During early adolescence, children’s relationships with their peers play an important role in their personal development. Friendships build self-esteem, provide motivation, and support academic achievement. Children who are perceived as different, however, often struggle to make friends and find themselves left out of social groups. This exclusion might be based on dissimilarities in such areas as cultural background, interests, or social class.
In a highly competitive academic environment, for example, children who struggle with learning are frequently excluded by their better-performing peers, making friendships across these two groups less likely to occur. A recent study that focused on the interactions between higher- and lower-achieving students shows why this needs to change, and how schools can encourage friendships between children who differ in their level of academic achievement.
“Those who learn to value diversity at a younger age are likely to develop into adults who have a more inclusive perspective towards people who are different.”
Increased trust and sympathy for peers
Over the course of one year, a team of researchers analysed the cross-group friendships of 1,122 adolescents with different levels of academic achievement from 61 inclusive classrooms in Switzerland. In these classes, children with academic difficulties received additional assistance from teachers trained in working with children with special educational needs. The students were assessed at two points of the study: first at the end of grade 5 and then one year later, at the end of grade 6. At each point they were asked to complete a questionnaire that measured the number of cross-group friends they had, their attitudes towards inclusion, and their level of intergroup trust and sympathy.
The researchers analysed the data from these questionnaires, modelling the changes in trust and sympathy that occurred over the one-year period at the individual level. They also examined how these changes related to the students’ attitudes toward inclusion.
They found that when better-performing children have more cross-group friendships, they are more likely to trust and sympathise with low-achieving peers. They become less prejudiced against low-achieving children in general, and experience more concern for them.
Consequently, they develop more inclusive attitudes towards lower-achieving peers, which they are likely to carry into adulthood. “Prejudice becomes more stable with age and entrenched in adulthood. In early adolescence, children are still developing their attitudes towards inclusion and diversity. Those who learn to value diversity at a younger age are therefore likely to develop into adults who have a more inclusive perspective towards people who are different,” explains the study’s lead researcher, Jeanine Grütter.
“Classroom environments that encourage children to trust and sympathise with peers who struggle academically promote inclusive attitudes.”
Encouraging cross-group friendships in the classroom
Schools have an important role to play in encouraging friendships between children with different levels of academic achievement. “Friends are a personal choice. But teachers can create opportunities for children to connect in a positive way. Collaborative group work, for example, is a great way for children to get to know each other,” says Grütter.
Creating learning environments that are more inclusive and less competitive also provides children with more opportunities to connect based on shared interests, rather than on a shared level of academic achievement. “Instead of pushing children to compete against each other to be the best, teachers can encourage students to get to know each other personally during group assignments. For example, students might be asked to find out something new about a classmate and then report back to the rest of the class,” Grütter explains.
“Schools should reflect the diversity that exists in society, and in that context they should encourage friendships between children who differ from one another.”
Classroom environments that encourage children to trust and sympathise with peers who struggle academically promote inclusive attitudes. When teachers model such trust and sympathy during daily interactions, their students are likely to show similar behaviour, and to develop more inclusive attitudes overall.
“Schools have a unique chance to influence attitudes during the formative years of adolescence in a way that promotes inclusion. They should reflect the diversity that exists in society, and in that context they should encourage friendships between children who differ from one another. This will help students learn to accept others and to value diversity, both in school and in society as a whole,” Grütter concludes.