Kids Assign Fault to Undesirable Behavior

Mental health issues in school

(RxWiki News) Social acceptance and bullying are a top concern in the classroom, for both children and their parents. Unfortunately, children can have a tendency to tease and ostracize their peers mercilessly, especially for being different or possessing undesirable characteristics.

But kids may be more accepting of their classmates if it's believed they are trying to change - and far less accepting if they are seen as being at fault for the trait.

"Ask a therapist about your child's acceptance among peers."

A psychology team at Kansas State University, led by professor Mark Barnett, conducted research to look at how elementary and middle school youth perceive and interact with their classmates who have undesirable characteristics. The team evaluated responses from 137 children in the third through eighth grades, presenting the kids with six hypothetical male peers.

Each peer was assigned one of the following negative traits: a poor student, poor athlete, extremely overweight, extremely shy, extremely aggressive or suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The team wanted to study the extent to which the participants faulted their peers with these undesirable characteristics, and how accepting of them they might be.

To do so, they presented the hypothetical peers in interviews conducted six month apart, which asked whether the student wanted to fix his problem and what he'd been doing to change the undesirable characteristic.

The 137 real participants were asked to rate their attitudes toward each hypothetical student on a five-point scale. The research team found that the more children faulted a peer for his negative quality, the more they would tease and make fun of him and the less they would help him. However, if the kids felt their peer was trying to change, they had a much more positive reaction toward him, valuing the effort to improve.

Of all the six undesirable characteristics, aggressiveness and being overweight were the two that were the most disliked and most faulted for. Girls also tended to be kinder than boys toward their undesirable peers, but disliked obesity and aggressiveness just as much.

"Attributions of fault seem to be very important in children's attitudes and anticipated reactions to peers with undesirable characteristics," said Barnett. Findings will be published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology.

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Review Date: 
October 16, 2011