Impact of Low Social Preference on the Development of Depressive and Aggressive Symptoms: Buffering by Children’s Prosocial Behavior
Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Impact of Low Social Preference on the Development of Depressive and Aggressive Symptoms: Buffering by Children's Prosocial Behavior
Jin H 0 1 2
Hans M. Koot 0 1 2
J. Marieke Buil 0 1 2
Pol A. C. van Lier 0 1 2
0 EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research , van der Boechorststraat 7, 1081 BT, Amsterdam , The Netherlands
1 Department of Psychology, Erasmus University Rotterdam , Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, 3062 PA, Rotterdam , The Netherlands
2 Section Clincial Developmental Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam , Van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT, Amsterdam , The Netherlands
Holding a low social position among peers has been widely demonstrated to be associated with the development of depressive and aggressive symptoms in children. However, little is known about potential protective factors in this association. The present study examined whether increases in children's prosocial behavior can buffer the association between their low social preference among peers and the development of depressive and aggressive symptoms in the first few school years. We followed 324 children over 1.5 years with three assessments across kindergarten and first grade elementary school. Children rated the (dis)likability of each of their classroom peers and teachers rated each child's prosocial behavior, depressive and aggressive symptoms. Results showed that low social preference at the start of kindergarten predicted persistent low social preference at the start of first grade in elementary school, which in turn predicted increases in both depressive and aggressive symptoms at the end of first grade. However, the indirect pathways were moderated by change in prosocial behavior. Specifically, for children whose prosocial behavior increased during kindergarten, low social preference in first grade elementary school no longer predicted increases in depressive and aggressive symptoms. In contrast, for children whose prosocial behavior did not increase, their low social preference in first grade elementary school continued to predict increases in both depressive and aggressive symptoms. These results suggest that improving prosocial behavior in children with low social preference as early as kindergarten may reduce subsequent risk of developing depressive and aggressive symptom.
Social preference; Prosocial behavior; Depression; Aggression; Childhood
even during kindergarten, are likely to repeat and become
persistent through childhood and even older ages
. In particular, children with chronic peer
difficulties incur the risk of developing symptoms of depression
(Burks et al. 1995; DeRosier and Janis 1994;
Ladd and Troop-Gordon 2003)
. Although we know that
chronic peer difficulties in childhood are linked to
maladjustment, our knowledge on factors that may protect children
from developing persistent peer difficulties and associated
negative outcomes is scarce
(Cicchetti and Natsuaki 2014)
One of the behavioral strategies that may protect children
against experiencing prolonged peer relationship difficulties
and developing psychopathology could be to act more
prosocially towards their peers, such as comforting others
and being kind
. To test this idea, the present
study followed 324 children from kindergarten through first
grade elementary school, and explored whether children who
increase their prosocial behavior in kindergarten are protected
against the potential impact of low social preference on the
development of depressive and aggressive symptoms.
Children who score low on social preference among peers
may feel dissatisfied and lonely
(Boivin et al. 1995; Fontaine
et al. 2009)
. Being less preferred by peers may also reduce
their opportunities to learn social norms and practice social
skills in peer context
(Rubin et al. 2006)
, which again, may
aggravate their risk of being less liked. Unsurprisingly, with
these associated disadvantages, low social preference was
found to increase children’s risk of developing
(Haselager et al. 2002; Hoglund and
Chisholm 2014; Ladd 2006; Van Lier and Koot 2010)
Nonetheless, studies have suggested that some children may
escape from the risk associated with low social preference. For
example, it has been demonstrated that maintaining
supportive relationship with parents (Bilsky et al. 2013) or other
people in the school environment, especially those who are
important for the child such as teachers
(Spilt et al. 2014)
(Bollmer et al. 2005; Laursen et al. 2007)
weakens the link between low social preference and children’s
psychopathologic symptoms. This indicates that positive
interpersonal relationships can protect children with low peer
social preference from developing maladaptive outcomes.
