What Qualities Do "Popular Children" Have?

How do sociologists define "popular" children?

Two High School cheer leaders and a nerd
Popular Children. Rubberball/Mike Kemp / Getty Images

"Popular Children" -- a Sociometric Term

The term "popular children," in addition being a term used every day by parents and teachers, is also a specialized term used by researchers interested in sociometrics (the study of social status). Sociometric researchers explore the status of children by conducting surveys and assigning one of five labels:

Surveys are conducted among peers.

Children are asked to rate their peer group (usually their class) by responding to questions such as:

  • Who are your three best friends in this group? 
  • What three people in this group do you LEAST admire? 
  • What three people in this group would most enjoy going to a picnic?

Definition of Popular Children

Popular children: The most popular children are often named in positive ways by their peers .

Rejected children: Rejected children receive few positive comments and many negative comments

Neglected children: Neglected children receive few comments at all, either positive or negative. As a result, they are often ignored or marginalized.

Average children: Average children received a moderate number of positive and negative responses.

Controversial children: Controversial children tend to receive a large number of positive AND negative responses from their peers.

One group of popular children are very skilled at social interaction.

They are the children who are most likely to read others' body language accurately, and respond appropriately. They often help peers and support others.

Another group of popular children are very popular for almost the opposite reasons: they are the children who are most likely to act out in class and defy authority.

This group of popular children may be admired, not for their kindness or social abilities, but for their physical strength or athletic abilities. This group may also bully others.

What Does Popularity Mean?

While rejected children do often have a difficult time with self-esteem, popular children are not necessarily happier or more successful than average, controversial, or neglected children. What's more, popularity status can vary depending upon the day on which the survey is conducted, and outcomes can change over time. In other words, a child who is found to be "average" in grade 1 may become "controversial" or "popular" in a later grade.

What may be most significant to your child's emotional well-being is not his or her sociometric status, but rather his or her feelings about that status. For example, while some children would feel distraught about being neglected or controversial, others may feel quite comfortable with that status. Popularity, while it would appear to be a sign of social health, can be difficult to maintain -- and the fear of losing popularity can be anxiety provoking.


Furman, Wyndol, McDunn, Christine, and Young, Brennan. The Role of Peer and Romantic Relationships in Adolescent Affective Development. In N. B. Allen & L. Sheeber (Eds.) Adolescent emotional development and the emergence of depressive disorders. 2008. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wentzel, Kathryn R., & Asher, Steven R. The Academic Lives of Neglected, Rejected, Popular, and Controversial Children. Child Development. 1995. 66:754-763.

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