Back to recent texts

Early Interventions to Improve Peer Relations/Social Competence of Low-Income Children

Patricia H. Manz, PhD, Christine M. McWayne, PhD

Lehigh University, USANew York University, USA

November 2004

Introduction

Social competence is defined as the capacities children possess for developing positive relationships with adults and other children.1 It is well accepted that children’s development in all areas of functioning is influenced by this ability to establish and maintain positive, consistent and primary relationships with adults and peers.2 Early childhood educators and researchers realize that social competence is a complex, multifaceted area of development and includes skills such as regulating one’s emotions, communicating effectively, being able to take the perspective of others, problem-solving and conflict resolution, and developing positive peer relationships.3

Subject

For preschool-aged children, managing effective peer relations represents an important developmental task and a primary indicator of school readiness. Child-initiated play during the preschool years provides a dynamic developmental context where this competency is manifest.4 Studies have highlighted important associations between positive peer play interactions and the development of other competencies indicative of school readiness, such as emergent literacy skills, approaches to learning, and self- regulation.5,6 For example, through pretend play children develop story-telling and memory abilities that contribute to emergent literacy.6 Moreover, maintaining effective play interactions with peers requires children to exercise self-control and a host of other important behaviours that can affect learning in school, such as cooperation, attention and persistence.7,4 Children who develop positive relationships with their peers during the preschool years have a greater likelihood of experiencing positive adjustment in kindergarten, as well as positive social and academic outcomes in the elementary school grades and high school.8-10

Problems

Conversely, poor peer relations in the early years are associated with detrimental consequences during later developmental periods and adulthood.11,12 Problems with peers have been linked to lower academic performance, retention, truancy and emotional maladjustment.13-19 While acceptance from peers helps motivate children to become involved in classroom activities, peer conflict and rejection can suppress children’s motivation.20-22 Low-income children are more likely than their economically advantaged peers to evidence early school difficulties, including behavioural and emotional problems, as well as poor school performance23,24 and are therefore placed at greater risk for continued difficulties throughout schooling, such as grade retention and school dropout.25

Research Context

To date, the most widely used and studied approaches to improve social competence in children involve (a) explicit training in social skills; or (b) teaching children a social problem-solving process for devising prosocial solutions to interpersonal conflicts. Overall, evaluations of social skill-training programs have not demonstrated favourable outcomes, particularly when examining generalization to children’s play in natural contexts and social acceptance.26,27  Although social problem-solving training programs can be effective in enhancing children’s awareness of alternative solutions to interpersonal conflict and reducing behaviour problems, these programs do not explicitly promote positive peer play behaviour.28 Thus, widely available interventions do not sufficiently address the developmentally salient expression of social competency for preschool children’s peer play behaviour. 

Scant attention is paid to the cultural responsiveness of social competence interventions for low-income youngsters in the research literature.29 Limited knowledge of the unique interface of culture with children’s peer play behaviours is available.  Compounding this problem, social competence interventions are primarily developed by experts, who are not members of the early childhood programs or communities in which the intervention is implemented. Thus, the targeted social competencies may not be valued within cultures represented by the children and families.30  Developing interventions in partnership with stakeholders (e.g., early childhood educators, families), is a promising alternative that provides venues for establishing culturally meaningful and sustainable intervention programs.31  

In partnership with Head Start, Fantuzzo and colleagues have advanced the application of peer play interventions for low-income preschool children in early childhood education programs.32 Peer play interventions are embedded in children’s natural and routine play opportunities and utilize peers rather than adults as facilitators of children’s social-skill acquisition. The Play Buddy intervention involves pairing socially isolated preschoolers (Play Partners) with socially effective preschoolers (Play Buddies) during routine free- play opportunities in the classroom and identifying a family volunteer (Play Supporter) to support the Play Buddy’s proactive strategies for engaging the Play Partner. Collectively, the partnership with Head Start staff and families in program development, reliance on the natural contexts for defining and eliciting positive play behaviours, and incorporation of natural helpers in implementing the intervention enrich the relevance of this intervention for children of culturally and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. 