The impact of low social preference – and its possible repair
– may be especially visible in those who are actively rejected by
their peers. In line with the empirical studies mentioned above,
ostracism theory suggests that behaviors promoting
interpersonal connections can prevent rejected individuals from developing
(Williams 2007, 2009)
to this theory, social rejection causes psychopathologic
symptoms because it threatens the individual’s fundamental needs,
including the need to belong, to maintain self-esteem, to
perceive control over one’s social environment, and the need for a
meaningful existence (Williams 2009). The threats to
fundamental needs elicit a sequence of defensive behaviors in affected
individuals to remove these threats. One of the ways to remove
the threats is to rebuild the interrupted interpersonal connections
by an increase in prosocial behavior
, such as
being kind towards others. Ostracism theory suggests that
differences exist in individuals’ attempts or abilities to adaptively
increase prosocial behavior, which consequently affects the
. If the prosocial attempt
is successfully employed, individuals can make themselves
more interpersonally attractive, thus preventing the initial
rejection from becoming prolonged. Conversely, if the individual
fails to display adaptive prosocial behavior, the rejection
becomes persistent, thereby increasing the risk of developing
psychopathologic symptoms. In short, an adaptive increase in
prosocial behavior may be a key factor in preventing rejection
from becoming prolonged and thereby prevent the development
of psychopathologic symptoms
Despite the empirical evidences described above and the
theoretical model proposed by Williams, to our knowledge,
studies examining the potential buffering effect of increase in
prosocial behavior in kindergarten and early elementary
school are scarce. Compared to preschool, when children
begin formal education, the time they spend with peers
et al. 2014)
and the size of peer groups both dramatically
increase, while the availability of adults for guidance or
supervision of peer social interactions is reduced
(Rubin et al.
. Most of the children who enter the formal school
setting have not experienced these challenges before
(Ladd et al.
. Meanwhile, children’s poor preference among peers is
found to be stable throughout the elementary school period
. Importantly, peer difficulties, such as low social
preference, have been shown to affect children’s symptoms of
depression and aggression from kindergarten onward (Gooren
et al. 2011). This effect may even last through adolescence
(Will et al. 2016)
(Modin et al. 2010)
especially when peer rejection becomes persistent. Thus, it is critical to
raise knowledge about the potential factors that may reduce
the impact of chronic peer difficulties.
Therefore, the goal of the present study is to explore the
potential protective effect of increase in prosocial behavior in
the link between low social preference and the development of
depressive and aggressive symptoms. We had the following
hypotheses: (1) increase in prosocial behavior during
kindergarten would improve children’s social preference from
kindergarten to the beginning of the first grade; and (2) the
increase in prosocial behavior during kindergarten would
mitigate the link between low social preference in early first grade
and the development of depressive symptoms and aggressive
behavior from kindergarten to the end of first grade in
elementary school. To check whether our hypothesized effects apply
equally to boys and girls, sex differences in the tested
associations were also examined.
Data were collected from 18 schools in the north and east of
the Netherlands as part of a longitudinal project on children’s
social and emotional development. Schools were recruited
through the Dutch Municipal Health Service (MHS), and the
first 18 schools willing to join were included in the
longitudinal project. This study included all children who were in
kindergarten at the beginning of the project (N = 324, 54% boys;
Mage = 5.10, SD = 0.37 at baseline). The majority (95.2%) of
children were Dutch/Caucasian, 3.1% were Turkish, 0.3%
were Surinamese, and 1.4% belonged to other ethnic groups.
All children were followed from kindergarten to the end of
first grade elementary school. The first assessment was
conducted in the fall of kindergarten (T1). The second and third
assessments were conducted in the fall (T2) and spring (T3) of
the first grade in elementary school. Before each assessment,
p a r e n t s w e r e i n f o r m e d a b o u t t h e p r o c e d u r e a n d
measurements, and were given the opportunity to decline their
children’s participation in the study. Children were also
informed in class and had the opportunity to decline their
participation at any time during the study. Almost all invited
children (99.9%) participated. After each assessment, a small
gift was given to the children as a token of appreciation for
their participation. The study proceedings were approved by
the Medical Ethical Review Board of the VU Medical Centre.
