Behaviour - Is 'she made me do it' ever a valid excuse?

When it comes to doling out sanctions, the punishment must fit the crime - but remember that peer pressure can be a mitigating factor

Rebecca Tron

Every student likes to be liked. It seems a fundamental rule of growing up that we seek the approval of friends. Some young people will go to more extreme lengths than others to gain the respect of their peers, however, and for the teacher, that can present a behaviour management issue.

What do you do, for instance, when a group of boys are trying their hands at graffiti on the school wall and you know that one of them is there only because of peer pressure? How do you respond when you see a girl stealing from another girl's bag, and you then watch as she hands the spoils, nervously, to a grinning group of known bullies?

One school of thought says you punish that student in the normal way, regardless of whether they have been cajoled or coerced into bad behaviour. The argument is that, if a student is old enough, and mentally cogent enough, to know they have done something wrong, they should be given a consistent and expected punishment that matches the scale of wrongdoing.

It's a view that holds sway with some contributors to TES Connect's behaviour forum (bit.lyTESBehaviourForum), with one post stating: "I don't believe in differentiating behaviour systems. To me, it seems unfair if one student is allowed to get away with something that another isn't."

Facing consistent punishments and acknowledging that wrongdoing is unacceptable whether or not it took place under duress are crucial life lessons, proponents of this view believe. After all, saying that someone told you to do something doesn't hold much sway for adults in law courts.

The other school of thought, however, preaches understanding. Dr Simon Hunter, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Strathclyde, says: "Teachers need to set clear rules for what is and is not acceptable behaviour (but) that does not mean dishing out the same sanction every time." Identifying the thinking processes behind the behaviour is a better response, he argues.

Dr Louise Porter, a child psychologist, agrees. She believes that teachers need to be aware that the thought processes that lead to certain behaviours are often complex.

"All behaviour is an attempt to meet a need. A child who is talked into acting in a way that affects someone else is attempting to meet the need to belong to the group at the expense of the victim," she explains. "It is up to the teacher to help the student find alternative ways of belonging that don't harm others."

She suggests that when dealing with behaviour that appears to be caused by peer pressure, the issue should be addressed through class discussion.

To prevent incidents like these, it is vital to foster a classroom environment in which students will feel less inclined, or less obliged, to succumb to peer pressure, Porter says.

First, so that every student feels as though they belong, are accepted and can contribute, the school and its classes must be properly inclusive, she says - for example, by not distinguishing between abilities. One way of bringing this about is by eliminating academic competition between classmates. Porter also recommends the use of group-based and cooperative learning.

Back on the behaviour forum, users have other thoughts. A central issue in the peer-pressure dynamic appears to be that the well-behaved students feel they are overlooked and ignored while the poorly behaved students get all the attention.

One teacher suggests an addition to Porter's list that can fix this issue: a class treat pot. Everyone in the class can earn tokens for good behaviour; everyone applauds as these are then put in the pot. When the pot is full, the whole class gets a treat. The reasoning behind this is twofold: it rewards good behaviour and it also enables the class to work together to achieve something positive. Thus it puts the focus on the positive rather than the negative.

However, for those who advocate treating all offenders the same, while the "reward pot" may help to prevent bad behaviour, it should not change how you deal with a child who has done wrong. And, ultimately, that is where schools must be really clear in their policy. Either methodology is valid, but once a decision is made, all teachers must support one consistent approach to punishing peer-influenced behaviour.

Rebecca Tron is studying for a master's degree in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge

What else?

From incentive to misbehaviour to lesson in solidarity, this article looks at the good and the bad of peer pressure. bit.lyPeerPressures

You're under pressure. What would you do? Prepare students for difficult situations with this whole-class activity. bit.lyPeerPressureResource

In short

  • Bad behaviour is sometimes caused by peer pressure, with students coerced or persuaded into wrongdoing.
  • There are two opposing approaches to dealing with incidents that may have been caused by peer pressure. One says that context is irrelevant and the student should be punished in the usual manner. The other says that context is crucial and the incident should be dealt with accordingly.
  • It is important that, within the school as a whole, the strategy for dealing with such incidents is consistent.

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    Rebecca Tron

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