Key Research Questions

The primary challenge for early childhood researchers is attaining knowledge of the interface of diverse cultural values and social competencies. To date, Caucasian, middle-class children are most frequently the focus of intervention research and often represent standards for evaluating appropriate social behaviours.33 Subsequently, assessment and intervention practices cannot be assumed to be meaningful and effective for children of diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather, they must be empirically examined for specific populations, exploring culturally responsive ways to develop and provide services. Although the Play Buddy intervention has emerged as an effective intervention for bolstering developmentally salient peer play behaviour among low-income children, the scope for evaluating this program has been on peer play behaviours in the classroom.  Future research should expand the focus to examine the effects of acquisition of prosocial peer play behaviour on children’s relationships and behaviour in the family and community settings.34 Furthermore, longitudinal evaluations are needed to document the long-term benefits of the intervention. 

Recent Research Results

Traditional approaches for improving social competence have not sufficiently addressed the unique, developmentally salient construct of peer play for preschool children.  Moreover, the particular cultural values inherent in low-income and ethnic minority populations of preschool children have been neglected in the development and evaluation of social competence intervention programs. However, utilizing an innovative approach for developing social competence interventions in partnership with early childhood educators and families, Play Buddy emerges as a promising intervention for low-income preschool children. Randomized field trials have demonstrated the efficacy of this intervention, showing that the improvements in young children’s positive peer play interactions generalized to their experiences in the natural classroom environment.34-35  These findings underscore the importance of embedding interventions within the natural contexts of young children, utilizing familiar adults and children in the implementation of the intervention program and working in partnership to ensure the developmental and cultural relevance of the intervention focus. 

Conclusions

The preschool years are crucial for the development of social competencies that will ensure success in school and in later life. Within this developmental period, peer play is a natural and dynamic context for bolstering children’s acquisition of important social competencies. Social competence interventions that are interwoven within the meaningful context of play emerge as the most effective means for improving the peer play interactions of children with social competence difficulties. Moreover, developing and implementing interventions in partnership with early childhood educators and children’s families enhances their relevance for children representing diverse cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Implications

  1. Early childhood educators and families should be involved in the development, selection and implementation of social competence interventions.
  2. Research should examine the unique interface of culture and children’s play behaviour, informing development of culturally appropriate practices.
  3. Knowledge about the importance of play for young children and contexts for eliciting and bolstering peer play should be integrated with educational practices in early childhood programs targeting low-income children, such as Head Start.

