By the end of September, how well will you know your class? I’m willing to bet that you will be able to reel off a list of their reading levels with your eyes shut. But how much will you know about their peer interactions and the social hierarchy that exists in your classrooms?
These can be more complicated – and more important – than we think.
You’ll have worked out who the class alpha female is within minutes of the first day of term, but do you know how she got that position? Was it her natural confidence and authority, or did she spend Reception bulldozing her way through her peers to emerge as top dog of Year 1?
Then there are those inseparable best friends: are they joined at the hip because they have a mutually supportive friendship based on shared interests, or do they just tolerate each other because their mums talk in the playground?
And why do kids steer away from certain children, leaving them alone and friendless?
It didn’t occur to me to delve deeper into the social interaction of my pupils until I spectacularly screwed up a design and technology lesson during my newly qualified teacher year and had to abort it midway through. Let’s just say that 32 kids, no teaching assistant and a vat of paper mache don’t mix. As I squelched through the carnage, shrieking clean-up orders at seven-year-olds who had mummified themselves in newspaper and wallpaper paste, I wondered how I was going to fill the 30 minutes that were left before assembly.
The solution to this conundrum came to me as I witnessed one member of the class slyly stuffing soggy newspaper down his best mate’s jumper when he thought nobody was looking. The victim didn’t retaliate, but scowled as he fished down his top for the gluey mess and turned his back on his friend.
“Hmm. That’s an interesting dynamic,” I thought.
They had appeared to be best friends; they were always together, both in and out of school, and their mums were friendly, too. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that perhaps they didn’t get on as well as I’d thought.
I decided that it was time I did a class social audit to find out what else was going on behind the scenes. But to be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I was just being nosy or if these peer relationships were of any importance to me.
It turned out to be one of the most useful things I had done as a teacher.
This comes as no surprise to Peter Blatchford, professor in psychology and education at University College London.
“Pupil interactions are currently rather overlooked in the classroom,” he says. “We underestimate how important they are for the learning environment and a child’s overall success at school.”
Blatchford’s research has focused on peer interaction and how to facilitate effective group work in the classroom. He suggests that children need plenty of chances to interact if they are to develop the social skills necessary to work together effectively; we can help them to learn to work collaboratively if we take note of their social dynamics.
Indeed, I would wager that a large chunk of the criticism of group work can be put down to the fact that teachers do not know the social dynamics of the groups they are creating well enough.
In primary in particular, we use collaborative tasks all the time – paired reading, group tasks and project work. Primary teacher Susannah Jeffries had a wake-up call similar to mine, about how important it is to know the social lives of your pupils if these tasks are to be effective.
“A carefully selected talk partner can provide the right amount of support and challenge to aid progression,” she says. “But the wrong talk-partner pairing can result in disengagement and conflict.
“There are also the random moments when a child decides that another pupil in the class is, for some reason, their arch nemesis. It’s vital to know this because until their differences are resolved, you don’t want to try to make them work together.”
Kate McNamara, a Year 2 teacher and another convert to the social-dynamics survey approach, thinks that having a greater understanding of the social intricacies of your class can benefit teaching and learning in other ways.
“When I delved into it, I discovered that some pupils were quite sensitive about the presence of certain other children when they were learning, and that being around these pupils made them more likely to give up and less likely to push themselves or answer questions,” she recalls.
“It also highlighted who the main offenders were for distracting others, and a few children moaned about ‘copycats’ who had been coasting along by copying work from more-able students. I thought I’d have spotted something like that, but it wasn’t obvious until the children flagged it up.”
So how do you conduct a social audit? What you do not do is follow the kids around at breaktime and listen in. And neither should this be an exercise in trying to fix challenging relationships.
“In my view, we have to treat social life out of the classroom rather sensitively,” says Blatchford. “It’s useful to know more about [pupil] friendships and relationships, and obviously we need to deal with flashpoints and bullying, but too much adult interference might not help to manage daily conflicts. There has to be a balance between control and independence.”
He believes that it’s important for children to sort out their own conflicts wherever possible because this teaches them the art of negotiation and compromise, as well as how to manage people.
What, then, should we do? Talking to those that have done it and judging by my own experience, the following seems to be a basic framework to work from:
1. Preferably set aside some quiet time to ask individual pupils who in their class they do and don’t like to play or work with, and why (“play” is more appropriate for early years foundation stage and key stage 1 pupils).
2. As far as possible, try to guarantee confidentiality regarding what pupils tell you. It’s better to speak quickly and privately to each child rather than announcing what you’re doing and asking them to write their answers down; there’s always a risk that what they write could be seen by another pupil or that their friends would ask them who they said they didn’t like to play with.
3. If you can’t find the time to do this, consider an honesty box in your classroom into which pupils can post their worries and concerns about other members of the class (for your eyes only).
4. Note down the answers so that you can build a picture of the social dynamics in your class.
For my own social audit, I chose to discreetly ask each pupil to tell me two people that they did and didn’t like to work and/or play with, and I made a note of the answers to identify any trends or key points.
The results were enlightening. By the end of the session, I’d identified the main troublemakers: a girl with a problematic home life was using a divide-and-conquer tactic on her friends with worryingly effective results. More surprisingly, the other top offender turned out to be the class “Mr Popular”, who riled staff with his superior attitude and mean behaviour towards other children, yet was always surrounded by friends. My audit revealed that he was liked because he was funny, but only appeared to be popular because nobody dared to stand up to him for fear of becoming his next victim.
There were some other surprising results, too: a quiet, unconfident boy was also revealed as being unpopular because the other children found him “fussy” and “weird”. It hadn’t been obvious to me that he was struggling socially. The survey also revealed smaller issues: cracks in long-standing friendships, rivalries and feuds between parents that had filtered down to their offspring. And, as for the kid with a penchant for shoving paper mache down his mate’s T-shirt, there was an imbalance in the friendship, with the other child feeling forced to be his friend because their mums socialised all the time.
All of this was interesting, but I needed to find a way to use what I now knew to improve learning conditions in the classroom.
Social engineering by seating
I started by rethinking how I grouped the children. I experimented by abandoning ability sets and sitting pupils into groups that would benefit everybody. Pairs who clashed were separated and dominant characters were placed with peers who would challenge them, if not in character, then at least academically.
Meanwhile, the shyer pupils were paired with children who had the patience to coax their voices out. I placed pupils who were struggling socially with popular, well-liked children who were likely to extend friendship to them rather than blank them. Working out where everyone was going to sit made writing my wedding seating plan look like a doddle, but as soon as it was in place, the classroom became calmer and happier.
I then worked on class relationships further by introducing “play with someone new day” once a week, when everyone was encouraged to interact with someone they’d never played with before at breaktime.
Playground arguments still occurred, but the pupils got to know each other better, which was great for class morale. Besides, the aim of this exercise had been to promote a happier learning environment and boost achievement, not to erase all conflict. Knowing when to tweak things socially and when to step back and leave well alone was a fine but important line to identify.
I’d like to say that after I implemented these changes, my class and I walked off happily into the sunset together, but it isn’t that simple. Children’s relationships with each other are ever-changing and transient. Friendships are made and broken regularly and rivalries sprout up out of nowhere. And never underestimate how much the introduction of a new pupil to an established class can shake things up. As I learned, I had to do a social audit practically every term to keep things ticking over.
Lisa Jarmin is a primary teacher and freelance writer