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Rejected youth in residential treatment: social affiliation and peer group configuration

Kathryn Hoff

The results of this study reflect and extend prior work on the peer relations of youth with social and behavioral difficulties. Consistent with previous studies, we found that most youth identified as having rejected status are members of peer groups and tend to associate together (e.g. Bagwell et al., 2000; Gest et al., 2001). The current study also extends these perspectives and suggests that rejected youth with EBD can attain high social positions within a residential treatment setting.

The present study found that students formed solid peer clusters despite the fact that the participants were all placed in a residential treatment setting without prior affiliation with each other. This finding is somewhat discrepant with prior research done by Farmer and Cairns (1991), which suggested that peer rejection in residential treatment is associated with non-membership in a peer group. However, results from the Farmer and Cairns study may be due to small sample sizes. Researchers who have used a larger sample in social network investigations have found that children who were assumed to be rejected by their peers (i.e., employed indirect measures of rejection; Cairns et al., 1988; Farmer & Hollowell, 1994; Farmer & Rodkin, 1996) were solid members of a peer cluster and were not significantly more isolated than students with lower levels of antisocial behavior. Thus, perhaps a greater number of students in the total sample generate a larger number of peer groups and potentially more choices of affiliations for the rejected student.

The second focus of the investigation was the relationship between peer group acceptance and social network centrality of the peer clique. Our study found a significantly greater proportion of accepted students within highly prominent social clusters. Specifically, all of the rejected students in the upper grades were members of medium- or low-status peer clusters. However, rejected youth were equally as likely as accepted students to have attained high social positions within their peer group and were similar to average students in overall network centrality. Thus, peer rejection did not appear to suppress high social positions within the cluster. This is similar to past investigations on social centrality that have suggested that aggressive or antisocial peer youth are highly socially prominent within the general education environment (e.g., Farmer & Rodkin, 1996; Gest et al., 2001; Xie et al., 1999).

Finally, based on models of behavioral similarity, it was hypothesized that rejected children would affiliate in peer cliques with other low status peers. This hypothesis was supported; all but one of the rejected students who were peer group members affiliated with all the other same-sex and same-grade rejected students. The results of this research are similar to past studies that have found that children are typically involved in relationships with similar status peers (e.g., Bagwell et al., 2000; Parker & Asher, 1987). This finding may have negative implications for social development, in that rejected students' affiliations with other low-status peers may preclude participation in social relationships with more socially skilled peers. Consequently, these students may have difficulty developing positive social interaction competencies (Bagwell et al., 2000).

This study provides additional support that combining the unique contributions of both social acceptance and peer affiliations yields complementary information for exploring the broader social environment. Using only a group indicator of rejection clearly limits the ability to explore relations between and among children and the social position of the individual within the peer cluster and larger social structure (e.g., Cairns et al., 1988). This study also demonstrates the feasibility and utility of using sociometric and social networking techniques within a middle school environment. This is important, as there are fewer investigations on the social relationships of students at the middle school level.


Bagwell, C. L., Coie, J. D., Terry, R. A., & Lochman, J. E. (2000). Peer clique participation and social status in preadolescence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 280-305.

Cairns, R. B., Cairns, B. D., Neckerman, H. J., Gest, S., & Gariepy, J. L. (1988). Social networks and aggressive behavior: Peer support or peer rejection? Developmental Psychology, 24, 815-823.

Farmer, T. W., & Cairns, R. B. (1991). Social networks and social status in emotionally disturbed children. Behavioral Disorders, 16, 288-298.

Farmer, T. W., & Hollowell, J. H. (1994). Social networks in mainstream classrooms: Social affiliations and behavioral characteristics of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 2, 143-155, 163.

Farmer, T. W., & Rodkin, P. (1996). Antisocial and prosocial correlates of classroom social positions: The social network centrality perspective. Social Development, 5, 174-188.

Gest, S. D., Graham-Bermann, S. A., & Hartup, W. W. (2001). Peer experience: Common and unique features of number of friendships, social network centrality and sociometric status. Social Development, 10, 23-39.

Parker, J. G., & Asher, S. R. (1987). Peer relations and later adjustment: Are low-accepted children at risk? Psychological Bulletin, 102, 357-389.

Xie, H., Cairns, R. B., & Cairns, B. D. (1999). Social networks and configurations in innercity schools: Aggression, popularity, and implications for students with EBD. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 7, 147-156.

Hoff, K.E (2003) Rejected youth in residential treatment: social affiliation and peer group configuration.
Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Summer 2003

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