Preschool Children's Friendship and Peer Acceptance: Links to Social Competence

Article excerpt

Preschool children (166 three- to six-year-aids; M age = 62 months) were interviewed using standard sociometric procedures and teachers were asked to rate children's aggression and peer competence. Based on children's reciprocal like most nominations, 73% of children had at least one mutual friendship and 27% had two or more mutual friendships. Children with at least one mutual friend were better liked by peers and were rated by teachers as being more competent than children with no mutual friend. Longitudinal analysis with 36 children followed over two years revealed that children with at least one mutual friend at year one were better liked by peers a year later than children with no mutual friend, even after controlling for children's year one peer acceptance level. In addition, both concurrent and longitudinal analyses revealed that children who were mutual friends were similar in their level of aggression, peer competence, and peer acceptance. The findings of this study suggest that mutual friendship is an important factor in children's social development as early as the preschool years.

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Children's ability to form positive relationships with peers represents an important component of social development (Newcomb & Bagwell, 1996). One feature of children's peer relationships of interest to both parents and teachers is the phenomena of friendship. Evidence suggests that children begin to discriminate among peer partners and form preferences for particular playmates within their peer groups as early as toddlerhood (Corsaro, 1985; Howes, 1983; Ross & Lollis, 1989). By preschool, over half of all children have reciprocated friendships and many of these friendships are stable over time (Gershman & Hayes, 1983). Evidence suggests that these early friendships may be differentiated from other peer relationships by the amount of time children spend in close proximity to each other and by friends' engagement in reciprocal and complementary interaction (Howes, 1983; Howes & Phillipsen, 1992). Despite the early appearance of friendships, there is a noticeable lack of attention given to the study of prescho ol children's friendships (Newcomb & Bagwell, 1995). Consequently, questions remain concerning the unique characteristics of children's friendships compared to other aspects of peer relationships in the preschool years, as well as questions about the role that similarity plays in preschool children's friendships.

In order to determine the developmental significance of children's friendships, it is important to consider how the ability to establish and maintain a friendship is related to other dimensions of children's social functioning. In particular, researchers have pointed to the necessity of distinguishing between children's peer group acceptance and having friends (e.g., Bukowski & Hoza, 1989; Parker & Asher, 1993). Acceptance refers to being generally well liked by a group of peers, rather than participation in a specific dyadic relationship. Friendship, in contrast, is a close dyadic relationship between two individuals. Research with school-age children and adolescents suggests that acceptance and friendship are unique, but related, domains of children's peer relationships (see Asher, Parker, & Walker, 1996). In one of the only studies to examine both friendship status and peer acceptance in early childhood, Ladd (1990) found that children who formed new friendships in their Kindergarten classroom experienced improvements in school performance over the course of the year. In contrast, peer rejection predicted less favorable attitudes toward school, greater school avoidance, and lower levels of academic performance at the end of the school year. Although the author did not compare the relative contribution of friendship status and peer rejection to school adjustment, his findings suggest that both may provide preschoolers with different developmental opportunities, and may differ in adaptive significance. …