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Adolescents who are relatively older than their classmates are more popular

Findings suggest European school policies on grade retention influence effects of relative age on popularity

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IMAGE: Average popularity scores of pupils (range 0-100); plotted by distance of birth month to school admission cut-off date. Grey area visualizes the 95 per cent confidence interval. Source: CILS4EU, wave 1.... view more 

Credit: van Aalst et al, 2021, PLOS ONE (CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

A survey study of adolescents in Europe suggests that students who are older relative to their peers are more likely to be popular in their school class. Danelien van Aalst of the University of Groningen and Frank van Tubergen of Utrecht University present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 5, 2021.

Previous research has surfaced associations between adolescents' relative ages and a variety of factors, such as performance in school or sports, self-esteem, suicide rates, and exposure to leadership experience in school. However, few studies have examined links between relative age and popularity.

To investigate potential links, van Aalst and Tubergen analyzed data from a large survey study of more than 13,000 students aged 14 and 15 in three countries: the Netherlands, Sweden, and England. The survey ran from October 2011 and April 2011 and included a question that invited participants to list up to five of the most popular students in their school class.

The researchers then analyzed popularity in the context of two different measures of relative age. First, in line with earlier research, they considered relative age according to the cut-off date for enrollment in primary school. Next, unlike in prior studies, they also considered participants' age relative to others in their class at the time of the survey, accounting for potential effects of repeating or skipping grades.

The analysis showed that students who were older according to either type of relative age were more likely to be popular in their class. Relative age related to primary school cut-off was particularly strongly associated with popularity in England, where students progress to the next grade every year regardless of school performance. Meanwhile, current relative age had stronger associations with popularity in the Netherlands, where students repeat a year if performance does not meet certain requirements.

The researchers say their results do not suggest that either type of retention policy is better, but teachers might benefit from knowing their students' birth months. Further research could examine the mechanisms that underlie the link between relative age and popularity and examine this association in other countries.

The authors add: "Results indicate a statistically significant positive relation of both past and current relative age with popularity status in classes. Past relative age, referring to the cut-off date of entering school, is particularly strong in England with a system of social promotion, while current relative age, referring to the age distribution within the classroom, is stronger in the Netherlands which has a system of grade retention."

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Citation: van Aalst DAE, van Tubergen F (2021) More popular because you're older? Relative age effect on popularity among adolescents in class. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0249336. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249336

Funding: The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0249336

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