Due to illness, grade retention, and moving, 26 children
(8.02%) were absent at the time of follow-up assessments.
Compared to children who stayed in, those who dropped out
did not differ in sex (χ2 (1, 323) = 0.59, p = 0.44). However,
dropout children had higher ratings of depressive (t = 2.12,
p = 0.04) and aggressive symptoms (t = 2.03, p = 0.04) at
baseline, compared to children with complete data.
In the fall of kindergarten (after the first assessment),
approximately half of the children received a preventive intervention
program (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS),
Kusché & Greenberg, 1994). Schools were randomly assigned
to the intervention or control condition except for 4 schools who
wanted to participate only if they were allowed to express their
own preference (two of these schools preferred to be in the
intervention condition while the other two schools preferred to
be in the control condition). PATHS was designed to improve
children’s social-emotional competences by teaching children
the skills in identifying and interpreting emotions correctly,
including improving social interaction with classmates, and
improving social problem solving. It prescribes 29 lessons during
kindergarten. Implementation fidelity was assessed by asking
teachers in the intervention group to record lessons they had
completed. The overall completeness was 40% (range 8% –
59%). Despite the high variation and the overall relatively low
rate of program adherence, an intention to treat approach was
used when analyzing intervention effects.
Low Social Preference was assessed with peer nominations. At
each time of assessment, children were asked to nominate an
unlimited number of classmates whom they liked most and
whom the liked least
(Coie et al. 1982)
. Children were
interviewed one-on-one by independent interviewers and were
instructed to point at photos of classmates for nominations. Peer
nomination scores of each child were reported by multiple
children, and were obtained and computed completely independent
of teacher reports. To normalize the scores between classes with
different sizes, the raw nomination scores were divided by the
number of children in each class minus 1
(because children were
not allowed to nominate themselves; Coie et al. 1982)
. A low
social preference score was generated by subtracting the
normalized Bliked most^ score from the normalized Bliked least^ score,
resulting in a scale ranging from +1 to −1. High scores indicate
that children were less liked and more disliked by peers.
Depressive Symptoms and Aggressive Behavior were rated
by teachers using the Problem Behavior at School Interview
(PBSI; Erasmus MC, Problem Behavior at School Interview,
unpublished manuscript). For each child, the rating at T1 was
done by the kindergarten teacher and the ratings at T2 and T3
were done by the first grade elementary school teacher.
Assessments at T1 and T3, but not T2, were included in model
analyses in the present study, to prevent associations due to
shared-method effects (ratings at T2 and T3 share the same
rater) and thus increase the validity of the results by using
different raters for the repeated assessments of depression and
aggression. Depressive and aggressive symptoms were rated on a
5-point scale ranging from never applicable to often applicable.
For depressive symptoms, three items were measured: BIs
unhappy or depressed^, BIs indifferent, apathetic and
unmotivated^, and BDoes not take pleasure in activities^.
Cronbach’s alpha for the depressive symptoms scale was
0.73 at T1, and 0.81 at T3. For aggressive behavior, five items
were measured: BThreatens other people^, BStarts fights^,
BPushes other children or puts them at risk^, BBullies, or is mean
to others^, and BAttacks others physically^. Cronbach’s alpha
for the aggressive behavior scale was 0.92 at T1 and 0.91 at T3.
For both variables, high scores indicate high levels of
symptoms. Latent constructs were used for both depressive symptoms
and aggressive behavior in the structural equation model to
account for potential measurement error and improve model fit.
Change in prosocial behavior from T1 to T2 was used as a
buffering variable in the model analyses of the present study.
This variable was calculated based on the level scores of
prosocial behavior at T1 and T2. The levels of prosocial
behavior at T1 and T2 were measured by the prosocial behavior
scale from the Social Experiences Questionnaire-Teacher
(SEQ-T; Cullerton-Sen and Crick 2005)
. Similar to
the reporting of PBSI, the kindergarten teacher reported at
T1 and the first grade elementary school teacher reported at
T2. Four items were rated on a 5-point Likert scale from never
applicable to often applicable: BIs nice to other children^,
BHelps other children^, BComforts a child who is crying or
sad^, and BInvites other children to play together^. The mean
item scores were used, resulting in a scale score ranging from
0 to 4. High scores indicate high levels of prosocial behavior.
