How students form a pecking order

At the start of a new year, pupils are always jostling for position in their social hierarchy, which can be disruptive. But how do they form a pecking order? And is there anything teachers can do to minimise the impact on learning, asks Christina Quaine
4th September 2020, 12:01am
How Students Form A Pecking Order


How students form a pecking order

It determines where they sit. And how they sit. It influences what they do when they’re told to move to sit where you want them to sit. It can predict who chimes in, and who doesn’t; and who ignores it all, and who decides to make a challenge. It’s the invisible hand conducting your lessons and it’s the force that directs every interaction.

It’s also a right pain for teachers.

Yes, we’re talking about the social hierarchy of your class. In the first few weeks of a school year, there is a Hunger Games-style battle to see who fits where in the social order of your pupils, and it is usually messy. And then, when things are more settled, it is still messy, with small decisions that you or your pupils make causing outsized problems, purely because of where a given pupil fits into the grand organisation of things.

Children have a notion of hierarchy pretty much from the get-go. An eight-month-old baby will assert dominance over another baby to get at a toy. As children age, they become more aware of where they fit, and where they would like to fit. But it’s in those delightful teenage years that the pecking order really starts to matter.

“It is driven by the maturation of a part of the brain, the ventral striatum, that makes us [feel] rewarded by attention and status,” says Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. “This maturation happens even before we start seeing changes in the body during puberty. Kids become focused on their peers knowing who they are, paying attention to them, evaluating them. It develops right around 11 to 13 years-old and it’s amazing how biologically driven it is.”

Lydia Laninga-Wijnen, a sociologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, says that social ordering could also have evolutionary roots.

“We can look at it from the functionalist approach,” she explains. “On the one hand, the hierarchy serves a function for the group as things may become more harmonious and predictable because everyone knows his or her position. In evolutionary history, this may have promoted mutual survival.

“The hierarchy can also serve a function for individuals. Those at the top may like being the centre of attention, while [for some] individuals it may be that they’re OK with that [lower] position because they don’t want to be at the top. People may vary in the extent to which they strive for power or attention. However, this desire increases in adolescence, so more and more youth will desire this. When it is unequally distributed, it creates competition.”

Secondary teachers know all about that competition. Every new school year can bring multiple problems as a broader, stable social hierarchy across a year group is translated into a new smaller classroom setting. Challenges are fought off, battle lines are drawn, new positions are sought - and thus, pastoral problems permeate every classroom function.

How is the eventual order decided? The factors determining who goes where in the pack probably won’t come as a huge surprise. “In almost all cultures that have been studied, more physical attractiveness is related to more status,” says Prinstein.

“What’s also important for adolescents is anything that signals that they are not conforming to adult-prescribed rules, but are instead following peer-prescribed rules. In other words, looking and behaving like they care more about peer culture than adult culture through the way they dress, act, the music they’re interested in and sometimes, unfortunately, the way they make others seem lower in status than them.”

How quickly the order is formed - and therefore how long a teacher has to endure trying to teach while teens jostle for position - depends on the individual make up of the class. Indeed, in a study published last year, Laninga-Wijnen and colleagues found that the presence of certain personality attributes led to a quickly-established hierarchy.

“In classrooms where there are a few aggressive and socially dominant children, it’s more likely that hierarchy emerges right from the beginning. They may put a clear mark on the classroom and, in this environment, aggression is increasingly seen as valuable or important,” says Laninga-Wijnen. “I didn’t find any differences in terms of the number of children or the gender proportion in the class. So in other words, it’s not the demographics, it’s the composition of the classroom, in terms of how socially dominant, how aggressive, how prosocial the pupils are.”

However, it isn’t always alpha types who rise to the top spot.

“In about 25 per cent of the classrooms in my study, the classroom leaders are solely prosocial - that is, they display behaviours such as helping others, sharing, co-operation,” says Laninga-Wijnen.

What’s interesting - and good news for teachers - is that once the order is settled, there’s little room for manoeuvre.

“We find that the stability of popularity from year to year is as strong as the stability of intelligence. Reputations are important to kids, and it’s very hard to change them,” says Prinstein.

So, in theory, keeping classes the same each year could minimise the disruption to learning in those first few weeks of September. But this year, as a result of the coronavirus disruption, that might not have helped. After six months of not being in school, and with social activities outside of school having been more limited, it was likely that there was going to be an even more disruptive jostling for position than normal - even if the class was the same as it was back in March.

So is there anything that teachers can do to minimise the damage? Well, there is research that suggests school staff can inadvertently make things worse.

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands found that 11-year-old pupils who were seated on the boundaries of the classroom tended to have a lower likeability rating with their peers compared with those who the teacher sat centrally.

Why? Firstly, it could be that teachers are likely to have more interactions with the centrally located students, making them more liked generally. There’s also the psychological phenomenon of the “mere exposure effect”. So being sat in the middle makes you more familiar with everyone, which, in turn, breeds positivity towards you.

Thankfully, Laninga-Wijnen is looking at ways in which teachers can play a more positive part in shaping the group hierarchy. If her ideas work, the benefits for secondary teachers are a long way off, though.

“I’m currently evaluating a strategy called the Meaningful Roles Intervention, which is focused on changing the ‘popularity norm’ - in other words, what kids deem to be ‘cool’ - during the final years of primary school,” she says. “Many children try to become popular through dominant behaviours, so that they can become ‘better’ at the cost of others.

“This intervention tries to attach prosocial behaviours to popularity. Children get meaningful roles - some can be the gardener, others can be leaders in the school yard - and they can compliment each other about how they fulfil these roles. The hope is that children will look at the positive roles of their classmates so that a prosocial popularity norm may emerge.”

Is Laninga-Wijnen hopeful of success? She concedes that teachers have a tricky job in navigating student social dynamics. And she believes that secondary teachers have it toughest. Not only are the teens likely to be more keen to compete for the top ranking spots, but the teacher’s ability to influence the situation is also minimal.

“Many schools are trying to understand the impacts of hierarchy,” she says. “But it takes time, and the challenge for secondary schools is that pupils have different teachers for different subjects. Teachers only see a class for an hour and it can be hard for them to establish something.”

You may think you have too much to contend with at the moment to really worry about all of this. Of all the issues in the next few weeks, this may seem unimportant. But Prinstein stresses that this, perhaps, matters more than you realise. “If teachers can help children to recognise that everyone is adding value to a team project or class discussion, not only does it change kids’ concerns about bullying and popularity, but it actually improves grades and increases the likelihood of continuing in education,” he says.

Tackling social hierarchies is important, so it makes sense to work out how best we can do it. And if we do find a solution, then maybe we could tackle the staffroom, too (because, admit it, you’re not immune to a little social jostling yourself).

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 4 September 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…The student pecking order”

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