By Molly Breen
Say the word clique, and it generally conjures a not-so-favorable image of “mean girls” (or boys, or kids) in the throes of middle school identity woes. It may surprise you to know that clique power dynamics emerge much earlier than the preteen and teenage social politics of middle and high school. Preschool cliques are a thing, and they aren’t necessarily a bad thing! Cliques can prove positive if we can manage to avoid—or learn from—some of the negative clique hallmarks. As educators, we can approach clique mentality less as a social structure to dismantle and more as fertile soil ready for some social and emotional planting.
The word clique can actually refer to any social group or group of friends. Neutralizing the meaning of the word to more of a friend group than an inner-circle provides a better shared context as a starting point. On the positive side, cliques can provide a sense of belonging to a peer group with similar interests and, in the case of preschoolers, similar skill levels. This group of friends may help build confidence in the individual members through positive and prosocial play and learning: “You like what I like and can do what I can do.” In addition to the sense of belonging and increased confidence, friend-group cliques can also provide an emerging awareness of social structures that can serve children well in the future. For educators, differentiating our approach to friend groups depending on the group’s accompanying behaviors is a great guidance skill. This means that we try to approach friend groups with a neutral mindset and then observe behaviors to determine if there is a darker side to the clique.
Dark side behaviors in cliques are easily identifiable and are closely related to that mean-girls reference. Cliques can be exclusive, can be controlled by a group mentality, and can create a sense of inadequacy in the individual: “I’m not enough without my friends.” Further, there might be evidence of the inflexible exit. Every teacher has heard a version of these words spoken from one bestie to another: “If you play with him, then you can’t be on our team anymore.” In its worst iteration, the clique will chronically bully the weakest members and even create its own social hierarchy. How do we best respond to this type of exclusion and treat it as an opportunity to evolve and grow rather than simply shutting it down?
Identifying the social structure you are observing as a clique (with all of the negative connotations) or as a friend group with some complexity is the first step to developing an appropriate intervention. If the group is a positive and prosocial friend group, it is appropriate to address any challenges on an individual level. For example, if one child is regularly cast in a supporting role in play or is often playing the role of peacemaker in the group, it would be helpful to draw the group’s attention to these patterns and attempt to create equity in turn-taking or encourage the group to ask a teacher for help with settling disagreements. If the social structure is a clique with painful and exclusive practices, it will be appropriate to address the whole group with observations about the patterns in a class meeting. One well-researched method for building empathy around exclusionary play and other forms of bullying is role playing. Yes, this can seem tedious and even silly, but it is truly an effective way to help students see how their actions affect others.
Depending on the age of your students, teachers can perform the role play or you can ask for help from your students. Use true-to-life scenarios such as picking teams and excluding or singling out one child who “can’t play” for an arbitrary reason (such as being too young, wearing the wrong colors, or only liking to play “baby” games), talking loudly about who will be invited to a birthday party and specifically excluding someone within earshot, or making statements about someone’s appearance being “weird” or “funny.” These are all simple suggestions, but it is likely your real-life clique dramas will provide a richer narrative.
If you feel stumped about how to use role playing for social and emotional learning, there are dozens of online resources that can help point you in the right direction. (Check out this great resource!) Be bold in trying out something new if you’ve never done a role play with your students! Follow up with questions like: “What do you notice happening here? How could this go differently? Have you ever felt like ___________? What did you do? Who did you tell? How could we ‘rewrite the script’ to avoid hurt feelings and practice kindness with our friends?”
Again, these are basic starting points, and I predict your conversation will inevitably move in the direction of developing empathy.
While I believe wholeheartedly in helping children develop skills for self-advocacy and do not practice “helicoptering” in my teaching and learning with kids, I believe we sometimes must intervene to help kids get unstuck or, in this case, un-cliqued and moving in the direction of positive development. If we can remember that friend groups and cliques are not necessarily bad, and if we can seize those painful moments of exclusion and peer pressure and turn them into opportunities for growth, we just might be able to build empathy as a capacity and a life skill. And when children are armed with this kind of character, we can feel assured that our little learners will have what they need—and know who they are—in elementary school, middle school, and beyond.
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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