Spoken to an educator recently? Opened a newspaper? Then, no doubt you’ve heard about the startling increase in remarkably cruel, insensitive & flat-out rude behavior kids are showing on a regular basis. Group-think is short-circuiting basic decency with alarming regularity.
At my middle school in recent months, as in schools across the country, we have experienced a number of incidents of students fighting; using slurs & taunts that are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, and ableist; giving/requesting “passes” to say the n-word or other slurs; and other forms of aggression, physical and emotional. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around why they are treating each other this way.
When we press kids, they say, “it was just a joke” or can’t explain their motivations at all. But, they point to these cruelties as the causes of fights—and even the idea of needing a “pass” proves that they know it’s wrong. When we ask the aggressors, “How would that make you feel?” or “What kind of position was that to put your friend into?” they quickly recognize their responsibility. On an individual level, we’ve had some excellent restorative conversations as a result, especially since they’re often friends so there’s a relationship to build from.
But, this feels so widespread, we’ve been wracking our brains to come up with strategies to turn the tide at my school. A whole-grade assembly isn’t going to do the trick. Another lecture from an authority figure or even an empathetic & relatable teacher isn’t going to change hearts & minds. A guest speaker will come and go and little will be different. Where to turn?
What does a middle schooler want more than to “fit in”? They want to feel that they’re running along with the herd, that they’re not failing in any way to keep up. The only comparable urge is to show that they are mature & responsible. How to harness this peer pressure and redirect it from the easy potential for “mob mentality” to a pro-social, positive impact?
Enter: the high schoolers. A Diversity Council had formed at the high school to help students find community and brainstorm ways to respond to and prevent bullying & harassment. They attended a training with the Anti-Defamation League geared toward building empathy and highlighting what we have in common rather than what makes us different. We approached the advisors about whether the kids could visit & conduct the workshop activities with our middle schoolers. And a plan was hatched.
For our 8th graders, they don’t have to sit through a lecture from a dusty old man like myself, where it’s so apparent that there’s a “right answer” for every “open-ended question” I ask. Instead, they get to have a conversation with some near-peer role models. It’s easier to ask questions, share personal experiences, and kick around different ideas. They get to engage in some fun activities with older kids they look up to, on a topic that is absolutely relevant in their daily lives. The Diversity Council is pulled from the community so it exactly reflects the diversity they encounter daily. Time out of class always feels like a treat, and this time it’s for a very good cause!
For the high schoolers, they get a public speaking opportunity that is difficult to beat, organized around a topic that everybody recognizes as important right now. They get opportunities to develop their skills with these activities before they’re tasked with presenting similar material with their own classmates back at the high school. That’s a high-pressure proposal for any adolescent, to be sure, so a confidence boost will serve them well! They’re also developing leadership skills that they will wield in a variety of contexts throughout school and life.
For our school community, our students experience positive peer pressure: they are pressed to accept others, value differences, and consider the consequences of their words and actions.
We provide a space for our students to actively engage with authentic questions. Instead of being told what’s right & wrong, they have an opportunity to discuss & decide how they want to behave.
As a result, these tools will be more likely to be at their disposal when they find themselves in a difficult situation. What can a bystander do? How can they improve the situation? What do they want to take away from a conversation, or what are they looking for in a friendship?
Helping kids make their thinking about these topics more concrete will improve their outcomes, but it will also elevate the community as a whole.
Meanwhile, we’re training the next generation of peer leaders, who will someday come back to present for their near-peers: the next round of younger kids, who will look up to them and eagerly raise their hands to join in the activities they’ve got planned.