Cronbach’s alpha was 0.78 at T1 and 0.74 at T2. The change
in prosocial behavior of children from T1 to T2 was
represented by the unstandardized residual score (URS) obtained by
regressing the level score of prosocial behavior at T2 on its
level score at T1. The URS not only adjusts for measurement
(Dalecki and Willits 1991)
, but also excludes the effect
of natural maturation of prosocial behavior on individuals’
behavioral changes over time
(Knafo and Plomin 2006)
Thus, a score of 0 means that the increase in prosocial
behavior exhibited by the child is the same as the average level of
change among this sample, and a positive score indicates that
the increase in prosocial behavior is above the average trend.
A negative score indicates that the change in prosocial
behavior is below the average level of change, which can be either
decrease or less-than-average increase in level of prosocial
Intervention status and Sex were dummy coded. The
intervention status was coded as 0 = no intervention/control, 1 =
intervention. Sex were coded as 0 = boy, 1 = girl.
We started by fitting a model estimating the effect of low
social preference on development of depressive and
aggressive symptoms (see Fig. 1a for the conceptual model). The
model contained paths from low social preference at T1 to
depressive symptoms and aggressive behavior at T3 via low
social preference at T2. In this model, depressive symptoms
and aggressive behavior at T1 were included to estimate the
effect of low social preference on the changes in depressive
and aggressive symptoms from T1 to T3. This model thus
estimated the effect of (prolonged) low social preference on
the development of depressive and aggressive symptoms,
without accounting for the effect of change in prosocial
behavior. Correlations between parallel-assessed variables were
also included in the model.
Next, we tested our hypotheses by adding the change in
prosocial behavior from T1 to T2 into the model.
Corresponding to the two hypotheses, two effects of change in
prosocial behavior were added and tested one after another.
For the first one, the effect of change in prosocial behavior on
the development of social preference from T1 to T2, we added
a path from change in prosocial behavior from T1 to T2 to low
social preference at T2 (see Fig. 1b).
For the second effect, we added change in prosocial
behavior from T1 to T2 as a moderator of the prospective links from
low social preference at T2 to the development of depressive
symptoms and aggressive behavior from T1 to T3. This was
done by adding the product of change in prosocial behavior
and low social preference at T2 as a predictor of depressive
and aggressive symptoms at T3 (see Fig. 1c), as well as the
main effect of change in prosocial behavior for controlling
(Preacher et al. 2007)
To examine whether our hypothesized effects were
different for boys and girls, sex was added as a moderator in both of
our hypothesized associations. To test sex effects for the first
hypothesis, the product of sex and change in prosocial
behavior was regressed on the path from change in prosocial
behavior to low social preference at T2. For the second hypothesis,
the product of sex, change in prosocial behavior, and low
social preference at T2 was regressed on the path from low
social preference at T2 to depressive and aggressive
symptoms at T3
(after adding all two-way interaction terms;
Dawson and Richter 2006)
. To examine whether our
hypothesized effects for children in the intervention condition were
different from those in control condition, the effect of
intervention status was also estimated, in the same way as the
effect of sex was tested.
Model fit was determined based on the comparative fit
index (CFI), Tucker-Lewis index
(TLI; acceptable value
>0.90 for both; Bentler 1990)
, and the root mean square
error of approximation
(RMSEA; acceptable values
<0.08; Browne and Cudeck 1992)
. The structural models
were fitted in Mplus 7.31
(Muthén & Muthén, 1998–2015)
Standard errors of all paths were adjusted for clustering to data
using a sandwich estimator
likelihood estimation with robust standard errors was adopted in
order to account for the non-normal distributions and missing
data in the model.
