If you want good behaviour in every secondary classroom, the current mantra suggests that creating whole-school norms – rigorously enforced through routine, rules and modelling – is the best way of going about it. But how realistic is for a school to enforce a norm on a diverse and socially motivated group of teens?
“Well, it is a realistic starting point,” says Brett Laursen, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, US, and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Behavioural Development. Speaking on this week’s Tes Podagogy, Laursen discusses just how complex peer influence can be in schools.
Laursen’s working definition is as follows: “When we talk about peer influence, we usually talk about getting someone to do something he or she might not otherwise do. So it's typically described as a change in behaviour. Sometimes, peer influence describes getting people not to change. And it is important to note peer influence can be positive – it is not always negative.”
The good news for secondary schools is that the age bracket of 12-15 is when we are most easily influenced. So, in theory, teens would be ready to be swayed by attempts to instil whole-school norms.
“We know that peer-to-peer influence seems to peak around those ages, about the time when adolescents start moving out into the world on their own without a lot of adult supervision. So, other people – that'll be your friends and your peers – are there to step in.
“Those in the early teen years don't have a clear identity yet. If you are unsure about who you are, what defines you, you tend to look for others to help fill in the gaps.”
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That these forces are at their peak at the time when we put children into secondary school exacerbates the issue, he explains.
“It's a challenging time to be a teen under any circumstances and then we toss them into increasingly unstructured settings. In that context, a teen absolutely has to have a mate, you can't navigate these unfamiliar school settings all by yourself,” he explains.
“Making and keeping friends is essential. Teens know they need to focus on making sure that they are similar to their friends – the more similar you are, the less likely that friendship is going to break up over some differences. Peer influence minimises the risk that differences might arise because we're changing our behaviours to look more like one another.”
Rules and routines
In schools, we try and make sure that the behaviours mimicked are the ones we want to see. But Laursen says that influencing behaviour from outside those relationships is far more difficult than we may assume.
For starters, the way teens are influenced can be two-fold.
“There are two different forms of peer influence that a teacher needs to be aware of,” says Laursen. “First, there is peer influence at the group level, which typically includes visible kinds of peer influence behaviours with one person in the lead. Think fashion. Members of the group follow along behind the leader, so influence flows from one to many.
"Then we have a second form of peer influence, involving friends, which is typically more private. Here, influence is one-to-one about behaviours but also about personal matters, such as attitudes and beliefs.”
As a school, trying to influence these fragile dynamics is, according to Laursen, “not as easy as we would hope”.
The theory is right, he stresses: “A focus on group norms is a good idea. By group norms we mean what's acceptable behaviour in this particular group. It's easy to get people to do positive things when the group norms are fairly benign and when there's frowning upon misbehaviour. It's very difficult to get peer influence to work in a positive direction if the group norms embrace misbehaviour, discourage school work, and are tolerant of bullying. So it makes sense to try and get the smaller, most influential groups in each classroom to buy into a larger group identity.”
However, achieving this is very difficult.
“In order to do that, the whole school norm has to be properly translated into the smaller group setting,” Laursen explains. “The teens in a classroom are not blank slates. They have histories together and the teacher is going to have to work with the histories of the children in the classroom.”
What this means is that some teachers are going to have a much tougher job implementing the whole-school norm than others, and through no fault of their own: they may simply have a much more complex set of relationships to navigate in their classroom.
To unpick those relationships, and ascertain how the whole-school norm can work, requires knowing the teens really well and knowing how to present and adapt that whole-school norm for the context. That takes time and flexibility from the teacher and the leadership team.
What it does not mean is trying to ensure the make-up of every class has the right number of "good behaviour" leaders to ensure the norm dynamic you want. For starters, in a class of 30, the notion of a "leader" is problematic because of the two types of influence cited earlier.
And also, accurately working out what the dynamics are as an outsider is nigh-on impossible.
“I always caution parents and teachers that, when it comes to interpreting relationships between teens, one should be careful about trying to manipulate friendships – believing one friendship is better for the individual than another,” Laursen explains. “It's very difficult to know from the outside exactly what the dynamics within a friendship are because you don't know how valuable that friendship is and you don't know what characteristics the other person brings to the table.
"You run the risk of discouraging a friendship in which the child is the one exerting most of the influence and encouraging a friendship in which the child takes on the role of the less influential partner. Good intentions can easily backfire."
Laursen expands on these themes in the podcast, and also discusses at length the characteristics of influential people, whether some are naturally more easily influenced than others and whether teachers can be victims of peer influence via their classes, too.
You can listen on the player above or via your podcast platform (including Spotify) – just search for ‘Tes - The Education Podcast’