Social Ladder Forms Early in Life

"It was a bunch of teachers saying these problems get too big for us to handle by the time kids get older," O'Brien said. "We'd be much smarter to give children the emotional tools to start out in school in the first place.

"We don't think of these things as an intelligence, we think of them as skills that can be taught."

As Holden guessed, the social hierarchy does start at a very young age and, as she hoped, there might be something she and the children's teachers can do about it.

"As a parent, you want to work on both ends of it," Holden said. "You don' want them to be a mean person, but you don't want them to be a victim of a mean person."

What Parents and Teachers Can Do About Social Ladders

Elias said some researchers have shown that children do have a natural temperament that might lead them to exclude or be excluded. But these temperaments are like a "factory preset"

"Kids will try on different behavior, their temperament can lead them to start somewhere," Elias said. "Some kids can start out by being shy, some kids can start out by being very directive and bossy."

Teachers Impact the Cliques in a School

Depending on how on how far the behavior gets them, the child might adjust the degree of their natural temperament, Elias said.

"The most powerful factor in that is the environment," said Elias.

Parents and teachers needn't make children play with everyone, but social learning experts say that not tolerating emotionally aggressive behavior in the same way of enforcing a rule of "no hitting" can go a long way. So, too, can encouraging children to recognize similarities in their classmates.

"Even when we see these longitudinal studies that kids retain these attributes over time, but we don't know what the adults did during that time," Elias said.

Since the mid-1990s, groups like CASEL and others have done intensive studies about which social interventions work. Even something in kindergarten as simple as the seminal book "You Can't Say You Can't Play," by Vivian Gussin Paley, can have a lasting effect in students.

But despite the reports of classrooms with happier, more congenial children, researchers like Elias and people at CASEL weren't universally sought after by schools.

Why Care About the Social Ladder Anyway?

"We had parents say, 'In our neighborhood, if you teach my kids this, they're going to be sliced and diced on the street.' This is not the way we live," O'Brien said.

"It is a question as to whether the little lambs from these schools are brought to slaughter later," O'Brien added. "But more it's administrators fearing that this was not the role of the school."

Even in more touchy-feely districts, O'Brien said, many administrators balked at trying to spend money on programs for empathy and emotional learning when the district needed to compete in academic arenas.

That is, until more studies showed a link between the emotional learning programs and higher performance in academics.

O'Brien and her colleagues met Friday with representatives of the U.S. Department of Education in talks about incorporating standards in the federal levels for emotional learning programs.

"They have a profound impact on their behaviors, it affects academic achievement and standardized test scores," O'Brien said. "Once the academic link was established, it really became a point of entree."

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