Back in the day, the popular kids wore popcorn tops. My mother wouldn’t let me buy one. With good reason. It was a style that would not have flattered me.But I didn’t let up. All my friends were wearing popcorn tops. I had to have one or . . . what? Looking back at that small moment from my life of 52 years, I struggle to understand what my sense of urgency, back then, was really about. I think of those years as a kind of crucible, a refining process in which all my efforts would or would not succeed. I would get out of the process what I put into it. That’s why I felt so driven, so emotional. It felt like a race. It was a race.As a mother of many children, I have watched my kids struggle with these same feelings as they reach that stage of their lives. Remembering how I felt about that popcorn top and about so many other issues back then, I am always empathetic. I never tell my children they are being ridiculous. I never tell them they are placing importance on unimportant matters. Because I remember how that felt: I remember that urgency.We tend to think of peer pressure as a bad thing with bullying, drug abuse, and purging just a few of its associated social ills. Despite the negative connotations we accept the phenomenon of peer pressure as a fact of adolescent life. It works like this: those deemed popular in teen social circles by the society of their peers set off a chain of imitative behavior in those less popular. The kids on the lowest rung of the popularity ladder may engage in risky behavior or wear unflattering fashions (think popcorn tops) with an eye toward becoming as socially successful as the peers they strive to imitate.
Ergo, we have teens who smoke because the popular kids smoke and they want to be like them: be socially successful. But what if we could direct this type of social influence, this peer pressure, to encourage appropriate and positive behaviors? After all, it’s clear that teens affected by peer pressure want something positive: they want to be successful, popular. Shouldn’t we at least try to channel the urgency of peer pressure toward something that benefits our young?
And if this were at all possible, should this not be a goal for classroom teachers to work toward—directing that energy in a beneficial direction? Teaching was never supposed to consist of one sole purpose: imparting dry facts of knowledge, but was always meant to be about mentoring and molding young minds toward excellence. How then, can teachers use peer pressure to best advantage in the classroom? How can we direct that imitative behavior to be about imitating the best and brightest behavior in the classroom?
One answer is that we may not have to try very hard. Peer influence on teen drinking has been found to be more successful in driving anti as opposed to pro-alcohol norms. It seems that kids naturally know what’s good for them. They are more inclined to imitate behavior that yields positive benefits. The trick is in finding examples of good behavior in the classroom that can be played up to good advantage.
A teacher can help move a class dynamic in a positive direction by voicing positive reinforcement. “It seems that group 3 is ready with its presentation. That’s great. Let’s hear what you have to say.”
Such vocal expressions of approval never get old. By complimenting group 3, the teacher encourages imitative behavior by the other classroom groups, who automatically want to please the teacher, too. Here, peer pressure is channeled to good effect through a proactive step that directs peer influences in a positive direction.
Another proactive step might be to change student seating so that misbehaving students are seated next to well-behaved students. Using first names in the class setting also helps to encourage better behavior. Students want to feel noticed in the classroom and may strive to hear their own names on their teachers’ lips.
Additional steps to take are more reactive in nature and may include responding in a positive way to students who follow instructions and behave well. When the focus is directed solely to well-behaved, accomplished students, a chain reaction may be set in motion whereby less well-behaved students come to desire that attention for themselves. A teacher with a good handle on the classroom by dint of personality is likely to be more effective in encouraging this good sort of peer pressure.
It’s tempting to think these approaches are simplistic or at least, obvious. Can it really be as easy as that? I think so. The teacher who keeps these teaching norms uppermost may find the tide of classroom behavior tide turning in the best possible direction with little effort. Believing in a tactic and using it in a wide and consistent manner is the key to making it work.
I finally got my popcorn top. In pink. I wore it once and realized it just didn’t look right on me. I buried it at the bottom of a drawer and looked for other, more fitting ways to emulate the popular kids. Lesson learned.