By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.
Belonging. Such a seemingly simple, three-syllable word, but it’s pretty
powerful in life’s big picture and right there in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This basic need—third in line behind our physiological needs (shelter and food) and safety needs (order and freedom from chaos)—motivates and drives behaviors. We need to belong, to be accepted by our peers, to be loved, and to feel like we matter. So, what can we do to help our students when that basic need comes face-to-face with peer pressure to choose something that may not align with who they are?
From a very early age, our children are exploring who they are, what they stand for, where they’re going, and how they’ll get there. The answers to these questions are key to developing strong autonomy, something kids need before they can sharpen—and count on—refusal skills to combat unwanted peer pressure. It’s imperative that we equip children with strong foundational values and empower them with a decision-making model that they can use to help them make effective and ethical choices.
At Bales Intermediate School, we teach decision making using a four-step model: Stop, Look, Think, Decide.
STOP: When faced with a choice, our first step is to stop. Pausing gives us the gift of time before deciding. In a society that is used to—no, thrives on—instant gratification, it’s tempting to decide things quickly and without much thought. Buying a bit of time helps us avoid making haphazard, misguided decisions.
LOOK: We must look at all of the options before we push forward through a decision. What are the choices? What are the pros and cons of each choice? Will doing this be helpful? Will it be hurtful? Answering these inquiries will provide reflection. Listing the pros and cons on paper will provide clarity to help us get a realistic look before we leap.
THINK: This part of the process is our chance to consider the stakeholders in and the consequences of our decisions. A stakeholder is anyone whom our decision might affect. Ask students to brainstorm a list of stakeholders before they make a big decision. Who might care about this choice? Whom might it affect? How? What might be the outcome, positive or negative?
An effective activity to help students understand the extent of their reach is to set up a scenario and pose the question: Who will care? For example, you’re late to your baseball game; who will care? Invite students to stand as they answer that question: your team, the other team, the parents, the siblings, the grandparents, the coaches, the umpires, etc. When they’ve named everyone they can think of, prepare for an interesting discussion about all of the stakeholders in that one scenario and the big impact that even seemingly small decisions can have.
DECIDE: After looking at all of the options and thinking through all of the potential consequences, good and bad, comfortable and uncomfortable, it’s time to actually make a choice—to decide what’s best for all stakeholders involved.
Even with this strong model in place, how do we get students comfortable enough in who they are to use it when they’ve got a big decision to make?
Words are a powerful tool for combatting unwanted peer pressure. Children can proactively decline poor choices with a few key phrases like:
- That isn’t the way we treat each other in our family.
- We don’t behave like that in this school.
- I’m choosing not to do that with you.
But just knowing these words isn’t enough. We must give our students numerous and varied opportunities to practice using these refusal skills until they become second nature. Role play is an effective avenue for this practice. In our Leadership Social Stations, we have a “What Do I Do Next” booth set up on a stage so our students can decide what they would do in these realistic situations:
- A neighbor’s house is wrapped in toilet paper, and the person who did it confessed to you but told you not to tell.
- An angry teammate sends you a text with a nasty rumor about someone else and asks you to forward it to everyone in your address book.
- A classmate tells you she needs last night’s homework so she can copy your answers.
- You saw your sister take some money from your mom’s wallet, so she offers to give you some if you keep quiet.
- One friend decides she doesn’t like Sally and tells you that you’re not allowed to be friends with her anymore.
- You are walking to the lunch table with a new student when your best friend calls you over to the one seat that’s available by him.
As we’re rehearsing solutions to these counselor-created dilemmas, students will typically ask if they can write and act out their own scenarios, and the answer is always a resounding YES! Role play doesn’t get any more authentic than that.
Students should also practice walking away and seeking out the assistance of a trusted adult for those times when words alone won’t suffice.
One final note: Just as peer pressure can be negative, peers can also have a positive influence. Coach your students to spend time with uplifting friends who make good choices and whose values align with theirs. Encourage them to join a group like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or 4-H to feed the need to belong. Brainstorm ways that peers can come together without formally joining a club and use their circle of influence to champion a cause or right a wrong. Make sure that students know, and firmly believe, that together they have the power to positively change the world to which they belong.
Currently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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