Popularity at school linked to age position in class – study

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Forget about having the right clothes or the right attitude, being cool in school could be about being just slightly older than your peers, a study has found.

Researchers surveyed more than 13,000 teenagers aged 14-15 in England, Sweden and the Netherlands on who they thought was the most popular in their class and compiled a popularity score for each pupil in the classroom linked to their birth month (“past relative age”) as well as their age position in their class (“current relative age”).

The analysis found that relative age – on either measure – affects popularity, the authors wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Relative age related to primary school cut-off was strongly associated with popularity in England, where students progress to the next grade every year regardless of school performance. Meanwhile, current relative age had a sharper link to popularity in the Netherlands, where students repeat a year if their performance does not pass muster. Sweden – which officially has a system of promoting children regardless of their achievements, but in rare cases holds pupils back – fell in between those two findings, said lead author Danelien van Aalst from the University of Groningen.

“So, in England, if you’re born in an unlucky month, it will be so for the rest of your educational career, whereas in the Netherlands, the system of grade retention and skipping classes creates over-time changes in class composition, which makes current age more salient/relevant than past relative age,” explained co-author Frank van Tubergen, from Utrecht University.

“I see this study … showing the surprising effect of relative age, and more generally, on how unexpected social forces shape our lives,” he added.

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Many western countries impose a minimum age and cut-off date for school enrolment, which means there can be a difference of up to 12 months between pupils within a class. The cognitive, social and physical differences between the younger and older peers manifest in multiple ways, research suggests.

For example, these gaps can strongly affect educational outcomes: children who are relatively young when they enter school do not tend to go to university as much as their older peers. Other studies have also linked relatively younger children to lower rates of self-esteem and higher mortality rates by suicide.

Overall, said Van Aalst, feeling safe and accepted was a prerequisite for concentrating on school tasks and performing well in school.

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“In some classes, the popularity hierarchy is … not necessarily related to being liked or being seen as a friend. Sometimes the most popular kids can be bullies and just have a lot of power and are looked up to for that reason, not because their peers like them. It is therefore hard to say whether popularity contributes to academic performance or educational outcomes.”

  • This article was amended on 6 May 2021. The original said the report’s lead author, Danelien van Aalst, was from Utrecht University. She is actually from the University of Groningen.

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