References

  1. Hart CH, Olsen SF, Robinson CC, Mandleco BL.  The development of social and communicative competence in childhood: Review and a model of personal, familial, and extrafamilial processes. In: Burleson BR, Kunkel AW, eds. Communication yearbook 20. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications; 1997:305-373.
  2. Sroufe AL, Cooper RG, DeHart GB, Marshall ME, Bronfenbrenner U, eds. Child development: Its nature and course. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company; 1992.
  3. Raver CC, Zigler EF.  Social competence: An untapped dimension in evaluating Head Start’s success. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 1997;12(4):363-385.
  4. Bredekamp S, Copple C, eds. Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; 1997.
  5. Fisher EP. The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play & Culture 1992;5(2):159-181.
  6. Shonkoff JP, Phillips DA, eds. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2000.
  7. Pelligrini AD, Galda L. Ten years after: A reexamination of symbolic play and literacy research. Reading Research Quarterly 1993;28(2):162-175.
  8. Creasey GL, Jarvis PA, Berk LE. Play and social competence. In: Saracho ON, Spodek B, eds. Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education. SUNY series, early childhood education: Inquiries and insights. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; 1998:116-143.
  9. Hampton V. Validation of the Penn Interactive Peer Play Scale (PIPPS) for urban kindergarten children. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania; 1999. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.
  10. Ladd GW, Kochenderfer BJ, Coleman CC. Friendship quality as a predictor of young children’s early school adjustment. Child Development 1996;67(3):1103-1118.
  11. Ladd GW, Price JM. Predicting children’s social and school adjustment following the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Child Development 1987;58(5):1168-1189.
  12. Denham SA, Holt RW. Preschoolers’ likability as cause or consequence of their social behavior. Developmental Psychology 1993;29(2):271-275.
  13. DeRosier M, Kupersmidt JB, Patterson CJ. Children’s academic and behavioral adjustment as a function of the chronicity and proximity of peer rejection. Child Development 1994;65(6):1799-1813.
  14. Buhs ES, Ladd GW. Peer rejection as antecedent of young children’s school adjustment: An examination of mediating processes. Developmental Psychology 2001;37(4):550-560.
  15. Hartup WW, Moore SG. Early peer relations: Developmental significance and prognostic implications. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 1990;5(1):1-17.
  16. Kupersmidt JB, Coie JD, Dodge KA. The role of poor peer relationships in the development of disorder. In: Asher SR, Coie JD, eds. Peer rejection in childhood. Cambridge studies in social and emotional development. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1990:274-305.
  17. Ladd GW, Coleman CC. Children’s classroom peer relationships and early school attitudes: Concurrent and longitudinal associations. Early Education & Development 1997;8(1):51-66.
  18. Ialongo NS, Vaden-Kiernan N, Kellam S. Early peer rejection and aggression: Longitudinal relations with adolescent behavior. Journal of Developmental & Physical Disabilities 1998;10(2):199-213.
  19. Parker JG, Asher SR. Peer relations and later personal adjustment: Are low-accepted children at risk? Psychological Bulletin 1987;102(3):357-389.
  20. Birch SH, Ladd GW. Interpersonal relationships in the school environment and children’s early school adjustment: The role of teachers and peers. In: Juvonen J, Wentzel KR, eds. Social motivation: Understanding children’s adjustment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996:199-225.
  21. Ladd GW, Buhs ES, Seid M. Children's initial sentiments about kindergarten: Is school liking an antecedent of early classroom participation and achievement? Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2000;46(2):255-279.
  22. Wentzel KR. Social-motivational processes and interpersonal relationships: Implications for understanding motivation at school. Journal of Educational Psychology 1999;91(1):76-97.
  23. Duncan GJ, Brooks-Gunn J, Klebanov PK. Economic deprivation and early childhood development. Child Development 1994;65(2):296-318.
  24. Weiss A, Fantuzzo JW. Multivariate impact of health and caretaking risk factors on the school adjustment of first graders. Journal of Community Psychology 2001;29(2):141-160.
  25. Alexander KL, Entwisle DR, Dauber SL. Children in motion: School transfers and elementary school performance. Journal of Educational Research 1996;90(1):3-12. 
  26. Odom SL, McConnell SR. Play time/social time: Organizing your classroom to build interaction skills. Tucson, Ariz: Communication Skill Builders; 1993.
  27. Gresham FM, Sugai G, Horner RH. Interpreting outcomes of social skills training for students with high-incidence disabilities. Exceptional Children 2001;67(3):331-344.
  28. Shure MB. I can problem solve (ICPS): Interpersonal cognitive problem solving for young children. Early Child Development and Care 1993;96:49-64.
  29. Roopnarine JL, Lasker J, Sacks M, Stores M. The cultural contexts of children’s play. In: Saracho ON, Spodek B, eds. Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; 1998:149-219.
  30. Fantuzzo J, Coolahan KC, Weiss A. Resiliency partnership-directed intervention: Enhancing the social competencies of preschool victims of physical abuse by developing peer resources and community strengths. In: Cicchetti D, Toth SL, eds. Developmental perspectives on trauma: Theory, research, and intervention. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press; 1997:463-489.Rochester symposium on developmental psychology; vol. 8.
  31. Nastasi BK, Varjas K, Schensul SL, Silva KT, Schensul JJ, Ratnayake P. The Participatory Intervention Model: A framework for conceptualizing and promoting intervention acceptability. School Psychology Quarterly 2000;15(2):207-232.
  32. Fantuzzo JW, Atkins MS. Resilient peer training: A community-based treatment to improve the social effectiveness of maltreating parents and preschool victims of physical abus. Washington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect; 1995. Publication No. 90-CA-147103.
  33. Fantuzzo JW, McWayne C, Cohen HL. Peer play in early childhood. In: Fisher CB, Lerner RM, eds. Applied developmental science: An encyclopedia of research policies and programs. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage; In press.
  34. Fantuzzo JW, Manz PH, Atkins M, Meyers R. Peer-mediated treatment of socially withdrawn maltreated preschooler: Cultivating natural community resources. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. In press.
  35. Fantuzzo JW, Sutton-Smith B, Atkins M, Meyers R, Stevenson H, Coolahan K, Weiss A, Manz PH. Community-based resilient peer treatment of withdrawn maltreated preschool children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1996;64(6):1377-1386.

How to cite this article:

Manz PH, McWayne CM. Early Interventions to Improve Peer Relations/Social Competence of Low-Income Children. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Boivin M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/peer-relations/according-experts/early-interventions-improve-peer-relationssocial-competence-low. Published November 2004. Accessed September 23, 2019.