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Playground power struggles are complex — and they matter

by Lindsay Jolivet
Feb 28 / 16

It isn’t easy to point out leaders and followers, or winners and losers, in a kindergarten classroom, new research has found.

Relationships among children may not be as hierarchical as often assumed, the study in Frontiers of Psychology found. A child that leads while playing house with one friend may be a follower with another. In a different situation, both friends might insist on doing things their way.

Researchers already know that a child’s status early in life affects their behaviour. Occupying a lower position in the classroom social structure could make a child more likely to act out, hurting their success and potentially their health later in life. The findings add complexity to our understanding of relationships, which could help pin down normal versus concerning behaviour in kids early on.

The new research is a collaboration between CIFAR researchers Joel Levine (University of Toronto), Nancy Adler and Thomas Boyce (both University of California, San Fransico), along with Nicole Bush (UCSF) and Mireille Golemiec and Jonathan Schneider in Levine’s lab. It is one of several studies produced so far from the Peers and Wellness Study (PAWS) started by Boyce to study the effects of social factors on health.

The study observed a few hundred children in kindergarten classrooms at schools in Berkeley, California. Researchers looked at interactions when kids led, followed, behaved aggressively and showed selfless kindness to their peers, among other behaviours. Levine’s lab took the data and analyzed it using an approach that did not assume there was a clear hierarchy.

“In the animal literature people are used to hearing about the alpha male or the alpha female,” Levine says. This perspective assumes that if the alpha female exerts an influence on another animal, say monkey B, and monkey B exerts an influence on monkey C, then the alpha female also holds more rank than monkey C.

But when Levine’s lab applied a new type of social analysis, they found that while there was some hierarchy, there were also many interactions that did not follow rank. “We’re learning one of two things. Either the kids we looked at are not as hierarchical as we would have imagined, or we’re catching them at a moment in their lives where they’re figuring it out,” Levine says.

Levine says the findings may also apply to social interactions more broadly. He adds that it raises fascinating questions about what determines whether someone is more fixed or fluid in their interactions — following most of the time or leading often, too — and when it matters. Further research will examine how socioeconomic status influences these relationships.

In addition, Levine says that future collaborations involving CIFAR Senior Fellow Michael Kobor (University of British Columbia) may examine the genetic and epigenetic factors that could predispose a child to certain interactions. Levine will also use the social network approach for studies in his lab, which typically looks at how genes contribute to group dynamics in fruit flies. He says his participation in this study is a great example of successful interdisciplinary research in CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program.

“What CIFAR does, is it encourages us to understand that we are all actually doing things that interact,” Levine says. “I didn’t switch fields, I just extended my interest to something that I care about and it feels very good.”