The means and standard deviations of all variables are
presented in Table 1. Repeated measures analyses of
variance (ANOVAs) indicated that across time boys showed
lower levels of social preference (η2 = 0.07) and prosocial
behavior (η2 = 0.03), and higher levels of aggressive
behavior (η2 = 0.06) than girls. There were no gender
differences on depressive symptoms and change in prosocial
behavior. Repeated ANOVAs showed no effect of
intervention on low social preference, depressive symptoms
and aggressive behavior (in Table 1). However, a t-test
w i t h i n d e p e n d e n t s a m p l e s s h o w e d t h a t c h a n g e i n
prosocial behavior in the intervention condition was
higher than in the control condition (Cohen’s d = 0.59).
Bivariate correlations of all studied variables are
presented in Table 2. Significant correlations between low
social preference scores across time were observed. Low
social preference was positively correlated with depressive
symptoms and aggressive behavior across time. Change in
prosocial behavior from T1 to T2 had a negative
correlation with low social preference across time. It also
negatively correlated with depressive and aggressive symptoms
at T3, but did not correlated with any of them at T1.
1. Low social preference T1
2. Low social preference T2
3. Low social preference T3
4. Depressive symptoms T1
5. Depressive symptoms T3
6. Aggressive behavior T1
7. Aggressive behavior T3
8.Change in prosocial behavior
* p < 0.05, *** p < 0.001
F = 19.93***
F = 1.49
F = 32.74***
t = 2.00
F = 0.02
F = 1.63
F = 1.61
t = 4.91***
Prosocial Behavior, Social Preference and Depressive and Aggressive Symptoms
The baseline model (Fig. 1a) containing an indirect path from
low social preference at T1 to depressive symptoms and
aggressive behavior at T3 via low social preference at T2 was fitted
first. This model showed an acceptable fit to the data (CFI =
0.94, TLI = 0.93, RMSEA = 0.05). The paths from low social
preference at T2 to depressive symptoms (B = 0.08, SE = 0.03,
β = 0.15, p = 0.01) and aggressive behavior (B = 0.17, SE =
0.04, β = 0.34, p < 0.001) at T3 were both significant. Also,
significant indirect pathways were found from low social
preference at T1 to depressive symptoms at T3 (B = 0.03, SE = 0.01,
β = 0.06, p = 0.01) and aggressive behavior at T3 (B = 0.07,
SE = 0.02, β = 0.14, p < 0.001) via low social preference at
T2. The results indicate that children’s low social preference at
the beginning of kindergarten predicted their low social
preference one year later in the first grade, which consequently
predicted increases in symptoms of depression and aggression from
kindergarten to the end of first grade elementary school.
To test our hypotheses, we included change in prosocial
behavior from T1 to T2 in the model. Corresponding to the
two hypotheses, the change in prosocial behavior score was
added as a predictor of low social preference at T2, and also as
Fig. 2 Effect of low social
preference on depressive
symptoms and aggressive
behavior and the effect of change
in prosocial behavior. *p < 0.05,
**p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001. PB =
prosocial behavior. LSP = low
social preference. DEP =
depressive symptoms. AGG =
a moderator on the paths from low social preference at T2 to
depressive and aggressive symptoms at T3, respectively. With
respect to the first hypothesis, results (see Fig. 2) showed a
negative and significant effect of change in prosocial behavior
on low social preference at T2. This negative link indicates
that increases in children’s prosocial behavior predicted
reductions in rates of low social preference from T1 to T2. Further
analyses showed no significant sex difference (B = 0.16, SE =
0.10, β = 0.11, p = 0.10) or intervention effect (B = −0.05,
SE = 0.10, β = −0.03, p = 0.61) on this path.
