The ways kids influence one another are probably second only to teacher-student relationships in impacting the classroom community. For better or worse.
Get your act together first. You must set a positive tone for relationships in the class. One common question in a teacher interview is: “How would your students describe you?” That is an important question to consider daily. The best way I can discover how I’m REALLY doing is to videotape myself. Even knowing I’m being filmed changes my behavior for the better. It engages the self-monitoring part of my brain, something we hope to elicit in our students as well. Give that a try if you are feeling perpetually grumpy or if you are always “putting out fires” in your class. It is helpful to establish videotaping as a routine part of your class from the beginning, or you will have kids endlessly posturing for the camera. You don’t actually have to be filming at first; just keep the camera and tripod visible. Use a dark pen or tape to blot out the red recording light. When the kids ask why you’re filming, tell them it’s so you can be a better teacher. They won’t believe you for a moment but eventually the novelty will wear off. And then you can use videotaping to change their behavior as well as yours.
Let’s take a look at ways to enhance peer relationships in the context of difficult students. We’ll assume you have a fairly active class but one kid rises well above the rest. We’ll call him Damon. Damon is a pinball, ricocheting around the room unless you pin him to your side. He has the attention span of an 18 month old. You can count on him to both create and broadcast the news about any bodily functions, especially passing gas. Although he can be quite funny, he also has a short fuse. Even so, Damon is a leader of sorts. He goes where no student has gone before, which attracts followers and admirers. But many kids are wary of him because he’s so mercurial. He doesn’t share materials, interrupts when others are speaking, and gets in trouble a lot.
Tip #1: Learn to love Damon. ( He would likely improve with a behavior contract but that’s another post. On the assumption that he has just started his new contract, you can rightly assume that he wants to do well.) Be deliberate in your interactions with him. Ask yourself how many times you smile at him (not counting baring your teeth). Monitor yourself to improve your ratio of praise to correction. Think of how he looked as a baby. Cute, huh? Focus on some traits you enjoy about him and share those with him: You are such a fast runner at recess! You always have something to contribute in group. You really want to do well in 2nd grade. You have a super smile. You draw interesting pictures. I like having you in my class. You make me smile.
Tip #2: Don’t always pick Damon to be the class “whatever” in order to give him attention and supposedly build his self-esteem. I know we were all taught that giving kids special jobs makes them feel special, but if that strategy were effective, you wouldn’t be struggling with him. I would assume he knows why you always call on him first or ask him to distribute materials: You are trying to get a step ahead of him; you are trying to change his behavior and he knows he’s falling short. Use your regular class helper routines and don’t favor him.
Tip #3: Help Damon’s peers love him. DON’T demonize him. Ask the guidance counselor or family specialist (who probably both know him and his family by now) to take Damon out of the room for about 15 minutes. Use that time to talk to the class about the “new” Damon. Talk to them about his lovable traits. Tell them some things you appreciate about him. Tell them that he really, really, really, really wants to do well in school and that they can help him! Yippee!
Sample script: “You guys already help each other in so many ways. Raise your hand if someone has helped you in this class. Great!” Damon’s classmates already know he needs some help, so you don’t emphasize his weaknesses. Just list the goals he is trying to achieve: staying in his space, raising his hand, and saying appropriate things.
Sample script: “It’s so easy to laugh at some of the things he says and does, but that makes him do them again. And then he’s in trouble because those aren’t appropriate for school. Real friends help each other. Real friends might give him a signal to raise his hand (demonstrate), even if he has blurted out. Real friends might say, Stay here with us, Damon. Who can be a real friend to Damon? In fact, you can all be great friends to each other. I’ve already seen you do that. Let’s practice helping someone stay in their seat. Remember that you can say it one time, but after that, it’s the teacher’s job. Otherwise, kids will feel that they are being bossed around.” (You probably need to reemphasize the bossiness issue.) Now you have set the stage for all the kids to help Damon AND each other.
Tip #4: Conduct regular class meetings. You might want to read about how these meetings can be handled effectively if they’re not already a part of your repertoire. Class meetings are a way for kids to develop a sense of community and create opportunities to discuss behaviors in a matter-of-fact way. Establish your class meeting rules from the start, such as ‘say kind things about others’ and ‘listen to others.’ Common topics include what they’d like to learn in some subject area, what they thought about an assembly, how to help one another, or what’s hard about a subject at school. You can keep some meetings short with simple thumbs up-thumbs down responses. Class meetings are invaluable for making it OK to discuss behavior problems (and responses to passing gas.) Don’t start with the latter topic, but you can take away the novelty and startle effect of misbehavior if it’s routinely reviewed. These discussions shouldn’t be a guise for writing prompts or letters home.
It will be rewarding to watch Damon flourish with peer support. And with that behavior contract in place.