How well children do academically is tied to how well their classmates do, past studies have found, and the issue of "peer effects" plays out in classrooms across the United States through such practices as tracking. Now a new longitudinal study on children's language development has found that peer effects exist in preschool classrooms—a level of schooling where there's not been a lot of examination of peer influences—and raises questions about whether tracking, which is customary in public preschool programs, is a sound approach. The study also found that peer effects may be stronger for some children than for others.
The study was carried out by researchers at the Ohio State University, Florida State University, and the University of Virginia. It appears in the journal Child Development.
"We found that children who had more limited language skills than their classmates seemed to be more affected by their classmates' skills than students who were highly skilled," says Laura M. Justice, professor of reading in the School of Teaching and Learning at the Ohio State University, the study's lead author.
The study looked at more than 330 ethnically diverse 4-year-olds who were enrolled in 49 preschool classrooms. The children completed a comprehensive assessment of their language skills in the fall and spring of the academic year. The average level of language skill shown by children's classmates, as well as children's deviation from their peers, were used to determine if average peer skills and the extent of the individual children's difference from this average predicted the individual children's language growth.
The study concluded that preschoolers' language growth was associated with the average level of language skills shown by their classmates. It also found that relatively less-skilled pupils seemed to be more affected by their classmates' skills than highly skilled pupils.
"In the preschool sector of schooling, peer effects have seldom been a topic of research, despite the fact that tracking is customary practice within public preschool programs," notes Justice. "In fact, in many publicly funded programs, disadvantaged children with relatively low skill levels are clustered with similarly performing peers. Our findings raise questions as to whether this is a sound practice."
The Institute of Education Sciences (with the U.S. Department of Education) supported this study.