Applied Psychology OPUS

Peer Relationships, Protective Factors, and Social Skill Development in Low-Income Children

Sophie Barnes

Low-income families often face economic insecurity, housing instability, and difficulty seeking and maintaining employment. These obstacles can lead to psychological stress, a lack of opportunity for socio-economic status mobility, and minimal time for family interactions (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Raver, 2002). Although parents want to afford their children with rich, supportive learning environments and opportunities for social interaction, this can be less realistic for low-income families to achieve as compared to families with a higher socio-economic status (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Heymann & Earle, 2000). Social skills are an important component of academic achievement, however low-income children may struggle to succeed academically as they often enter school with fewer social skills, unprepared for the social interactions that facilitate learning and are crucial to acquire in the early years of schooling (Duncan, Jean Yeung, Brooks-Gunn, & Smith, 1998; McClelland, Morrison, & Holmes, 2000).


Classroom relationships, especially those experienced between peers, can help children develop the social skills necessary for school adjustment and long-term academic success (Bulotsky-Shearer, Bell, Romero, & Carter, 2011; Sebanc, 2003; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). Engaging in peer relationships can help economically disadvantaged students improve their social skills, increase school engagement, and help them create a positive outlook about school, the relationships formed, and the learning process (Milteer, Ginsburg, & Mulligan, 2011; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). The development of communication based social skills and social skills that focus on conflict resolution and coping mechanisms help children succeed in peer relationships, and improves the likelihood of a positive school trajectory (Benard, 2003; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).

Home, School, Relationships: An Ecological Framework and Classroom Protective Factors

Looking at the contexts of home, school, the relationships formed within these settings, and the interactions between them creates a more complete picture of children’s development, than just looking at the contexts individually (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). Young children spend a majority of their time at home or in the classroom, making these settings their primary environments (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). Prior to formal schooling, most low-income children interact primarily with their families, thus the transition to formal schooling marks the transition to a new, structured setting for low-income children (Duncan et al., 1998). To best understand and provide a context for student’s outcomes and development, it is important to study children in their naturalistic environments and to observe them as they build relationships with their teachers and peers (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998).

The risk factors of low-income homes can be ameliorated by classroom protective factors (Benard, 1993). In this context, protective factors consist of components or characteristics of an environment or relationship that guard children against risk or help them face their challenges most productively and effectively (Benard, 1993; McClelland et al., 2000). Important classroom protective factors that address this risk and its potentially detrimental implications include the student-teacher relationship, peer relationships, and the creation of a classroom community (Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). The social skills learned within these interactions help students create a strong foundation in the classroom, a positive outlook on future relationships, and can increase school engagement (Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).

Emotionally supportive relationships aid in emotional adjustment and create protective factors that defend children against psychological stressors (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Children interact with their peers and teachers on a regular basis, making those relationships important to understand (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). Emotionally supportive teachers can make children feel that there is an adult who cares about them, listens to them, and provides encouragement. A trusting, warm relationship with an adult is an important part of the development of a student’s self-perception and therefore the classroom community (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Spira & Fischel, 2005). If a student and a teacher have a positive relationship, the student will likely feel confident and demonstrate pro-social classroom behaviors, engaging in peer play and comfortably exploring the classroom (Spira & Fischel, 2005; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). The relationship can also adversely affect students and their development. A negative or tense relationship between a student and a teacher can lead to an expression of antisocial behaviors that inhibits positive peer interactions (Spira & Fischel, 2005). Teachers can help students regulate their behavior and advance academically (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). In fact, children who have better relationships with their teachers tend to do better in school and feel more engaged overall (Woolley & Grogan-Kaylor, 2006).
Peer relationships also serve as protective factors that shape a child’s school experience (Benard, 1993; Woolley & Grogan-Kaylor, 2006). Partaking in a classroom community or classroom group encourages participation, idea sharing, and gives children a sense of belonging (Benard, 1993). Participation in a classroom community helps children understand the way a group functions, internalize social norms, and develop more comprehensive social skills (Benard, 1993). Peer relationships form within these communities and these relationships, and the presence of peer play can help children develop communication and problem solving skills that will have long term benefits for children (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012; Hamre & Pianta, 2005).  Children who are engaged in mutual friendships are more likely to think positively about school and the learning process. If students do not participate in warm, mutual interactions and relationships at home, it is crucial that they receive this support while in the classroom (Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).

School engagement is an important protective factor that develops through these classroom relationships (Alexander et al., 1997; Benard, 1993). Low-income students are more likely to drop out of school than higher income students (Duncan et al., 1998), however students who feel engaged in school and the learning process are less likely to drop out than those who do not (Alexander et al., 1997). If the process of school engagement begins in the first year of formal schooling, students can create strong, positive associations with school that will likely lead to lower rates of high school dropout (Alexander et al., 1997). Indeed, positive or negative introductions to formal schooling can shape the way a child views the process and the relationships within it (Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).


As previously discussed, classroom relationships are instrumental components of the learning process and each play a vital role in the formation of school engagement and positive school perceptions (Alexander et al., 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2005). In the student-teacher relationship, if a student feels connected to a teacher and perceives their relationship to be emotionally supportive, they are likely to feel more engaged than a student who does not perceive their relationship with their teacher to be emotionally supportive (Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). In addition, if a teacher holds high expectations for a student, that student will likely perceive that the teacher believes in them, increasing their school engagement and desire to succeed (Alexander et al., 1997). Group membership also affects school engagement, as children who feel that they belong to a group at school feel more engaged (Woolley & Grogan-Kaylor, 2006). These relationships are not only formed through the use of social skills, they are the primary mechanisms of social skill development (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012).

