By Stephanie Filio
This year I said goodbye to a group of students whom I had rolled with for three years. They are moving on to high school, leaving middle school with excited trepidation, basic knowledge about graduation requirements, academic achievements, and smiles that are set to brighten their new schools in September. Ever since they started at my school three years ago, I have told everyone that this group was sent here specifically to make me look good. They are collectively laid-back, fun, and caring kids. We had very few disciplinary stand-outs, and they stood by one another through several individual and collective hurdles.
The most impressive thing to me was the way these students genuinely took care of one another. Their hallway spirit was infectious, with students asking one another if they were okay, telling me when another student needed to visit me, high-fiving each other, and reporting to teachers when peers were going through difficulties. When I needed to know why two friends were arguing, what I could do to help a sad student, or why a student was truant, I often turned to students to help me help their peers. Though sometimes this required a little prodding, this group typically did it on their own and expected the same from one another. I’m serious, people—if I could bottle the spirit of this group of kids, it would be the hottest ticket in education.
While discussing the collective fun and kind disposition of this group with a parent one day, she reported that this trait was due to the Chinese calendar and year in which they were born. School staff wondered if it was a generational thing. I’ve looked at what children’s shows were popular when this group was young. But, alas, they just happen to be great kids, all bundled up into one group. The credit is truly theirs. But over my three years with them, I noticed a few things that encouraged students to take on leadership roles and use positive peer pressure to improve the lives of their peers.
A Spark of Positivity
Let’s get clinical for a second. Positive peer pressure is when students incite positive socially normative reactions in one another and hold one another to certain expectations by communicating the needs of others. Whereas negative peer pressure coerces students into acting a certain way for social standing, positive peer pressure is spread through encouragement, understanding, and observation.
Adolescents are at a developmental age where they observe their peers for social norms, experience a little healthy rebellion to find independence, and seek increased understanding of their growing world. We can help them seek answers, find positive ones, and adopt that positivity as the norm. Lucky for all of us who work in schools, creating this type of atmosphere is fun—and makes coming to work more positive for us too!
As counselors, we have the ability to ensure students are reaching their full positive-connection potential. We are responsible for productive mediations, identifying student difficulties, aligning academics with personal growth, and social-emotional learning. When students experience positive peer pressure, our jobs are made endlessly easier. Students feel safe, they feel noticed, and they feel cared for at school. This means students come to school more, they are more engaged, and they develop more meaningful relationships. When students actually like school because of positive peer interactions, their positive perception lasts far beyond our time with them.
Positive peer pressure should start with a spark of, well, positivity. Positive behavior has to be defined for students so they know what they are shooting for. What do I want for my students? I want them to care for each other, respect the perspectives of others, view the vastness of the world, be open to possibilities, believe in their own worth, enjoy making others feel good, be flexible to life’s surprises, and have fun, even when they are tackling something difficult. I communicate openly with my students, so I know they understand this on some level. However, when we empower students to be leaders, they can then hold one another accountable and these positive behavior goals can be reinforced by their peer group through positive peer pressure.
Activities That Invite Positive Peer Pressure
Because I believe positivity is hugely systemic, I look for ways to have students participate in activities on the individual, classroom, and schoolwide levels. Here are some things we have implemented in my school to increase positive peer pressure:
- Random Acts of Kindness. Create strips of paper that have random acts of kindness on them (for example, hold the door for someone, tell your favorite teacher what you think of him or her, help someone carry his or her things). As students enter the hallway, pass out the random acts of kindness to students and tell them to complete the acts on their papers at some point during the day and then trade acts with classmates.
- Schoolwide Kindness Classroom Lessons. Choose a kindness lesson that all grade levels will complete at the same time. For example, we discussed the book The Giving Tree and gave each student a leaf on which they wrote something they appreciated about our school. We then made large grade-level trees to display in the atrium. Discussions took this concept outward, encouraging students to take interest in the things their friends appreciate as well.
