School & District Management

What Happens to the Kids Who Ruled Middle School?

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 18, 2014 2 min read
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The unrelenting drive to be older and more popular is a root of a great chunk of the misery in many students’ middle school years. Now, a study in the Journal of Child Development suggests the kids at the top of the pecking order in junior high tend to fall behind their peers as they come into adulthood.

In the study, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Cool’ Kids?” lead author Joseph P. Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and his colleagues tracked 184 adolescents from ages 13 to 23, not only interviewing the students but peers and classmates, who provided outside information on the students’ popularity. In particular, the researchers studied how often they engaged in common, mildly risky teenage behaviors: “minor deviance, a focus on physical appearance in choosing friends, and precocious romantic activity.” Translation: Smoking marijuana and doing mildly criminal things like vandalism, being cliquey and mean, and falling hopelessly in love with a new kid every week.

The urge to be seen as grown up long before they are really emotionally (or behaviorally) mature is nearly universal among children entering puberty, but Allen and his colleagues note normal “does not necessarily mean healthy or adaptive.” They found that students who engaged in so-called “cool” behaviors did, in fact, move to the top of the middle school pecking order.

But then they languished there. Their social status slipped back to average in high school, and by their early 20s researchers found the middle school kids who engaged in more frequent “pseudomature” behaviors were seen as less socially mature by peers:

Moreover, by early adulthood, the former cool kids were at higher risk of serious criminal activity and drug and alcohol use.

Interestingly, this follows on an earlier longitudinal analysis by Allen which found that the students who were very socially awkward at 13 and had difficulty creating and maintaining healthy friendships in middle school continued to struggle with adult relationships. Apparently in middle school, middle-of-the-pack is the way to go.

Check out a great National Institute of Child Health and Human Development podcast with Mr. Allen here.

Above: The chart shows how students with frequent “psuedomature” behaviors like drinking or frequent hookups sank in popularity from middle school to high school. Source: Journal of Child Development.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.