Peer Relationships and Skill Development

The development of positive peer relationships is especially important for low-income children whose parents must focus on meeting their children’s basic needs and often do not have the time or resources to dedicate to skill development and educational interactions (Duncan et al., 1998; Milteer et al., 2012). Therefore, children must master these skills and experience these relationships in the classroom (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). The social skills gained by peer interactions can fall into two categories: social skills that focus on basic communication and social skills that deal with stress management, coping and more complex social interactions. Each of these skill sets creates protective factors and is crucial for long-term positive outcomes (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012; Milteer et al., 2012).


Although parents and educators may perceive friendship as fluid and trivial for young children, friendships are significant and can influence the trajectory of a student’s school career (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012; Sebanc, 2003). Peer relationships are comprised of positive or negative features. Positive features of friendships include trust, communication, and a willingness to help, while negative features include characteristics such as disloyalty and rejection (Sebanc, 2003). These features create conflict-ridden relationships that can negatively influence a child’s trajectory (Sebanc, 2003). Children’s perceptions of early friendships and peer interactions often influence the way they perceive peer relationships throughout school (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012; Sebanc, 2003). If students engage in friendships with positive features and feel accepted by their peers, they will likely continue to engage in prosocial behaviors and think positively about friendships (Sebanc, 2003; Spira & Fischel, 2005). Conversely, if students’ friendships are characterized by negative features or if they face peer rejection, antisocial behavior is likely to begin or continue and can lead to negative perceptions of friendships and peer interactions. Furthermore, peer rejection or acceptance often remains stable and influences the skill development, academic achievement, and self-image of a child (Sebanc, 2003; Spira & Fischel, 2005). Although this paper focuses on friendships with positive features and therefore positive outcomes, it is important to remember that negative peer relationships can be detrimental to students’ outcomes.

Children’s positive peer relationships aid in the development of communication based social skills, which can enhance academic achievement (Raver, 2002; Sebanc, 2003). In order to engage in complex peer play, children need to communicate verbally. The necessity of creating coherent, effective, and clear phrases in order to communicate with their peers forces children to develop language skills. These communication skills also benefit students academically as language development in the early years of schooling can predict students’ later reading abilities (Alexander et al., 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Therefore, low-income children who do not learn communication skills at home must engage in peer play in the classroom in order to face similar chances for academic success as their higher income counterparts (Raver, 2002).

Peer play provides another forum for academic, social, and behavioral learning in the classroom (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012; Milteer et al., 2012). If children are shy, encouraging peer play in the classroom can give children who may not otherwise seek out this contact experiences with peer relationships at a young age, thus preparing them for a long term positive outlook on peer relationships (Milteer et al., 2012). In addition to communication based social skills, peer play can also aid in the development of another set of social skills that will improve the likelihood for school success. These skills include conflict resolution, problem solving, and stress management skills (McClelland et al., 2000; Milteer et al., 2012).
Once students engage in these more complex interactions, problems may arise and conflict can occur. Through dealing with this conflict, students can develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012). Students can develop these necessary skills in the safe classroom space but will likely develop a strong skill set that will be beneficial outside of the classroom environment. Development of these more advanced skills will likely only occur after social skill development and improvement, and often can only develop naturally through peer play (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2012). Development of these relationships and skills can be crucial for a child’s success or failure. If children can develop these skills at a young age, it can create firm foundations for processing stress, solving problems, dealing with conflict, and communicating that can help them regulate their emotions, engage in peer relationships, cope with difficult situations, and succeed academically (Sebanc, 2003).

Peer play can help children process stress as it allows them to express themselves and to deal with issues that may be too difficult to outwardly discuss (Milteer et al., 2012; Sebanc, 2003). Since low-income children may experience higher stress environments than higher-income children, learning how to deal with the possible stress, and developing strategies and skills to do so is crucial (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Duncan et al., 1998). Children who can develop this secondary set of skills will face greater chances for school success as they will be more able to navigate through hardships and stressors in their lives and cope with situations they encounter. If children can start to process and work through complex, stressful emotions, it may lower their behavioral disturbances as the classroom can represent a place of expression rather than repression.


Since low-income children may not receive the necessary social skill development in the home, it is important that these skills are acquired in the classroom, specifically through peer relationships (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Milteer et al., 2012). Peer relationships and peer play serve as a protective factor and facilitate the essential social skill development (Benard, 1993; McClelland, 2000). Indeed, communication based social skills and social skills that help children deal with conflict and cope with stressful situations are crucial components of a strong foundation for low-income children. Development of these skills through peer relationships and peer play can shape children’s perceptions of school and the relationships formed within it, thus increasing adjustment, academic achievement, and school engagement (McClelland et al., 2000). If children can develop the social skills needed to interact with peers through peer play at a young age, they will likely experience increased feelings of belonging and more developed language skills, allowing them to communicate clearly and effectively and leading to a greater likelihood for a positive school trajectory (Benard, 1993; Bulotsky-Shearer, 2012; McClelland et al., 2000; Milteer et al., 2012).

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