ASU study focuses on middle schoolers’ reputations and their substance use and school achievement 6 years later

By

Skip Derra

It’s not easy being a kid, especially in middle school (sixth and seventh grade), when fitting in and finding place among your peers can be daunting. But can the behaviors of a sixth-grader be indicative of the type of person that child will become as a senior in high school? 

That idea intrigued researchers at ASU’s psychology department — psychology professors Leona Aiken and Suniya Luthar and doctoral student Alexandria Curlee, whose master’s thesis addressed this question. The researchers analyzed data from the New England Study of Suburban Youth, where students had been followed annually from sixth grade to the end of high school.

In their recent article, “Middle school peer reputation in high achieving schools: Ramifications for maladjustment versus competence by age 18,” published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, the researchers reported on associations between peer reputation behaviors exhibited in middle school and participant’s substance use, academic achievement and mental health on the threshold of adulthood. 

Curlee, Aiken and Luthar talked with ASU Now about the study and its predictive findings.

Question: What was your goal with this study?

Curlee: We wanted to understand whether it matters later in life how kids are seen by their peers in early adolescence. In middle school, kids tend to be highly preoccupied with being popular, and troubled when they feel that they are not accepted by their peers. Our goals were to ascertain whether any of this might matter for how well they were doing at the threshold of adulthood.

Q: Please describe the four-dimension model and list traits of each — popular, prosocial, aggressive, isolated?

Aiken: Children were asked to pretend they were directing a play, and to choose classmates for each of four categories of roles. The four categories were: popular, a child who characteristically has many friends, everyone likes to be with; prosocial, a child who helps other people when they need it, polite; isolated, a child who has trouble making friends, would rather play alone than with others, and aggressive, a child who gets into a lot of fights and teases other children excessively.

Q: What are these traits related to when students are in the 12th grade?

Curlee: Positive ratings by peers in middle school were sometimes linked with significantly better adjustment at age 18, but sometimes are related to heightened problems. On the positive end, being rated as prosocial was clearly beneficial — it was linked with not just lower behavioral problems and substance use at age 18, but remarkably, to higher grades and SAT scores from school records. At the same time, middle schoolers who were being rated as highly popular were among those with the highest levels of substance use in grade 12; this finding is troubling as we know that grade 12 substance use is linked with higher risk for diagnoses of addiction in adulthood.

Kids rated as isolated had among the lowest levels of substance use at age 18, so being a “loner” apparently had some payoffs in avoiding a serious problem among youth in these high-achieving school communities. We found that an aggressive reputation in middle school is not related to later adjustment; this was unexpected given the large amount of literature on aggression and maladjustment and is most likely due to some of the most aggressive kids leaving the study before 12th grade.

Q: As a result of this study, what are your suggestions for children of this age?

Luthar: There are a couple of messages that would probably be helpful for middle school kids and their parents. One is that being one of the popular kids is not necessarily an unmitigated blessing, and by the same token, not being in the “in crowd” can actually have some benefits in the long term. Also, it’s important to share with parents the clear benefits of fostering — and modeling themselves — behaviors reflecting doing for the greater good. This can benefit not just their children’s friends (to whom they extend kindnesses) but can translate into various benefits for the kids themselves, over time.

Q: Is there insight from the study that leads to a well-balanced child as she or he enters college?

Luthar: These findings highlight the value of a child’s personal decency and kindness in high-achieving schools where competition is rife and there is so much focus on “getting ahead.” In our past work on these youth, we’ve found better adjustment levels among kids who believed their parents had a balanced set of values, emphasizing personal decency as much as personal success. 

What we find in this longitudinal study is a remarkable set of benefits not just during those middle school years, but many years later in late adolescence. Sixth- and seventh-graders whose behaviors showed kindness and decency actually ended up being among the “winners” in what is so highly cherished in these communities: high academic grades and SAT scores as graduating seniors. Thus, in a context where personal success is so highly valued there are, in fact, multiple benefits to be invested in doing for others.