Monday, May 15, 2023

Middle School Stuff #3: Popularity – Jessica Speer


This series of posts explores the tricky side of middle school. Here’s post #3 – Popularity. If you missed earlier posts, here are links: #2 – Friendship Changes and #1 – Judgment. 

While researching Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, I visited 7th-grade classrooms and talked with students about school social dynamics. When I asked preteens to share the “tricky” parts of middle school, one of the most frequent comments I heard was “popularity.” Here are a few student comments:

Middle School Student Thoughts About Popularity

  • “Need to dress a certain way, date, and act a certain way to stay part of the group.”
  • “Some popular kids act superior to others and don’t let others in.”
  • “Admired, but also feared.”
  • “In middle school, almost everyone cares about how popular they are, what they wear, who they like, and who likes them.”
  • “I think the popularity scene happens because everyone wants to be known by everybody.”

Students found the popularity scene “tricky” for several reasons. First, they shared that popularity plays a more prominent role in middle school than in elementary school. Second, they found it confusing because some popular kids are not well-liked or “nice.” Lastly, popularity was linked to certain behaviors and traits, such as appearance, dating, and style of dress. 

Studies on adolescents and popularity confirm what middle schoolers shared with me. Research findings conclude the following:

Research Findings on Middle School and Popularity

  • Priority of Popularity Peaks In Early Adolescence – Research by LaFontana and Cillessen found that less than 10% of children in grades one through four consider popularity more important than friendship, but over 25% of fifth through eighth graders did.
  • There are Different Types of Popularity – In his book “Popular,” Dr. Mitch Prinstein shares that there are different types of popularity; status and likability. Status popularity often means visibility, dominance, and influence on the group. Likability describes kids that treat others with respect, share, cooperate and make others feel good about themselves. For young children, likeability is key, but in middle school, “it’s not just about the kids you like anymore,” Dr. Prinstein says. Adolescent brains become activated in new ways, and neurochemicals make tweens interested in the other kind of popularity, status.

How Students Navigate the Popularity Scene

I asked students what advice they would give to help other students navigate popularity. Their responses were insightful:

  • “Find the people that accept you for who you are.”
  • “Be careful about trying to fit in because you think it may improve your reputation. It may hurt you in the process.”
  • “People try to ‘be cool’ to be popular. I would say that it doesn’t matter if you are ‘cool’ as long as you have good friends.”

What Can Caregivers Do to Help Students Navigate the Popularity Scene? 

Whether or not students are interested in popularity, peer status matters more in middle school. Tweens and teens are working on figuring out who they are outside their families and how to navigate peer groups. Caregivers can help kids navigate popularity and social dynamics with the following approaches:

  • Ask Questions to Help Kids Think About Their Friendships – Some possible questions:
    • Is she a good friend?
    • How do you feel when you’re with her?
    • How do you think he feels?
    • What qualities do you like in friendship?
    • What is a kind way to handle the situation?
  • Distinguish the Different Kinds of Popularity – When talking to tweens and teens about popularity, share that there are different types of popularity. Those who cooperate, share, ask questions, and listen well—tend to have healthier friendships. Psychologist Wendy Mogel tells parents: “You don’t want your kid to be in the tippy-top tier of the social pyramid, as that’s a fluid and volatile place to be. They just need one friend they can be themselves with.”
  • Help kids learn healthy ways to resolve conflict since conflict is inevitable.
  • Remind kids that all kinds of people are acceptable and worthy of respect, not just those that fit a particular group: model kindness and decency.

As kids explore their identity, learn about friendship and how to navigate group dynamics, mistakes and missteps are common. All provide opportunities to learn and grow. Caregivers play an essential role in encouraging authenticity, empathy, and genuine friendship—all of which are more enduring values than popularity.

About Jessica Speer:

Jessica Speer is the award-winning author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships and Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised. Her interactive books for preteens and teens entertain readers while exploring social-emotional topics. Blending humor, a dash of science, stories, and insights, her writing unpacks the social stuff that peaks during adolescence. 

She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica is regularly featured in and contributes to media outlets on topics related to kids, teens parenting, and friendship. For more information, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com

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