler, 1993; Salmivalli, Huttunen, & Lagerspetz, 1997).
Many aggressive students are well embedded in the mainstream of school life and engage in high levels of prosocial as well as aggressive behavior (Peplar, Craig, & Roberts, 1998). The most severe forms of school aggression may be the domain of bullies who systematically target certain students as victims (Pellegrini, 1998). In some classrooms social structures are formed in ways that promote bullying. Bullies develop larger social networks and tend to associate with peers who assist or reinforce their aggressive behavior (Salmivalli et al., 1997). Bullies use rough play to establish their dominance in the social hierarchy, and they selectively choose less tough boys to exploit as they publicly demonstrate their physical prowess (Adler & Adler, 1995; Pellegrini, 1998). Also, recent investigations suggest that there are subtypes of victims. Some highly victimized students are very passive and nonaggressive. Other frequent victims of bullying are themselves highly aggressive bullies (Atlas & Pepler, 1998).
Social Interactions and Problem Behavior: Youth who are highly aggressive in childhood tend to have rejected sociometric status and are more likely than others to have adjustment problems in adolescence and adulthood (Parker & Asher, 1987). It is sometimes implied that rejected-status youth are unable to form friendships and that their later difficulties reflect the emotional consequences of poor social attachments. Although loneliness and the lack of friendships may contribute to the later difficulties of some aggressive and rejected-status youth, evidence suggests that social interactional processes also contribute to the development of antisocial behavior and later adjustment problems (e.g., Atlas & Peplar, 1998; Dishion, Spracklen, Andrews, & Patterson, 1996; Pepler et al., 1998).
How do social interactional processes contribute to chronic aggressive behavior patterns and later disorder in youth? Youth play a primary role in creating the developmental context for their behavior through their interactions with peers (Cairns, 1979). Aggressive and disruptive youth evoke responses from their environment that maintains their behavior. When a child engages in persistent aggressive interchanges, interactive partners either disengage from the interaction or engage in behavior that escalates or reinforces the child's problem behavior (Pepler et al., 1998; Snyder et al., 1997). Through such interactions, youth with antisocial behavior tend to establish affiliations with peers who reciprocate (i.e., other aggressive peers) or complement (i.e., followers, victims) their behavior (Cairns, Cairns, Neckerman, Gest, & Gariepy, 1988; Pellegrini, 1998).
These interactional processes begin early in children's lives and are reflected in their affiliative patterns. Beginning in preschool, aggressive children tend to associate with aggressive peers (e.g., Farvet, 1996). The amount of time pre-schoolers spend interacting with aggressive peers is predictive of changes in their level of aggression (Snyder et al., 1997). The propensity for antisocial youth to associate with peers who reflect or complement their behavior continues from elementary school through high school. As peer groups and classrooms reshuffle from year to year, interactional processes promote continuity in the types of peers that youth associate with (Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Thus, antisocial youth are likely to have a string of relationships with deviant peers throughout childhood and adolescence. In turn, associating with deviant peers is related to the development of later problems, including conduct disorder, delinquency, substance abuse, and school drop-out (Bullis, Walker, & Steiber, 1998; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Dishion, Capaldi, Spracklen, & Li, 1995; Talbott & Thiede, 1999).
In addition, aggressive and disruptive behavior can be supported by interactions with peers outside one's group. The processes (i.e., ostracization, name calling, bullying) through which peer groups maintain their social boundaries and the jockeying for social power across groups can lead to animosity between distinct groups (Adler & Adler, 1996; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Aggressive acts toward individuals in rival groups can provoke direct confrontation, sustained hostility, and a climate of open warfare among opposing groups.
Not all aggressive and disruptive youth have close associates. Some aggressive youth are frequent scapegoats or social isolates. Social interactional processes may play a role in the behavioral development of these youth as well. Teasing and provocation are common during childhood and adolescence. How youth respond to such provocation can set into motion whether they become chronic scapegoats (Coie, 1990). Some youth respond to provocation with aggression or other socially incompetent strategies that elicit further teasing from peers and solidify their negative roles in the social structure.
- Farmer, Thomas W.; Misconceptions of Peer Rejection and Problem Behavior; Remedial & Special Education; Jul/Aug2000, Vol. 21, Issue 4
Reflection Exercise #6