Children's Agreement on Classroom Social Networks: Cross-Level Predictors in Urban Elementary Schools

By Cappella, Elise; Neal, Jennifer Watling et al. | Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Children's Agreement on Classroom Social Networks: Cross-Level Predictors in Urban Elementary Schools


Cappella, Elise, Neal, Jennifer Watling, Sahu, Neha, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly


Informed by research on interpersonal perception, peer relationships, and classroom climate, this study examines predictors of children's agreement with classmates on their classroom social networks. Social network data, peer nominations of positive behavior, and classroom observations were collected from 418 second-grade to fourth-grade children (99% African American) and 33 teachers and classrooms in low-income, urban schools. Children's perceptions of their classroom social networks varied from minimal overlap to complete congruence with the consensus of their peers. Multilevel modeling with hypothesized predictors indicated that agreement on social relationships was predicted by factors at the level of the individual child (network centrality) and classroom context (grade level, class size, network density, teacher network perception, emotional climate). Findings are discussed in terms of advances in understanding of children's interpersonal perception, as well as implications of network agreement for children's ability to navigate the classroom social and academic learning context.

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Given the importance of peers to children's development and the presence of peers in classrooms, many researchers study peer relationships in schools (Asher & Coie, 1990; Bemdt, 2002; Bukowski, Newcomb, & Hartup, 1996; George & Hartmann, 1996; Harris, 1995). Children's social experiences, such as their social status and behaviors, are examined from multiple perspectives, including self-reports and peer reports (Bierman, 2004; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Rodkin & Ahn, 2009). When self-reports are compared with peer reports, these provide an index of a child's interpersonal perception (Cillessen & Bellmore, 2002). Interpersonal perception has been linked to child characteristics (e.g., gender), as well as contextual factors (e.g., classroom composition) and predicts children's social-emotional adaptation (Cillessen & Bellmore, 1999). Interpersonal perception research has focused on the accuracy of individual children's reports of their own social status. Application of social network methods to schools (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Gest, Graham-Bermann, & Hartup, 2001) enables an expansion beyond perceptions of individual social status to perceptions of classroom affiliations, examining agreement among children on the social relationships across all children in the classroom. Agreement between a child and his/her classmates about the structure of the classroom social context (e.g., who spends time with whom) may be important for children's ability to navigate that context in efficient and effective ways.

Classrooms as Complex Social Contexts: Social Networks and Interpersonal Perception

Hundreds of interpersonal interactions occur in classrooms across a school day. Scholars in education and psychology document the importance of quality interactions for children's academic and social development (Hamre & Pianta, 2007; Ladd, 2005). Although many factors may contribute to quality classroom interactions, understanding of the classroom social structure may be an important - and largely neglected - focus of research. According to social-developmental theories, knowledge of one's relational environment may help a child to choose appropriate behaviors, predict other children's reactions to events, prevent interpersonal conflict, and promote positive interactions (Piaget, 1965; Selman, 2003). Thus, children who are attuned to classroom relationships may be better able to modulate their behavior to specific situations, such as knowing which group to join for an academic activity or how to avoid conflict during a transition. Studies from organizational and social psychology indicate that the ability to map relationships helps individuals to create productive connections to colleagues in their workplace (e.g., Janicik & Larrick, 2005; Kilduff, Grassland, Tsai, & Krackhardt, 2008). …

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