- Perspective Classroom Lessons. Classroom lessons can be geared toward being mindful of the needs of those around us. For one of my favorite lessons, I showed pictures of distorted perspectives (for example, a photo of my children holding up their hands so it looked like they were holding the sun, someone posing so it looked like the tip of a skyscraper was pricking their finger, and so on). I then had students stand in various places around the room and demonstrated the power of perspective by doing silly things like standing across the room and arranging my fingers in a way that made it look (from my perspective) like I was pinching someone’s head. Most of the students, who were placed strategically around the room, could not tell what I was doing—from any position other than my own, I looked like a crazy person. We then had a lengthy conversation about how we might misinterpret others’ motives if we do not try to see things from their perspectives. Students were encouraged to view perspectives other than their own, particularly when their friends came to them for guidance.
- Schoolwide Video Series for Positivity. I have a weekly video series that teachers play during study time. The videos are geared toward social-emotional concepts and include a discussion about how the topics can affect others as well as a quick activity. Videos should be played to all grade levels, so all students are bringing the same message with them in their lives.
- Mix-Up Unity Lunches. This past year, we started perhaps my favorite new event to help students mingle with people outside their normal social groups. The first event was such a success that we decided to continue it as a regular tradition next year. We give ten students two invitations. One invitation is for them, and the second is for them to invite someone to lunch with whom they do not usually hang out. The twenty students then meet in a location other than the lunchroom to eat lunch, hang out, and get to know one another. Our administrator, a huge supporter of anything that encourages positive interactions between students, added really cool activities like music for dancing and Ping-Pong tables. We don’t structure the activities, but we try to offer as many group experiences as possible so that everyone can find something to enjoy.
The point of these ideas is to lay a basis of consideration for students as they maneuver their social landscape. I saw these activities draw students closer together, and they became increasingly aware of the ways they affected others. As their expectations of one another mirrored the positivity they learned from the school environment, positive peer pressure began to spread. I will not say that my students were perfect, but I will say that even in their age-appropriate mistakes, their encouragement and support of one another was beyond their years in many ways. If they did something that hurt someone else, many times their classmates called them on it and encouraged them to right their wrongs in due time.
Adult Role Modeling
Regardless of the gifts of kindness your students may already possess, school staff are the first providers of emotional modeling and resources for students. Kids constantly observe their surroundings for clues about what is or is not socially acceptable. The culture demonstrated by school adults will provide a guideline. This is why I am a big fan of the “happy teacher = happy student” theory.
As counselors, we communicate with every staff subgroup in the building, and it’s important that we remain student-focused in all our interactions. In a sense, we want to spread the same message about positive peer pressure to adults as we do to students. When adults model positive peer pressure, it will trickle down to student efforts as well. Here are some things the school counseling team at my school has done to help bolster positive staff outlook and communication:
- Use community partners to thank teachers for their hard work (donuts, pens or other supplies, drinks, goodies). When students see appreciation around them, they are more likely to show appreciation to their peers. They may even encourage one another to show appreciation to others, creating a ripple effect of encouragement.
- Harvest good relationships with teachers, allowing for confidential decompressing. This can help teachers better avoid burnout and sends a message of compassion to other staff members and students alike. Students can tell when an adult is happy or unhappy, and they will often reflect this mood. And the happier students are, the more likely they are to have positive exchanges with peers.
- Encourage self-care. Teachers have an incredible amount of pressure on them, and the more prepared they feel to meet each day, the more likely they are to interact positively with one another and model positive behavior for students.
A Positive Culture Now and in the Future
Whether their positive attitude just happened to come serendipitously or there was something in the water the year they were born, what made my most recent group of kids stand out was that they used their preteen powers for good. That natural instinct to group together, follow the crowd, blend in, and observe others was still there; it was simply focused on positive behaviors instead of negative. With a thoughtful and caring atmosphere for students to model, counselor nudges when needed, and the freedom to explore kindness, good deeds spread like wildfire.
A culture of positive peer pressure allows students to have more fun, experience more rewards, make more friends, and be more present at school. The mark my recent student cohort will leave on me regarding middle schoolers’ social-emotional capacity will benefit my future students for the remainder of my career.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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