Student to student relationships


Karen Sullivan offers some ideas for using group work to improve student behaviour.

In my last column we discussed the importance of strong teacher-student relationships, and how they can reduce disruptive behaviour. The other significant factor in curtailing problem behaviours is the development of positive friendships among the students.

Dishion, McCord & Poulin suggest that unhealthy relationships act as a sort of “deviancy training”, which increases delinquency, substance abuse, violence and adult maladjustment and, even worse, “high-risk” children are particularly vulnerable.

In other words, the kids who are most likely to misbehave anyhow, are even more affected when their peer group provides unhealthy and poor modelling and support.

Benard (2004), Battisch (2001), Battisch et al (1995) and Resnick et al (1997) all found that promoting and facilitating positive relationships between students reduces violence and bullying, improves the student culture and “experience”, and engages students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

So how can you encourage positive relationships, particularly in an age where cliques and gangs form the basis of many social groupings? In fact, for many children, especially those from damaged or difficult backgrounds or those with social problems, they provide a sense of belonging and an identity. There are a few ideas that have been thrown up by research.

First of all, the number of across-year clubs is important. Make some of them mandatory and ask the students to choose their top three (without consultation between friends), and then hand-place students so that existing groupings are broken up and in order to encourage the development of new friendships.

Similarly, project work and cooperative learning strategies within the classroom can help to support new relationships, particularly if they allow children to get to know each other and have fun while learning and sharing success. In fact, more than 1,000 research studies have documented the benefits of cooperative learning, including higher achievement, stronger peer relationships, social skills, empathy, motivation, conflict resolution, self-esteem, self-control, critical-thinking and, most importantly, substantially improved behaviour within the classroom.

Gee (1990) had an interesting idea, called digital story-telling, where students create their own person stories about aspects of their life, which they share with other students. It is suggested that during the making of the digital story and during its presentation, students can establish connections and new relationships and provide some personal insight into their lives. McGrath and Noble (1993; 2005) suggest creating a “Classroom Yellow Pages” in order to highlight pupils’ strengths and skills. Respect will be generated but also common areas of skills and interests can encourage new relationships and bonds. Teachers can then use this knowledge to seat like-minded students together or to form groups for cooperative learning. 

Small groupings can be particularly effective. Providing groups with a fixed task and some responsibility can also be effective. For example, asking groups to create a new after-school club, improve school recycling, or to design a new uniform can be a great way for students to engage – ask them to produce costings, schedules, a “business plan” etc, and then present it. A little of that all-important “we’re in this together” feeling will be engendered and students will naturally find their own strong-points. As long as everyone in the group has an equal role, they can be given the responsibility of sorting themselves out – and their common goal will bring them closer. 

It’s fairly obvious that choosing the groupings carefully can make all the difference. Choose kids who are likely to get on – and who will be a good influence on one another. There is nothing like positive peer pressure and a feeling of acceptance and belonging to encourage even the worst-behaved students to improve their attitude. These are just some ideas, and I’d love to hear your ideas too. This is one series of initiatives that could make more difference to your classroom than anything else.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription