Why the ‘popular kids’ need teachers’ help

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You may think that the popularity battle among students is none of your business, but Dan Worth finds that this is a complex area linked to long-term wellbeing – so teachers should pay attention

Popularlity: Why the most popular students in school may need teacher support

Were you popular in school? Or well-liked? That may sound like the same question, but the difference is huge, according to Mitch Prinstein, John Van Seters distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience, and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s the author of Popular: finding happiness and success in a world that cares too much about the wrong kinds of relationships, a book that dissects what popularity is and the various ways it manifests itself.

“Research shows there are two types of popularity,” he explains. “There’s one that we can measure from age 3 to 103, and that’s likeability – the extent to which we make other people feel happy, valued and included.

“The second type of popularity emerges in early adolescence, from ages 11-12, and used to be relevant only through to the end of secondary school – it’s called status popularity. This is about being visible. Everyone knows who you are; you’re dominant, you’re influential, even aggressive.”

Does it matter which you are in school, though? And should teachers be concerned about it?

The answer is “yes” to both, Prinstein believes. “There is a remarkable array of benefits from being likeable: from completing school, getting good grades, having better chances of being hired and promoted, making more money and even living longer.”

And being popular? “Research shows that having [status popularity] as a child is related to a lot of bad outcomes in later life: depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship difficulties, work instability and aggressive behaviour,” Prinstein warns.

The research that underpins much of this is a study entitled Whatever happened to the “cool” kids? Long-term sequelae of early adolescent pseudomature behaviour (Allen et al, 2014).

The researchers followed 184 young people (86 boys and 98 girls) in the US over a 10-year period from the age of 13 to 23. It found that those who acted in a “pseudomature” way from a young age – varying from minor delinquency to precocious romantic involvement, as the paper defines it – achieved status popularity.

“Early adolescents engaging in these behaviours did indeed appear to fit the stereotype of the “cool” kid – achieving the appearance of maturity, social status and desirability as companions among their peers,” the paper says.

Perils of popularity

However, because they achieved this through actions that many of their peers grew tired of as they matured, many “popular” pupils struggled to recalibrate themselves. Instead of maturing too, they often followed a route of immature behaviour that affected them into early adulthood.

“The findings support the proposition that early adolescent attempts to gain status via pseudomature behaviour are not simply passing annoyances of this developmental stage, but rather may signal movement down a problematic pathway and away from progress toward real psychosocial competence,” the research notes.

Prinstein stresses that the “popular” kids are not a particular “type” of child – status popularity is something all teens seek, it’s just that some achieve it more easily than others.

“Ultimately, our brains are preparing us to separate from our parents and form our own identity as we start to become autonomous around adolescence,” he explains. “So the brain is preparing us to care about how we get along with peers much more than our attachment with parents.”

What concerns Prinstein – and he believes this should also concern parents and teachers – is that status popularity is being increasingly pushed onto teens as a route to pursue.

“It used to be that [status popularity] basically lasted until high school graduation but the world is sending clear messages that this isn’t just a school thing now. It is the ultimate mark of one’s value and impact,” he explains.

You may blame the status-obsessed nature of social media, but Prinstein says this shift has been a long time coming, with its origins in the 1980s.

“What really changed is that media gave everyone the opportunity to achieve status,” he explains. “Some researchers credit the first rolling news channels for this because it changed how we interacted with news; it opened up that idea that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.”

This, he says, led to shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and tabloid magazines in which celebrities were seen as people we could be close to and that we should aspire to emulate.

“Reality TV took this further by letting us have control over who became celebrities, and the internet took it further still,” he adds.

He says social media is exacerbating the situation, though, getting young people hooked on trying to achieve status popularity through likes, hearts and followers. He has been involved in research looking at this issue, analysing 716 adolescents for their social media use and how it impacted on attempts to gain popularity. The findings are stark.

“Results suggest that digital status seeking is an important new construct that may be longitudinally associated with higher levels of engagement in health-risk behaviours, including substance use and sexual risk behaviour,” the paper states.

There is a strong argument that efforts to counterweight this pressure to seek status popularity – and to arrest the advance of that pressure further into adulthood – should come from parents primarily; after all, this is a social issue, not an educational one. However, because these behaviours will be just as visible in schools, and because the popularity-seeking behaviour online will spill into classrooms so frequently, it’s likely something teachers cannot ignore. So what can they do to help?

Most teachers will recognise pupils they have taught who fit the descriptions of “popular” and “likeable” young people. They will recognise, too, those “popular” young people who begin to lose status and suffer in a spiral of trying to retain that popularity with the methods that worked before. Knowing the above may help teachers better advise the latter to change their path, or at least enable teachers to better understand their behaviour.

Trying to stop young people caring about popularity in adolescence is foolhardy, Prinstein says – “their biology is primed” – but he advises that making them aware of the fact that they are changing is useful, and looking at how this desire for popularity may play out can help.

“We can say to children that this is an urge. And just like every other urge we talk about at the puberty transition, we need to ask what we are going to do with it. What is the healthiest, safest way to respond to that pull?”

He recommends getting “popular” children to discuss and identify the sorts of behaviours they want to see in themselves and others to help remind them of their core beliefs.

“It’s really helpful for teachers to help children identify their values, and what is important to them, especially if they are able to be empathetic,” he says. “Most children don’t want to hurt others or make them feel bad about themselves, they only want for people to pay attention to them – no matter how much their brain is telling them to be popular.”

Prinstein says it is equally important, though, to support those children who seek popularity but achieve very little. They don’t just turn off the desire; rather, it can have significant negative effects on them. He says that, for these children, trying to nurture potential relationships between less popular peers can be beneficial, pairing those who appear to share similar traits and values and hopefully providing the boost of security and attachment they need.

“Research shows that just having a single close friend can buffer negative experiences,” he argues.

“This isn’t about making them popular but about building that relationship with one person, which can be a really positive experience.”

Ultimately, it is about role modelling, too. As a school community, do you reward popularity – perhaps seeking out and using the influence of popular pupils to get things done? Do you present popularity in certain ways in the curriculum content you present? How is popularity and being well liked being modelled by staff?

You can try all the above strategies with pupils, but if you are not walking the walk yourselves, it may be pointless. So if your staffroom resembles a scene from Mean Girls, you may want to make some changes pretty sharpish.

Dan Worth is a content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on... popularity”