What kind of children would you guess to be popular at school? You may intuitively assume children’s popularity is related to their being stylish, good looking, athletic, funny, or wealthy. One factor that you probably won’t think of is how many hours per week they spent in child care when they were little.
A recent study found that children with extensive experience of early child care tend to be popular when they are in elementary school. But before you rush to sign your child up for child care, please let me finish telling you the complete story: popularity also comes with aggression in children who spent a lot of time in early child care.
Over 1000 children’s popularity and aggressiveness were reported by their teachers. The children fells into four groups: (a) the “tough” children, those who are both aggressive and popular; (b) the “model” children, those who are not aggressive but popular; (c) the “aggressive” children, those who are aggressive but not popular; (d) the “quiet” children, those who are neither aggressive nor popular. The “tough” kids spent on average 8-11 more hours a week in child care than other children over their first 4 or 5 years.
How did the “tough” kids become popular among peers? Unfortunately this correlational study cannot give us the exact answer because the researchers did not manipulate how many hours children stay in child care (something impossible to manipulate even for the sake of science). We only know that early children care experience is associated with the combination of popularity and aggressiveness, but we still cannot draw any causal conclusions. One of the possibilities is that expressions of aggression may bring some children advantages within the child care context and beyond. Aggression sometimes means to obtain resources coercively. Aggressive behavior may be used to impress others, control others, or change others’ behavior. The “tough” children’s savoir faire may make them well integrated in their peer ecology, and thus they become popular. Neither children’s intelligence nor parents’ supportiveness differentiates “tough” children from the majority of aggressive children who are not popular. But the child care experience does.
As some parents scrutinize child-care criteria like the child-to-staff ratios, staff qualification, and health and safety regulations, we have to ask: does the quality, not just the quantity, of child care matter? The answer is yes, to some extent. The “tough” children typically experience lower quality child care than “model” children, though the quality of their child care was comparable to “aggressive” children and “quiet” children. But how many hours per week spent in child care, especially the center-based care, is the only thing that distinguishes tough children from other types of children.
Rodkin, P., & Roisman, G. (2010). Antecedents and Correlates of the Popular-Aggressive Phenomenon in Elementary School Child Development, 81 (3), 837-850 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01437.x