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Mean girls start in preschool, BYU study shows

Four-year-old girls use social aggression to maintain dominance

A new study out of Brigham Young University shows that relational aggression -– harming others through purposeful manipulation and damage to relationships -- may be associated with social prominence as early as 4 and 5 years of age.

Reported in a special issue on relational aggression during early childhood in the most recent issue of the journal Early Education and Development, the study is the first to examine the correlation between relational aggression and peer social status. Previous studies involved children older than 8 years and have typically focused on physical aggression as it relates to peer status.

Exclusionary behavior and threatening to withdraw friendship are two prime examples of relational aggression. Research indicates that this behavior is the preferred type of aggression among girls.

"We are all aware of girls who secure their social hierarchy through relationship manipulation during adolescence, but it is striking that these aggressive strategies are already apparent and related to increased social centrality in preschool," said David Nelson, senior author and assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at Brigham Young University. "Preschoolers appear to be more sophisticated in their knowledge of social behaviors than credit is typically given them."

Who are these preschool "Queen Bees"? According to the study, they are the controversial children, those who received a substantial number of both "like" and "dislike" nominations from their peers. Accordingly, they are the children with a strong social impact. They are the children who are perceived by their peers as more sociable, as well as more aggressive, than the average child. They are the children who demonstrate an active mix of positive and negative behavior.

"The controversial child is socially savvy," said Craig Hart, co-author and BYU professor of marriage, family and human development. "They are good resource controllers, socially skilled, popular, conscientious, and socially integrated, and yet are among the most aggressive, dominant and arrogant children in the peer group. It is this bi-strategic mix of positive and negative behavior that allows them to maintain their standing in the social hierarchy."

In this study, relational and physical aggression as well as sociable behavior of preschool-age children were assessed using peer reports and teacher reports. Peer nominations of acceptance and rejection (like and dislike nominations) were also collected and used to form sociometric status groups.

Study participants selected three children in their class they liked to play with and three they did not like to play with from a picture board. The children were also asked in individual interviews to identify the peers in their class who exhibited certain sociable behaviors, physically aggressive behaviors and relationally aggressive behaviors. Results were standardized and used to compute a social impact score and a social preference score for each child.

A few of the relational aggressive tactics used by preschoolers include:

  • Not allowing a specific child to play with the group.

  • Demanding other children not play with a specific child.

  • Threatening to not play with a child unless certain needs/demands are met.

  • Refusing to listen to someone they are mad at (the aggressive children may even cover their ears). As stated in the research, preschoolers are capable of more sophisticated strategies as well, such as spreading malicious rumors or telling secrets.

    "It is pertinent and somewhat disturbing to note that by the age of 4 a substantial number of children have apparently figured out from their environment that relational aggressive strategies can be used to their advantage and are rewarded with social status," said Clyde Robinson, co-author and BYU professor of marriage, family and human development.

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