Study explores the down side of being dubbed ‘class clown’

Class clowns’ off-task antics amuse and delight their classmates during first and second grades, making them the most sought-after playmates on the playground in early elementary school.

But by the time these mischievous boys are promoted to third grade, they plummet to the bottom of the social circle as classmates’ disapproval of their behaviour grows, a new study found.

Perhaps most worrisome is that by third grade, playful boys may be internalising others’ negative assessments and begin viewing themselves as social failures, possibly setting them on a course for a host of poor academic and developmental outcomes, said researcher Lynn A. Barnett, an educational psychologist and professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois.

These sudden reversals in playful boys’ social fortunes from first to third grade may be classmates’ mirroring of teachers’ responses to behaviour that they find disruptive, Barnett said.

Barnett followed 278 kindergarteners through their first three years of school to explore how playful children viewed themselves and how they were perceived by their classmates and teachers. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

“Playful children are more individualistic, spontaneous and less concerned about pleasing teachers and other adults than their peers,” Barnett said.

In the study, each student’s playfulness was assessed using a 23-item scale that rated their propensity for physical, social and cognitive spontaneity; the enthusiasm they manifested during play; and their sense of humour.

Children and teachers were asked to name students in their class who joked around a lot and attempted to entertain their classmates. Students who were nominated by at least 25 percent of their peers were considered to be “class clowns.”

While playful boys and girls were equally likely to be viewed this way by their first-grade peers, classmates in second and third grades were more likely to apply the label class clown to boys, but not girls, as were their teachers.

In first and second grades, playful boys and girls viewed themselves as having superior social skills compared with their classmates, and they tended to be the most popular playmates in their peer groups.

Playful boys continued to enjoy higher social status as they advanced to second grade, but by third grade, however, these boys plummeted to the bottom of the social ladder - becoming the children that others preferred playing with least.

Accordingly, these boys, once confident in their social skills, had begun viewing themselves as unpopular and socially incompetent in third grade, Barnett found.

Playful girls’ social status and feelings of social competence did not change between first and third grades, however.

First- and second-graders tended not to see any distinctions between more and less playful children’s behaviour and did not consider class clowns’ behaviour disruptive, Barnett said. By third grade, though, classmates’ opinions of playful boys’ behaviour had reversed, and peers considered them more disruptive than other students.

This dramatic reversal in playful boys’ social standing and feelings of social competence appeared to mirror teachers’ reactions to their behaviour, Barnett said.

“Beginning in first grade, teachers showed their distaste for boys they called class clowns, consistently viewing them as disruptive and as the least socially skilled students in their classes,” Barnett said. “These perceptions strengthened as children progressed through their first three years of school. While most children were seen as becoming more socially competent across time, playful boys were actually regarded as declining as they approached third grade.”

Barnett cautioned that it would be important to determine if children’s playfulness was viewed negatively by teachers based on actual conduct problems or on stringent behavioural expectations that differed for boys and girls in the classroom.

However, finding ways for educators to encourage and channel children’s playful behaviour in the classroom would help promote positive outcomes for children and better teacher-student relationships, she said.

“Studies have shown that the labels we assign to children become strong determinants of their self-esteem,” she said. “And these labels can have a powerful effect on these children’s behaviours and socialisation. If these labels are negative ones, they can lead to children becoming alienated from peers. They may treat that child differently, hold inaccurate expectations or pressure them to conform.”

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