A new study finds that high school popularity is linked to age, with the older students in a given class significantly more likely to be popular.
The study analyzed data from a survey study of more than 13,000 students aged 14 and 15 in the Netherlands, Sweden, and England. The survey included a question that asked the students to list the most popular students in their class.
“Youth who were relatively older when starting primary school,” the study writes, “were more likely to be seen as popular in secondary school.”
The effect was the strongest in the Netherlands, where grade skipping and grade repetition (also known as being “left back”) are quite common practices. This means that there is a wider age range of students within a given class.
But in England and Sweden, where grade-skipping and repetition occur infrequently, the effect was not as strong.
Previous research has looked at the associations between high-school students’ relative ages and factors such as academic performance, sports, and self-esteem. But until this study, the links between relative age and popularity remained unexamined.
The study, authored by Danelien van Aalst of the University of Groningen and Frank van Tubergen of Utrecht University, appeared in the journal PLoS ONE on May 5.
High school popularity and kindergarten cut-off dates
Most school systems use some kind of age cut-off date, often September 1. That means a child must have turned five by September 1 to attend kindergarten that year. Children who turn five after that date will begin kindergarten the following year.
That means that within a given class, a child who was born in August will be 11 months younger than one born in September, which is a considerable difference at that young age.
“Especially in the beginning of secondary education,” the study writes, “an age difference of 11 months between the oldest and youngest student in class could mean a significant difference in physiological development.”
The advantages of being older
What type of differences? The authors mention that size, strength, sexual maturity, cognitive development, and social skills can vary considerably when one child is almost a year older than another.
That means that students who are relatively older have several advantages over their younger classmates, and are more likely to be perceived as “powerful, influential, and more self-confident.” This in turn can lead to the so-called Pygmalion effect, whereby higher expectations from teachers result in higher performance, which then results in more self-confidence, etcetera.
Likewise, the relatively younger students have fewer resources to draw upon when it comes to high school popularity. And these disadvantages probably negatively affect their level of self-esteem, and the self-perception of their own skills.
Findings: age is linearly associated with popularity
The study found that, indeed, the older students were generally more likely to be popular.
In all three countries studied, the popularity ranking drops more or less linearly with each successive birth month, meaning that the effect was strongest for the children born in September, and who began school 11 months older than the youngest children in that class, born for example in August.
In the Netherlands, for example, this meant that a child born immediately after the cut-off date was 2.6% more likely to be nominated by their peers as one of the most popular students.
The role of being left back
More specifically, a student’s past relative age was most strongly associated with popularity in England. Past relative age here means how old a child was relative to their peers when they entered kindergarten. In England, almost every student advances to the next grade every year, and only very few students repeat a year (or are “held back” or “left back”). This policy means that pupils who are the youngest when entering primary school are likely to remain the youngest pupil in their class throughout their schooling.
But in the Netherlands, where repeating a grade is quite common (about 24%), the students’ current relative age compared to their peers had the strongest associations with popularity. In the Netherlands, there is a wider age range of students in the classroom, which amplifies the (visible) age differences between the students. These older Dutch students who repeat a grade “are more popular than their peers, which can provide them with more self-confidence and status,” the study writes.
Based on these findings, the authors write, “we cannot make strong arguments for one system over the other, but findings suggest that the impact of relative age depends on educational systems.”
So while neither type of retention policy is better in terms of maximizing high school popularity, educators might benefit from taking their pupils’ birth month into account. Teachers “should become more aware of the enduring impact of the cut-off date when students enter primary school,” as it affects their well-being, popularity, and educational outcomes.
Further research could examine the mechanisms that underlie the link between relative age and popularity, and examine this association in other countries.
In conclusion, the authors write, this study shows that a student’s birth month “not only impacts students’ educational outcomes, but also their popularity among peers in class — and these two outcomes may be interrelated.”
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Study: “More popular because you’re older? Relative age effect on popularity among adolescents in class“
Authors: Danelien van Aalst and Frank van Tubergen
Published in: PLoS ONE
Publication date: May 5, 2021
Image: by NeONBRAND on Unsplash