Teacher training doesn’t usually include a module on how to arrange the seating of pupils. Perhaps it should – a new study by psychologists finds that where children are placed in the classroom is associated with how well-liked they are by their classmates.
Yvonne van den Berg and Antonius Cillessen studied 34 classrooms at 27 elementary schools in The Netherlands. The 336 participating pupils had an average age of 11, and 47 per cent of them were boys. In all classrooms, it was the school policy that the teachers dictated who sat where; seating arrangements were in groups or rows, or a mixture. Every pupil was asked to say how much they liked each of their classmates, and to rate their classmates’ popularity. They gave these ratings twice: four to six weeks into the first semester (August/September time), and then again at the beginning of the school’s second semester during the following Spring.
A key finding was that children who were seated in the first semester near the boundaries of their classroom tended to be less liked by their peers at that time, and also six months later, as compared with children sat nearer the centre of the class. Another related result was that children tended to rate those located nearer to them as more likeable and more popular (this helps explain the first result – children sat centrally tend to have more classmates closer to them). Meanwhile, children who were only (re)positioned at the boundaries of the class in the second semester did not receive lower likeability ratings at that time, presumably because their reputation had already been established by then.
Why should seating position have these associations with children’s perceptions of their peers? The researchers think two psychological mechanisms are pertinent. Social psychology research on race relations and prejudice finds that the more we interact with other people, the more positive our views of them tend to be. School pupils naturally interact and socialise more with the children located near to them, and so this interaction could encourage more positive perceptions. There is also a psychological phenomenon known as the “mere exposure effect”, which describes how familiarity with something or someone breeds more positive feelings towards them.
Van den Berg and Cillessen also conducted a second study with 158 more school children, in which they asked them to rate each others’ popularity, and also to say where they would position themselves and their classmates if they could choose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children said they’d like to sit nearer to their peers who were more liked and more popular. The researchers said this provided an insight into what’s known as the “cycle of popularity” – well-liked and popular children typically attract more social interactions with others, this then reinforces the popular perception that others have of them via the mechanisms mentioned earlier.
There are plenty of unknowns in this research. For example, we don’t know the reasoning behind the teachers’ decisions of where they chose to locate their pupils in their class. Perhaps they placed more popular pupils more centrally? In fact, there are reasons to think this unlikely – past research has found teacher and pupil ratings of pupils’ social relationships are only weakly related.
Despite the unknowns, the van den Berg and Cillessen said their results provided evidence for what’s been termed the “invisible hand of the teacher” – the understudied ways that teacher decisions influence the ecology of the classroom. “Classroom seating arrangements may be hugely influential in children’s exposure to and interactions with other peers and, thus, in determining children’s social relationships with one another,” the researchers concluded. They also highlighted that this new research builds on another recent study they conducted, which found that placing children closer to each other in the classroom improved pupils’ liking of each other and reduced problem behaviours in class.
van den Berg, Y., & Cillessen, A. (2015). Peer status and classroom seating arrangements: A social relations analysis Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130, 19-34 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.007