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When pupils arrive at school, that day’s lessons are the last thing on their minds.
Instead, their first thoughts are more likely to be: ‘Where are my friends? What will we play at breaktime? Will I have someone to sit with at lunch?’
Having a circle of friends who they can be themselves with is the most important factor in making kids want to go to school, according to research.
However, your experience probably already tells you that some classes have more meanness, exclusion and cliquiness than others, and teaching distracted, unhappy children only makes your job harder.
So it may help to be armed with some of the social science research on children’s social relationships. When researchers ask school children which peers they like the most in the class and which they like the least, studies find startlingly consistently results.
The children who get the most likes and fewest dislikes are the 15% classed as ‘popular’. Then there is the ‘accepted’ band, about 45%. They have a group of good friends, but they are not as sought after as the popular children. Few people intensely dislike them either. This is the solid core of the class.
For the rest of the classroom, it’s not so easy. Studies have found that roughly 20% are ‘controversial’ children. Some of their classmates really like these kids, but some intensely dislike them, maybe because they are hyperactive, unpredictable or disruptive.
Then there is the ‘invisible’ 10%, children who social scientists term ‘neglected’. These children are ignored by their peers, possibly because they are socially anxious or lack confidence.
The final piece of the puzzle is the final 10%, described as ‘rejected’ children. These are kids who are disliked by a lot of their classmates, have no friends, and few people want to risk being seen with them.
Children may fall into this group if they have learning or communication issues which mean they don’t pick up on social cues very well, or have missed out on learning social skills at home. They can try to cope by either giving in and trying to disappear or by becoming aggressive.
Read Newcomb, Bukowski, and Pattee’s 1993 research on children’s peer relations for more on this.
So why do these bands form? And how does it help for teachers to recognise them? The answer is that as part of our survival mechanism, the needs of the group always come first.
As child psychologist Dr Michael Thompson explains in his book Mom, They’re Teasing Me:
“Any class is a drama that requires different characters. The hierarchy and the roles are ‘assigned’ by the universal forces at work in the group. Many different roles are needed in group life, and the scripts are given to children based on their temperaments and their willingness to play the role.”
I believe that when we recognise how classrooms fit together, we have a better chance of helping those scraping along the bottom. After all, when a child struggles with maths, we take steps to make sure that this deficit doesn’t cause them too many long-term problems.
We may take them aside and show them how they can get better. The same can be done with social skills by showing children how to decode social cues and look for how their behaviour is viewed by others.
You can also help blur the lines between the bands. For instance, it’s probably already obvious who the ‘rejected’ children are in your classroom. They consistently don’t have friends and almost always end up sitting on their own.
But studies have found that when teachers change around seating plans, or give children the chance to do non-competitive, non-academic activities where they can chat, like small crafting circles, the least popular children are more liked by the end of the year.
It gives young people opportunities to get to know each other outside the pigeonholes they have put each other into.
It’s just one of the many things I suggest teachers can do to encourage a more harmonious classroom. By looking out for the different roles that children assume in the classroom, the good news is that we can help to break down the hierarchies that cause children so much stress and upset.
Tanith Carey is the author of The Friendship Maze: How to Help Your Child Navigate their Way to Positive, Happier Friendships (£10.99, Summersdale).
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