Trajectories of peer victimization in elementary school children and associated changes in mental health, social competence, and school climate




Sukhawathanakul, Paweena

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Peer victimization among children is a major concern in our society as it is associated with a number of adjustment difficulties that manifest over time. Although peer victimization declines for most children during the elementary school years, research suggests that between 2-25% of children continue to report high-stable or increasing levels of peer victimization over time. However, little is known about the developmental changes that explain why children become locked into these high-risk groups. Using a longitudinal sample of children in grades 1-3 followed across 5 waves of assessments, this dissertation investigated how differences in the chronicity of children's peer victimization experiences relate to changes in their mental health (internalizing and externalizing symptoms), social competence (prosocial leadership and social responsibility), and experiences of school climate. Latent class analyses revealed that children follow 4 distinct trajectory groups of physical and relational peer victimization characterized by chronically high (ns = 102 & 199, physical and relational respectively), increasing (ns = 115 & 169), decreasing (ns = 466 & 174) or low stable (ns = 1260 & 1402) levels of physical and relational peer victimization across time. Findings from multilevel analyses showed that the peer victimization subgroups also varied in their longitudinal patterns of mental health, social competence and experiences of school climate after accounting for differences in sex, age, socioeconomic status, and prevention program participation. Children who had chronically high levels of peer victimization had higher mental health symptoms, lower levels of social competence and poorer experiences of school climate consistently over time compared to children in the low stable group. Children who reported increasing levels of peer victimization over time had slower rates of improvement in their social competence than children in the low stable group. Furthermore, children with increasing levels of peer victimization also had declining experiences of school climate over time compared to children in the low stable peer victimization group. The heterogeneity in children’s experiences of peer victimization suggest that programs need to tailor prevention efforts to the specific needs of at-risk children who adjust differently to their victimization experiences.



Psychology, Child Development, Peer Victimization