In Brief

Middle school students with close friendships at the beginning of sixth grade are more social, helpful and cooperative than students who do not have reciprocated friendships, according to a study in the June issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 96, No. 2).

It's not just having a friend that boosts social and academic adjustment--it's just as important to be a friend, the study found. Indeed, reciprocated friendships were shown to positively influence students' adjustment even two years later in eighth grade, found psychologists Kathryn Wentzel, PhD, of the University of Maryland, Carolyn McNamara Barry, PhD, of Loyola College of Maryland, and Kathryn Caldwell, PhD, of the University of Washington.

Students without reciprocated friendships, on the other hand, were found to report higher levels of emotional distress and sadness and less self-worth.

The researchers surveyed 242 middle school students on their friendship patterns and levels of school adjustment in sixth grade and levels of adjustment in eighth grade. Students and teachers filled out questionnaires to assess friends' and students' classroom behavior. To determine reciprocated friendships, the researchers asked students to identify up to three of their best friends in a list of classmates and then linked together those who identified each other. Seventy-two percent had at least one reciprocated friendship during sixth grade, according to the study.

Those students with friends were seen by their peers as more helpful, cooperative and willing to share with others than those without friends, according to the study. By the end of middle school, these students also were found to be better off than students who did not have reciprocated friendships in sixth grade. Friendless students continued to report higher emotional distress at the end of middle school, the study found.

"Friends and friendships are especially important at this age," Wentzel says. "During early adolescence, students begin to form a sense of self based in part on their interactions with their peers. They also tend to look to each other for help and support as they make other important physical, cognitive and school-related transitions."

That said, students often are motivated to adopt behaviors of those they have a strong emotional bond with, researchers found. For example, students will often become more prosocial when they have prosocial peers. As such, the study suggests that a single friend's prosocial characteristics in sixth grade can predict a student's prosocial behavior two years later--in part because they adopt goals to behave in more positive ways, Wentzel says.

However, the same did not hold true for a student's academic achievement, Wentzel notes. While friends do often perform similarly academically, they tend to have little influence over each other's academic motivation and performance, the study found. Teachers and parents may be more of an influence on academics, Wentzel adds.

And while going friendless in sixth grade may cause students' grades to slip as they take longer to adjust, most friendless students in the study did improve their academic performance by the time they reached eighth grade, according to classroom reports and teacher ratings.

"Some students may take longer to adjust to a new setting and may make friends less quickly," Wentzel says. "Some might also be more adult-oriented and form close relationships with teachers."

To find out, Wentzel is now studying the influences of student-teacher relationships in middle school.