To test our second hypothesis, change in prosocial behavior
from T1 to T2 was added as the moderator of the paths from
low social preference at T2 to depressive and aggressive
symptoms at T3, respectively. Results indicated that change
in prosocial behavior from T1 to T2 significantly modified the
link from low social preference at T2 to the development of
depressive symptoms as well as of aggressive behavior from
T1 to T3. Further analysis showed no significant sex
difference in these effects on the link from peer preference to
depressive (B = −0.05, SE = 0.07, β = −0.05, p = 0.53) nor
aggressive symptoms (B = −0.05, SE = 0.04, β = −0.05, p =
0.24). Also, no significant intervention effect was found in
the pathway toward depressive symptoms (B = 0.02, SE =
0.07, β = 0.02, p = 0.80). However, the pathway toward
aggression was different for intervention and control group
children (B = −0.13, SE = 0.04, β = −0.16, p = 0.001). A
breakdown of this effect showed that for control group
children, there was no significant modifying effect of change in
prosocial behavior (B = −0.02, SE = 0.02, β = −0.05, p = 0.34)
in the link between low social preference at T2 and aggressive
behavior at T3. However, for children in the intervention
group, change in prosocial behavior significantly modified
the link from low social preference at T2 to aggressive
behavior at T3 (B = −0.16, SE = 0.04, β = −0.24, p < 0.001).
To break down the interaction effect of low social
preference at T2 by change in prosocial behavior from T1 to
T2, the interaction term was probed by estimating the
effects of above-average increase in prosocial behavior (1 SD
above the mean), average increase (mean) and
belowaverage increase or decrease in prosocial behavior (1 SD
below the mean), respectively, in the prediction of low
social preference at T2 on the development of depressive
and aggressive symptoms
depressive symptoms, the probing model was fitted with the
whole sample. Results showed that low social preference
at T2 was positively associated with development of
depression for children with low (−1 SD) scores of increase
in their prosocial behavior in kindergarten (see Table 3).
This link was, however, not significant for children with a
high increase (+1 SD) or those who followed the average
trend (mean) in their prosocial behavior. Furthermore,
results for the indirect pathways showed that the indirect link
from low social preference at T1 to T2, and further to
depressive symptoms was also significant only for children
with a low increase in prosocial behavior (−1 SD) and
nonsignificant for children with an average (mean) or high
increase in prosocial behavior (+1 SD) from T1 to T2.
For aggressive behavior, since the modifying effect was
only significant for children in the intervention group, probing
models were fitted only within this group. Results showed that
the positive association between social preference and
aggressive behavior was significant for children who had a low score
Table 3 Effect of low social
preference on the development of
depressive symptoms (in the total
sample) and aggressive behavior
(in the intervened group) with
different levels of change in
of increase in their prosocial behavior (−1 SD) and who
followed the average trend (mean), but not significant for
those who had a high score (+1 SD).
The present study examined the effect of change in prosocial
behavior on the link between low social preference and the
development of depressive and aggressive symptoms in a
community sample of 324 children from kindergarten to the
end of first grade elementary school. In line with our
hypotheses, we found that poor peer appraisal in kindergarten
predicted poor peer appraisal in early elementary school, which in
turn predicted increase in symptoms of depression and
aggression. We also found that increase in prosocial behavior during
kindergarten improved children’s appraisal among peers at the
beginning of the first grade. Also, change in prosocial
behavior during kindergarten modified the effect of low social
preference on the development of depressive and aggressive
symptoms from kindergarten to the end of the first grade in
elementary school. Children’s low social preference at the
beginning of first grade elementary school was not associated
with the development of depression and aggression when
children’s prosocial behavior increased more than average level
(although the effect might be limited to a certain group, to be
discussed below). However, when children with a low social
position failed to increase their prosocial behavior during
kindergarten, their prolonged low social preference predicted
increases in depressive symptoms and aggressive behavior from
kindergarten to the first grade in elementary school.
