Elementary school-aged children are learning far more than reading, writing and arithmetic in the classroom. Very often, the elementary school environment is a student’s first experience establishing themselves within a larger social group. Lacking in many of the social skills and personal experiences required to handle themselves appropriately, elementary school-aged children frequently resort to the first criteria of status when meeting or interacting with another student: age.
Nearly always the first question asked between children after exchanging names is, “How old are you?” Very much like the college query of, “What’s your major?” this leads to further questions and a hierarchical standing between the individuals. In the same way, age plays a major role in the social structure of the elementary classroom. For young children, being older indicates seniority and status. Adults are the oldest and they have the highest status. Babies are the youngest and they have a different status. Being the oldest child in an elementary classroom automatically brings about several conditions.
The obvious advantage to being the oldest child in an elementary school classroom is immediate social dominance. The oldest student is automatically seen by their peers as a leader. They are looked up to, admired and emulated. The students with stronger social skills bond with the oldest child more rapidly, while less well equipped students are unsure of themselves and distanced from this inner core of social power. Thus begins the roles many of these young children will carry with them throughout their lives. If the oldest student is strong academically, they will shine and be an asset to everyone around them, but this is not always the case.
The down side to being the oldest child in an elementary school classroom is the attention focused upon them by both students and teachers as a role model. Expectations are higher. Right or wrong, everyone expects the oldest child to perform better, be more knowledgeable and handle themselves better, whether or not they have the skills and abilities to do so. This situation creates a significant amount of pressure, both social and academic, for the oldest student. Failure can be devastating since, very often, the oldest child internalizes their higher social status as a personal responsibility. Academic failure results in the loss of social status, perhaps their only self-perception of being worthwhile.
Teachers can neutralize much of the pressures experienced by older students by educating the entire class about diversity, explaining that each and every student has something to offer and how they can all learn from each other. Personal interests, talents and out-of-school experiences can be shared with the class to help students learn that each individual is worthy of respect and admiration, not just the oldest student.