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The Role of Peer Groups in the Development of Social Competence

University of Calgary
Carli Newberry

Studying the effects that a group of peers has on the development of social
competence is a complex, arduous task. Peer relationships themselves are as fluid and
ever-changing as the developing child. This paper will discuss first the importance of
peer relationships, the importance and development of social competence, how the two
interact and affect one another in light of recent research on attachment, and finally, the
implications all of this has for the field of school psychology.
Peer Relationships
It has been widely accepted since the dawning of child-based research that peers
are an important ecology. In 1954, Stack Sullivan stated, A chum teaches about the
reciprocity of relationship and fosters sensitivity to the needs of another person. The child
learns what to do to contribute to the happiness and worthwhileness of his or her chum.
Moreover, a chum provides validation of self-worth. In a recent study, 132 children aged
7-12 in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Northern Ireland conveyed their
neighbourhood experiences through photography, drawings, interviews, surveys and
themed group discussions. The greater majority of participants had one repeating and
overarching topic in common their relationships with other children. The relationships
formed between children was the deciding factor in the participants overall sense of well
being (Rogers, 2012). Furthermore, peer groups in childhood and adolescence have been
found to be a potential positive factor in improving academics (De Paolo & Scoppa,
2010), the outcome of grieving peers (Matel & Barnes, 2011), motivation (Ryan, 2001),
and continued social development (Pahl & Barrett, 2007). Conversely, they have been
found to have negative affects on aggression and delinquency (Faris & Ennet, 2012; Burt
& Klump, 2012) as well as current and future mental health (Copeland, Wolke, Angold &
Costello, 2013). In summation, peers seem to have heavy influence over those in their
groups, and it largely depends on the group dynamic whether those effects will be
positive or negative.
Social Competence
Social competence is a blanket term comprised of several more specific abilities,
including initiating relationships, self-disclosure, asserting displeasure with others
actions, providing emotional support and managing interpersonal conflicts (Buhrmester,
Furman, Wittenburg & Reis (1988). The components of social competence are mutually
synergistic, but are not necessarily inclusive of one another. For example, if a child is
skilled at initiating relationships, they would be likely to receive a positive response,
which in turn could increase their confidence to improve upon another aspect of social
competence, such as self-disclosure. There is a higher likelihood that being skilled at one
aspect of social competence means one is skilled in all aspects, although an individual
can just be competent in a singular ability (Buhrmester, Furman, Wittenburg & Reis,
Social competence typically begins developing within the confines of the family.
Maternal warmth and sensitivity is predicative of social competence in kindergarten
(Eiden et. al., 2010, Raver et. al., 2007), as well as in older children (Lengua et. al.,
2007). Likewise, in a study examining maternal empathy and permissiveness, 49 mothers
of toddlers participated in a 12-week intervention designed to increase the quality of peer
interactions in their children. Across both groups of participants, when permissiveness
decreased, so did aggressive behaviours. Additionally, mothers who were observed to be
the least empathetic had toddlers that demonstrated the most improvement following
parental training (Christopher, et. al., 2012). These results indicate that parental
permissiveness and empathy are crucial to the development of social competence. On the
other hand, parental psychopathologies such as alcoholism and depression during
toddlerhood are predicative of poor social competence in kindergarten (Eiden et. al.,
2010). These studies, taken together, exemplify how early familial relationships form a
foundation for social competence.
Low social competence is a significant risk factor for comorbid depression and
conduct problems, and a myriad of poor functional outcomes (Rockhill, 2009). Another
study found low social competence to be predictive of Social Anxiety Disorder (Essex et.
al., 2010), another, an increase in externalizing and internalizing behaviours (Bornstein,
Hahn & Haynes (2010), and most tragically, one study found low social competence to
be a risk factor for suicide (Lweinshohn, Rohde & Seeley, 1994). Conversely, high social
competence has been linked to a decrease in adolescent substance abuse (Willis, Vaccaro
& McNamara, 1992), pathological video game use (Gentile et. al., 2011), and a general
lifelong resilience to psychopathologies (Masten & Tellegen, 2012).
Peer Relationships vs. Social Competence: Positive Effects
When children reach school age, they are submersed into a new ecology in which
they will spend many meaningful hours per day: their peers. A recent study examined
how increasing early peer-peer interactions would improve early social competence. In
this study, 556 first grade students parents reported on the amount of time spent
partaking in organized leisure activities in kindergarten, and both parents and teachers
completed measures to assess the childrens social skills and externalized behavior.
Results indicated that participation in organized leisure activities in kindergarten were
positively associated with social skills both with adults, and with peers. Furthermore, it
was determined that children of low socioeconomic status (SES) experienced greater
positive changes than their counterparts (Poulin, F., et. al., 2012). Considering the
stressors typically present in families of low SES, these results suggest a mitigating effect
wherein positive peer interactions could potentially counter the deleterious effects of
familial dysfunction.
In another study analyzing a program designed to improve peer interactions, 758
children were assigned to either a control group, or the Good Behaviour Game (GBG)
intervention group for two years, from kindergarten to grade two. Teachers reported
frequently on the students behavior, and the students identified the children in their class
that they liked the most. Results indicated that the students who had been in the GBG
group, who focused on improving social competency with their peers, exhibited a
substantial decrease in externalizing behaviours. Additionally, these children had more
friends, were more accepted by peers, and showed more proximity to others, when
compared to the control group (Witvliet et. al., 2009). This study counters the theory that
social competency remains relatively constant from toddlerhood, and provides a peer
driven means to improve social competency and behaviours.