Based on our findings, we suggest that the protective effect of
increase in prosocial behavior functions in two parts. First,
increase in prosocial behavior seems to improve children’s general
social position among peers. Our results showed that increase in
prosocial behavior during kindergarten were linked to increases
in social preference at the beginning of the first grade. This
finding indicates that behaving in an extra prosocial manner
Change in Prosocial Behavior
Not increasing (-1SD)
increased children’s social preference level. This is in line with
previous findings showing that prosocial behavior helped in
improving children’s interpersonal relationships
(Caputi et al. 2012;
. In terms of studies within the frame of ostracism
theory, our findings also offered new evidence. Previous studies
confirmed that under experimental conditions children exhibited
more prosocial behaviors when being rejected
(Song et al. 2015;
Watson-Jones et al. 2016)
, but these studies did not test the
influence of this adjustment. The present study confirmed the
effect of prosocial adjustment among children in a real-life social
environment. Second, the protective effect of an increase in
prosocial behavior appeared to work through mitigation of the
link between social preference and the development of both
depressive and aggressive symptoms of children because of its
positive effect on the child’s social preference. Our findings add
new information about the protective effect of prosocial behavior
on the development of psychopathologic symptoms in the
context of the peer relationship. Studies in the field of child
interpersonal relationships in school found that having supportive
relations with teachers and friends buffered the negative effect of
being rejected or excluded by peers
(Laursen et al. 2007; Spilt
et al. 2014)
. This study presented a new angle by investigating
the buffering effect from children’s own behaviors.
Moreover, our findings show that increasing prosocial
behavior prevents children staying at a low sociometric position
among peers, which in turn helps to reduce their risk of
developing depressive and aggressive symptoms. Previous studies
showed that prolonged poor peer preference predicted
depressive and aggressive symptoms
(Burks et al. 1995; Burt and
Roisman 2010; Ladd and Troop-Gordon 2003; Van Lier and
. This study extends this knowledge by confirming
these previous findings while showing simultaneously that this
pathway depended upon children’s ability to change their
behavior in a prosocial manner. Our findings also suggest that the
indirect pathways from low peer preference to depression and
aggression may be differentially sensitive to change in prosocial
behavior. The present study found a significant buffering effect
of change in prosocial behavior on the pathways to both
depressive symptoms and aggressive behavior. However, while the
buffering effect on depressive symptoms was evident for many
children, including those with average and high levels of
change, probing results of aggression showed that in order to
buffer the effect of low social preference on aggression, children
need to improve their prosocial behavior at least above the
average trend. This indicates a somewhat higher threshold for the
buffering effect towards aggression compared to effects towards
depression. This suggests that in order to prevent the impact of
peer social stresses on psychopathological symptoms, different
levels of prosocial adjustment may be required to buffer against
different target symptoms.
We also examined whether boys and girls experienced the
same positive effect from increase in prosocial behavior in
terms of the development of psychopathologic symptoms.
Results showed no significant sex differences on either of
our hypothesized effects. This suggests that the buffering
effect of increase in prosocial behavior is not gender-specific.
Despite the sex differences in levels of peer problems and
psychopathologic symptoms, no differences were found in
the effect from change in prosocial behavior to social
preference and the link from social preference to depressive and
aggressive symptoms. This is in line with several previous
studies that failed to find significant sex differences in the
longitudinal associations among these structures
et al. 2003; Obsuth et al. 2015; Van Lier and Koot 2010)
However, these previous studies did not test the modifying
effect of change in prosocial behavior in the link between
social preference and maladaptation. Moreover, other studies
found significant associations between peer problems,
prosocial behavior, and internalizing problems only for boys
but not for girls
(Burks et al. 1995; Griese and Buhs 2013)
The present study found a significant buffering effect of
change in prosocial behavior on the pathway to aggression
only among children who were in the PATHS intervention
condition. We have to be cautious in our interpretation of this
effect because the implementation fidelity of the program was
fairly low. In fact, it would need to be replicated to draw
stronger conclusions on effects of the intervention. However,
PATHS might provide a possible explanation as to why
change in prosocial behavior prevented social preference to
link to aggression among children in the intervention group.
The PATHS program aims at teaching children skills to
regulate their behavior
(Kusché & Greenberg, 1994)
, so this may
have reduced their tendency to develop aggressive behavior
more than the tendency to develop depressive symptoms in
the context of experiencing social stressors, which explain
why the buffering effect of increase in prosocial behavior on
the development of aggressive behavior in this group was only
significant for those who showed a strong increase.
