Early peer experiences have impacts on children’s academic and social developmental trajectories, and successful peer experiences are important in kindergarten because it sets the foundation for future peer interactions and friendships. Though numerous factors can affect peer experiences, language skills and expressions may influence a child’s ability to initiate, engage, and sustain social activities with their peers. As it is likely that language skills influence children’s classroom-based friendships, a recent study by Chow and his colleagues explored the difference between children at risk for special language impairment (SLI) and their typical peers regarding friendship centrality and reciprocity in kindergarten classrooms using social network analysis.
Data from a sample 419 children (53% boys, average age = 6.8 years) from 21 kindergarten classrooms in four elementary schools in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States were collected. Children at risk for SLI (n=190) were identified using scores of the screening tools of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-5). Peer nomination technique was employed to locate the friendship network in that each child was asked to name three best friends in their classroom. The friendship network centrality was a measure of children’s social position in the classroom, and it was an index generated from number of friends nominated and number of received nominations taking into account classroom size. High centrality scores suggest that a student is more central to the social network. Reciprocity was a dichotomous variable: reciprocity = 1 if a student received at least one reciprocal nomination; reciprocity = 0 if no reciprocal friendship.
The results of Multilevel modelling indicated that:
- Of the 419 children, 15.2% did not make any best friend nomination, and 16.9% received no nomination. Of the 190 children at risk, 43.0% had reciprocal friendships while for children not at risk, 57.5% had reciprocal friendships.
- CELF-5 language scores were associated with centrality, and students at risk for SLI had lower centrality than children not at risk.
- Among students at risk for SLI, boys had significantly lower centrality compared to girls.
- Though SLI scores were significantly associated with reciprocity, students at risk for SLI were found to have 49% lower chance of having a reciprocal friendship compared to children not at risk.
Although some important variables were not included in the analysis model at both classroom context and individual levels (e.g., verbal intelligence, social skills, English language proficiency), the current study still provides some preliminary evidence of the association between language skills and peer friendship, and girls were significantly more central than boys among children at risk for SLI.
Source: Chow, J. C., Broda, M. D., Granger, K. L., Deering, B. T., & Dunn, K. T. (2021). Language skills and friendships in kindergarten classrooms: A social network analysis. School Psychology, 37(6), 488–500. https://doi.org/10.1037/spq0000451