Peer Relationships vs. Social Competence: Negative Effects
While peer interactions have some reported positive effects on developing social
competence, there is much literature indicating peer groups can have adverse effects on
the development of social competence. In their book Hold Onto Your Kids, Gordan
Neufeld and Gabor Mat propose the theory of peer orientation, and how this is
detrimental to developing social competency. Peer orientation, they claim, is when a child
shifts their primary attachment relationship from their parents to their peers. It can be to
one particular peer, or to a group of peers, and it typically occurs in industrialized
countries as children approach adolescence. They explain that this has become so
common since the Second World War that it has become an acceptable stage of typical
child development. When juxtaposed against more preserved cultures, it becomes
alarmingly evident that the disconnect between adults and adolescents in western
civilizations is both unnatural and unprecedented. When this disconnect happens, Neufeld
and Mat elaborate, youth begin to learn social skills from one another, not from adults.
This results in youth developing horizontally, increasing their social skills with their same
aged peers, but not vertically, which would be required to scaffold social skills to more
mature levels. They explain that both horizontal and vertical growth are essential, but that
an adult must be the primary attachment figure.
In a study looking directly at how attachment to parents or peers is related to
social and emotional competence, researchers found countering evidence. It was
predicted that strong parental attachment would be more positively correlated with high
social competence, but when 177 late adolescents (M age = 19.6) were examined using
several thorough surveys of empathy, emotional expressiveness and awareness, prosocial
behavior, and aggression, the highest positive correlations were with peers, rather than
the parents. They did find, however, that strong parental attachment was stronger linked
to emotional awareness than peer attachment was (Laible, 2007). An obvious limitation
of this study was age, as most participants were very close to, or already were considered
adults. A second significant limitation to this study was that the sample group appeared to
have come from a higher than average SES, as the mean parental academic level was 3.7
years of university. It would be beneficial to repeat this study with younger participants
of more varied backgrounds.
In another similar study, 246 college students were administered the same surveys
to examine whether peer or parental attachment had a greater influence on self-esteem.
Researchers again found that both peer and parental attachments had positive correlations
with target behaviours of socialization, but that parental attachment was directly related
to self-esteem, which is consistent with attachment theory (Laible, Calor & Roesch,
2004) Again, a limitation of this study is that the sample population shows a very narrow
slice of the general population. Repeating these studies with a more diverse population, or
even an at-risk population might reveal stronger correlates under more extreme
In a study examining the influence that high-status vs. low status peers had on the
aggression levels of members in their groups, 321 seventh-grade students participated.
The students nominated peers of whom belonged in their close circle of friends, and the
nominations were further analyzed to determine which students were nominated most
frequently (high-status members) and which students were nominated less frequently
(low-status members). While some groups did not have a power discrepancy amongst
their group, most did. The students then nominated peers who were most aggressive, and
peers who were usually victimized. Through a series of statistical analyses, researchers
determined that high-status peers influenced the development of an early adolescents
aggressive behaviours at a statistically significant level. Moreover, they found that this
effect was significantly stronger if the person being influenced was of low-status in the
group (Shi & Xie, 2011). A very similar study corroboroated these results, and furthered
them by explaining that the larger the group size, the larger the influence high-status
students had over low-status students (Faris & Ennett, 2012). The implications of these
studies reinforce the importance of previous research linking self-esteem and early social
competence to parental attachment. Children with strong parental attachments
theoretically go on to develop high self-esteem and appropriate levels of social
competence, gaining them peer acceptance which is highly correlated to not being
mislead or influenced by peers. Those with weaker parental attachments would then have
lower self-esteem and lower levels of social competence, suggesting that they would be
less accepted by peers and belong to the above mentioned low-status group which is
more easily influenced by peers. These studies, in part, demonstrate how the quality of
early attachments come full circle later in life, when an individual forms attachments of
similar quality with others, which is a theory purported by research (Gorrese & Ruggieri,
2012; Dykas, Ziv & Cassidy, 2008).
Implications for School Psychology
Taken together, these studies just begin to demonstrate the complex intricacies of
how family and peer relationships interact with individuals to define the development of
social competence. Understanding how these ecologies influence one another to effect
social competence is essential when determining interventions for youth with social
issues. As previously discussed, there are several evidence-based intervention programs
for developing social competency in peer groups. Considering these programs in light of
the latter mentioned research on the negative effects of peer dynamics, it would be
important for a school psychologist to carefully select and arrange groups of peers to be
included in such a program. Alternatively, if the school psychologist cannot choose the
individuals in the group, which would be the case for many social skills groups or anger
management groups in schools, it is imperative that the psychologist facilitating the group
is educated and aware of the group power differential, and be mindful that a power
discrepancy amongst members in the group must be addressed and considered throughout
the intervention process.
Furthermore, if a psychologist suspects that peer influence is a major contributor
to poor social competence, or that a psychopathology, such as depression or anxiety could
be improved by stronger peer relationships, they have a responsibility to educate all
invested stakeholders on the effects, both good and bad, of peer groups. Likewise, it
could be beneficial for caregivers to understand their role in improving peer relationships,
which may be addressed in family counseling.
Because the effects of peer interactions are so difficult to both observe and
interpret, it is improbable to ascertain the true influence and significance these
relationships have over developing children; however, it is important to the field of
psychology not to undermine what cannot be understood. Above all, it is essential that a
school psychologist reveres the implications of peer relationships during both
assessments and interventions, and remains open to the possibility of both positive and
negative effects arising from said peer relationships.
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