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The Joys of Peer Pressure

The title surprised you, didn’t it?

Every teacher has faced the difficulty of the Bad Influence—the student who seems intent on obstructing educational progress at every turn and by any means necessary. He may be a public disruption, or he may undercut your authority and effectiveness, one student at a time. He may be just impish, or he may have more malevolent intentions. But he’s going to show up in your class eventually; he almost certainly already has.1

Myths About Peer Pressure

I don’t know any teachers who don’t bemoan the evils of peer pressure, who don’t wish it didn’t exist. But at the risk of sounding insane, let me suggest that peer pressure is not inherently a bad thing—I suspect that it’s not entirely a result of Adam’s fall—and that if a teacher understands the phenomenon accurately, he or she can make it an important tool in his pedagogical toolbox.

Our first item of business is to understand peer pressure accurately—to clear up common myths or misconceptions.

Myth #1: Teens are unusually susceptible to peer pressure.

In short, I think this idea is just wrong; but I also think we’ve done things to make it appear that teens are more sensitive than others to the influences of their friends.

Human nature craves acceptance and respect. That’s true of everyone. Do you really care less about what your colleagues think of you than your students do? In my experience, most people who proclaim most loudly that they "don’t care what anybody thinks" are whistling past the graveyard; they’re looking for respect by telling anyone who will listen that they’re rugged individualists. If they really don’t care, then why are they telling everybody? We all face peer pressure, and we all find ourselves being influenced by it.

At the same time, we’ve done things in the way we raise our children that virtually guarantee that by the time they are teens, they will be driven by the pressures that other teens put on them. The most obvious contributor to that is that we put virtually all of the children in the country into a room full of people exactly their age, and we leave them there until they graduate from college. We used to do that starting at age 6, then at age 5, and now pretty much as soon as they’re born, thanks to the thriving day-care industry in this country.

So after 10 to 15 years surrounded by their peers pretty much exclusively, they care a lot about what their peers think. What did we expect to happen?

During my years in the publishing industry, I had two similar experiences about ten years apart. The first was about 1985, when BJU Press was marketing a program called MultiGrade, which facilitated combining small numbers of students from several grades into a single classroom. We noticed something happening in MultiGrade classrooms that the program designers had not anticipated: the students seemed much less affected by peer pressure. As soon as we saw it happening, it made perfect sense, even though we hadn’t planned for it. The "assembly-line" approach in traditional American education was a system practically designed to create peer pressure; and modifying it, unsurprisingly, greatly reduced the problem.

You can probably guess the second time that happened. We saw it again in the mid 90s when homeschooling began growing rapidly in popularity. Homeschooled students tend not to be as susceptible to peer pressure as their traditionally schooled counterparts. Why not? Because we don’t educate them in peer-pressure factories.

Myth #2: Peer pressure is a negative influence.

Of course there are lots of examples of negative peer pressure. The Bible even gives examples of it; as just one case, King Rehoboam listened to his peers rather than his elders and Israel split, not to be reunited until 1948, if then (1 Kings 12:1–19).

But this tendency to move downward is not primarily a function of peer pressure; it’s a function of human depravity. We still see that tendency in ourselves when we’re not with peers; we can be just as rotten when we’re alone as when we’re with others, and sometimes more so.

The Scripture speaks just as much about positive peer pressure as it does about negative. In fact, the whole concept of the church, an assembly of gifted believers who edify and encourage one another, is essentially based on the idea of positive peer pressure— empowered, of course, by the convicting, directing, and gifting work of the Holy Spirit. One element of church life, church discipline, is built on the idea of increasing peer pressure to the point necessary to encourage repentance (Matthew 18:15–17).

Peer pressure can be a very good thing, when it is rightly directed.

Using Peer Pressure Constructively

So how can peer pressure become a tool that the teacher can use to further his educational goals? Let me suggest a few things you can do to make that happen.

Address the Root Problem

If the chief cause of misbehavior is the fallen Adamic nature—and it is—then we all realize that the solution to the problem is spiritual, not logistical. You need to challenge all of your students, but certainly the difficult ones, to evaluate seriously whether they have been converted—whether the fruit of conversion is being displayed in their lives—and whether they are being regularly sanctified through the means of grace. That means, of course, that you need to live before them in such a way that spiritual growth is something they will value and seek. And you need to pray for the Holy Spirit’s convicting work in the hearts of your students. We live in a culture designed to inoculate students against conviction, and we are desperately in need of divine intervention.

Help the Leaders Lead

Some people are naturally gifted to lead. They’re not hard to find; they’re the ones who step out in front and take charge whenever there’s an opening. You’ll quickly realize that most of your biggest classroom headaches—at least the personal ones—fall into this category. The fact is that they’re going to lead, whether you like that or not. So you might as well help them lead in ways that are constructive; turn them into sources of positive peer pressure rather than negative.

How do you do that? First, you have to get into a position to direct them. And that means you have to overcome your natural dislike of troublemakers. You have a student who’s constantly causing disruptions? Single him out for special attention—not publicly, of course—by reaching out to him. Have him stay after class to help with something; use the time to engage him in conversation about what’s going on in his life—his likes and dislikes, his fears and successes. Turn him into a friend.2 Channel his energies into projects that contribute to the classroom environment rather than interfere with it. Give him responsibility, and praise him when he carries it out well.3 It makes sense to have the natural leaders among your students working with you rather than against you.

Don’t be afraid to be direct in challenging the disruptive leader. Tell him, privately, that he has a lot of potential—that he’s a natural leader and can make a significant contribution in any group he works with, now and in the future. Let him know that you recognize and appreciate that—that you like him and hope he does well now and in the days ahead. Encourage him to lead well, and offer your cooperation and assistance. Tell him that you’re going to help him learn to lead effectively by giving him specific opportunities to lead—and that you’ll be watching to see how he does and giving him feedback, both corrective (negative) and reinforcing (positive). And if you want to throw in something about being president of the United States someday, that wouldn’t hurt.

Motivate

You can facilitate the process of redirecting natural leaders by setting up a classroom structure that rewards good and discourages evil. There’s been much written about methods of classroom control, so I won’t lay all that out here. But I’ve seen instances where the class’s biggest troublemaker turned into the Chief Rule Enforcer when the classroom structure was changed to offer an opportunity for a reward that he wanted very much. In one case, the teacher announced a point penalty for various kinds of classroom disruption and promised that if the class as a whole accumulated fewer than x points by a given date, every student would receive a fossil. (This was an elementary science class.) The disrupters immediately began telling everyone else to be quiet, and they continued to do so until the fossils were delivered several weeks later.

Tear Down the Factory

I’ve noted that teaching situations that combine diverse age groups tend to work against the development of peer pressure. Teachers can look for ways to increase the interaction between different age levels—tutoring opportunities, for example, or using older children to lead game times at recess. Our church encourages the teens to pray with the adults, and not only in teen groups, at the midweek prayer service. The possibilities are endless.

God has chosen to use peer pressure as one of the chief human tools for sanctification. Further, He uses flawed, sinful people, such as you and me, to accomplish great things in His plan. Surely we can learn from His perfect example.

 Updated October 21, 2015.

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