“In elementary school it was much different because everybody wasn’t on your case,” Tashana, now an eighth-grade student, says. “When you were in fifth grade people looked at you as a leader. When you come to middle school in sixth grade, people look down on you and just think of you as a nothing sixth grader.”
The transition to middle school comes at a time when children are starting to form personal identities, and the need to fit in plays a large role in how students will develop emotionally. Now at the bottom of the school’s social pyramid after being the top dogs in elementary school, students are forced to adapt to the social norms of middle school before the process begins anew in high school.
To fit in, students often find themselves caving into peer pressure. This critical time in adolescence also marks a student’s first-time contact with alcohol, drugs, and risky sexual behaviors, and the allure often makes it difficult for students to just say “no.”
“Some of my friends would tell me that they were going to get together after school and smoke weed,” Tashana says. “They would tell me that I should try it and how good it makes you feel and that it’ll be like nothing else I’ve ever done. And I would tell them that none of this stuff matters. It’s just stupid.”
While Tashana has resisted temptation so far, she understands why other students have succumbed to peer pressure. “In middle school you have to put up this front where if you don’t know how to do things, or if you can’t fight, or if you can’t do this, or you can’t do that, then people make you feel like you don’t belong,” she says. “It’s not easy to just ignore it.”
In many instances, students find the pressures of school too overwhelming to simply ignore. Sarafina, a Hammond seventh grader, recalls visiting a friend’s house because the bullied girl was so upset that she didn’t want to go to school. The reason: After dyeing her hair, she became the victim of relentless taunts from other students.
“I think peer pressure has a lot to do with bullying,” Sarafina says. “If people find what you do different than them, they’ll make fun of you and bully you, and that’s not right.” (For information on bullying prevention, visit nea.org/bullyfree.)
Peer pressure can be daunting to overcome, but teachers and students have teamed up to combat the problem. One approach is using positive peer pressure to promote the constructive influences that students have on one another. Many teachers take steps to foster this type of environment in their classrooms, understanding that students who see others pursuing positive activities will be more inclined to do so as well.
“If you’re a bad influence and you see everyone in the class working, then you would realize that being bad is just pathetic,” Tashana says.
Teachers also spend time listening to students’ concerns and giving advice to those dealing with difficult issues. These educators create a classroom environment that provides students with supportive advocates whose presence boosts their chances of success. Morning advisory time with the same teacher also allows the school’s students to build a relationship with an adult whom they can trust.
“During advisory time, we check in with our students to see how they are doing and to see if they have any concerns that we can help them with,” says Amy Creed, a Hammond social studies teacher. “As teachers, we constantly remind our students to make good choices, and we let our students know that we are here to talk to if they ever feel stressed.”
Since peer pressure begins to affect students earlier on in the learning process, teachers have started instituting programs for younger students. If students have a fundamental understanding of how to deal with peer pressure, they will be more prepared to cope with the challenge.
“I ask students to list things they will say no to in the future, like stealing and cheating,” says Jeanne Koenig, a counselor at Perry Elementary and Middle Schools in Perry, Ohio. “Each student compiles and then signs and dates the personal list. I ask them to look at their list at least once a year to see if they are still abstaining from these behaviors.”
While teachers can offer resources to help their students cope with peer pressure, it is the students who can have the most meaningful impact on their school communities. By stressing the importance of helping their peers succeed, teachers can allow students to lead by example and create the sort of environment that embraces individuality over conformity.
“You are who you are, and you were born who you are. No one is supposed to just come into a room one day and change everything about you because of what you look like, what you wear, what you sound like, or what you say,” Sarafina says. “You just have to ignore them because all they would do is ruin who you are.”