The Social Hierarchy of Preschoolers

At my daughter’s preschool, there’s occasionally a“boo-boo report” in her cubby at the end of the day. Via a series of checked boxes and a half-sentence description, the report cryptically conveys why my daughter might have a bump on her head, a scrape on her hand, or a bite mark on her wrist.

The report never mentions the offender by name, but my daughter usually offers all the details the second she sees me. Her wounds are trophies of survival; she relishes them, a little ─ they’re visual proof of having been wronged, which is implicit evidence then that she was in the right.

I don’t fall for it, of course. I recognize that the moment before she got pushed from the wagon, she was probably trying to climb aboard when it wasn’t her turn. The moment she got bit, she was probably trying to “borrow” a 3-year-old’s toy when he wasn’t inclined to share.

My wife and I always get a laugh over the boo-boo reports. We know our daughter is quite socially adept. She dishes like she takes, and if anyone can play sham victim hood for an advantage, it’s her.

I also know that for every boo-boo report, there are a hundred offenses that don’t merit a form letter. And as we wrote in NurtureShock, children’s aggressive behavior can’t be simply judged as bad behavior.There are two reasons for this.

First, while we grown-ups find children’s aggression to be noxious, antisocial, and bullyish, kids actually hold many aggressors in high regard. They reward aggressors with awe, respect, and influence. The nonaggressive kids aren’t inherently “good” ─ they just lack the savvy and skills to wield such power.

Second, it turns out that a lot of the aggressive kids are also the really pro-social kids. They’re socially active. Yes, they might snatch toys, cut in lines, raise their voice, or threaten not to be a friend ─ but they are also likely to share, include, make offerings, build friendships,and request playdates. So when you tell your child to stay away from an aggressive kid, you’re probably telling your child to leave the whole social circle that he enjoys.

New research out of Michigan State University by Dr. Cary Roseth adds a third reason to this list: aggressive behavior can’t be judged onits face without considering the time of year it occurs. Classroom aggression has different interpretations at various points in the school year.

Roseth has been monitoring preschool classrooms over the course of the calendar year. He’s found that coercive aggression is at its peak in September. It’s quickly established which kids are competitive, manage to win contests, and generally get their way among their peers. So aggressiveness might be a legitimate concern later in the year, but at this time of year it isn’t a sign of something going wrong. Aggression is being used to negotiate social dominance, as kids jockey for position. This isn’t going on unpoliced ─ in the classrooms Roseth studied, teachers were intervening to smooth relationships about two thirds of the time (more so in younger classrooms).

By the second month, though, kids had figured out when to avoid challenges they were unlikely to win ─ a hierarchy was established. And that stabilized relationships. Aggressive behavior rapidly dropped by half and continued to drop over time. In fact, during the next several months, socially dominant children were no more aggressive than nondominant kids. They didn’t need to be. Technically, they acted less dominant.

Instead, the dominant kids now really turned on the charm. Pro-social offerings increased steadily over the course of the year, as the dominant kids repaired and maintained relationships. After spring break, there appeared to be a moderate uptick in aggressive behavior, as the hierarchy had to be quickly reconstructed. By May, pro-social activity in the classroom was double what it was in September.

Roseth notes that if you walked into the classroom midyear, you would not have been able to spot the aggressive, dominant kids by how often they acted aggressively. Rather, you could spot the dominant kids only if you knew to observe how other kids reacted to the aggressive bouts. When a nondominant kid acts aggressively, other children often don’t watch, don’t get sucked in to the drama, and will ignore that kid later. He loses status.

But when a dominant kid acts aggressively, she gains status. Her peers watch. They’re influenced. They cede to her leadership. After the bout, the dominant child is likely to reach out to the victim, who will, in turn, probably accept the overture. They’ll be playing again later, as if nothing had happened.

These cycles of aggression and reconciliation don’t drive kids apart. Rather, they lead to increased affiliation; it’s through these bouts that kids get closer, and learn more about each other’s needs.

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