This study has important theoretical implications. The
protective effect of increase in prosocial behavior and its
mechanism were proposed in the ostracism theory
Previous studies within this theoretical framework were
mainly conducted with adults and under experimental conditions
(e.g., Wesselmann et al. 2012)
. The present study, via
investigating children who just entered kindergarten, lends support to
ostracism theory and shows that the theory also holds at a
much younger age. On the other hand, findings of the present
study indicate that some adjustments may be required when
applying ostracism theory to child psychopathology studies.
For example, in ostracism theory, mainly depression, and to a
lesser extent aggression, were proposed as long-term
developmental outcomes of persistent peer problems
However, in child psychopathologic studies, previous studies
showed overlaps of effect from peer problems to the
development of both depression and aggression
(Burt and Roisman
2010; Ladd 2006; Van Lier and Koot 2010)
. This is also
supported by the present study. Thus, when adapting the
theory to the child development area both depression and
aggression may need to be considered as outcomes of ostracism.
Findings of the present study also have implications for
future researches and preventive interventions. In view of
the buffering effect on the links from peer problems to
psychopathology, our findings offer support for the importance of
improving prosocial behavior among children who are at risk
in the peer context. Identifying characteristics of children, or
of the children’s environment that make them less capable of
changing their prosocial behavior is warranted. Future studies
could add relevant information by identifying child
characteristics including social cognitive features such as social beliefs
(Chen et al. 2012)
, as well as factors in the school
environment, such as sensitivity of teachers (Eisenberg et al. 1981).
Findings from our study suggest that preventive intervention
programs may focus on teaching children, especially those
experiencing rejection, about the skills needed for prosocial
(Eisenberg et al. 2015)
. Our findings also suggest
that such interventions should be implemented as early as
the kindergarten year to equip children with the skills
necessary for coping with social difficulties and improving their
peer social position. In addition, findings of our study suggest
that (lack of) making needed change in prosocial behavior in
response to peer rejection can also be taken as a behavioral
marker that helps in identifying children with elevated risk of
developing psychopathological symptoms in the context of
experiencing peer-related social stressors. Finally, because
the implementation fidelity of the intervention in this study
was less than optimal, further studies may explore how using
PATHS could possibly improve children’s prosocial behavior
and affect the pathways examined in this study.
Limitations and Conclusion
The present study has a number of limitations. First, the
majority of the children came from a Dutch/Caucasian ethnic
background, which questions whether our findings can be
generated to groups with more culturally diverse populations.
Prosocial behavior is seen as a personal decision in western
culture, while in collectivistic cultures it is usually interpreted
as an obligatory choice
(Chen 2012; Miller 1994)
differences in the evaluations of prosocial behavior may affect
its meaning in social interactions, which may further influence
its effects on interpersonal relationships. Also, the schools that
participated in the present study were not randomly selected.
The percentage of children with minority ethnicity
background in our sample (4.8%) is lower than it is in the general
population in the Netherlands (>20%, based on data from the
organization of Statistics Netherlands). Future studies
including children from more diverse ethnic background may be
needed to test whether our findings could be generalized to
the broader population.
In conclusion, this study, with a longitudinal design in a
real social interaction context, found that increase in prosocial
behavior as early as in the kindergarten can protect children
from developing prolonged low sociometric appraisal among
peers, which further protects them from developing depressive
and aggressive symptoms. Meanwhile, stronger prosocial
adjustments might be required to prevent aggression compared
to depression. The findings offer support for the importance of
improving prosocial behavior in peer context in terms of a
buffering effect on the links from peer problems to
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest Authors declare that they have no conflict of
Ethical Approval This study was financially supported by the
Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development
(ZonMw) Grant #2430.0031 and the Chinese Scholarship Council
Grant #201404910559. The study procedures were approved by the
Medical Ethical Review Board of the VU Medical Center.
Informed Consent Informed consent was obtained from all individuals
for being included in the study.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
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creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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