How Clique Leaders Can Help You Mix It Up

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Mix It Up at Lunch Day is just around the corner. Most students report that the Mix It Up experience – taking one lunch hour to sit somewhere new and make friends – is a positive experience that helps reduce tension across social boundaries. Sometimes, though, students are reluctant to participate.

If you have some of these students in your class, educational consultant Rick Phillips may have a solution for you. Phillips is one of the creators of Safe School Ambassadors, a program that taps the existing social structures in schools – i.e. cliques – and uses them to fight bullying.

The basic concept is simple. Educators identify the students in the school who are the leaders of their social groups (usually by surveying students on what group they belong to, and asking who leads each group.) Then teachers enlist those clique leaders in the effort to create an emotionally healthy school environment.

The approach is outlined in a book by Phillips and his colleagues John Linney and Chris Pack. In an interview with Phillips, I asked him for more details on how the program works and how our readers can use these techniques in their own classrooms.

Teaching Tolerance: In our years of doing Mix It Up at Lunch Day, we’ve occasionally run into students who don’t want to mix because they find safety in their social clique. How does Safe School Ambassadors handle this situation?

Rick Phillips: First of all, let me say that Mix It Up is a great idea. If you give people a chance to truly get to know each other, you reduce the likelihood that they’ll target each other for mistreatment. What you’re doing with Mix It Up is really important.

But there’s a lot of peer pressure in schools – pressure to conform the expectations of your own group and pressure to observe the norms that already exist. When students are asked to socialize with kids from other cliques, they feel that pressure.

Our approach is to recognize what we call the “alpha kids” – the clique leaders, kids who are highly respected and who have a certain cache within their peer group….

Once we’ve identified the clique leaders on campus, we invite those leaders to an orientation. [The clique leader] gets a hall pass and is asked to report to the gym or some other assembly room. Of course, they’re wondering what sort of trouble they may be in. When they arrive, they find a room full of [kids known as] “jocks,” “stoners,” gay kids and straight kids, kids of different races. We sit the kids down and say, “you’ve all been invited here because you’ve been identified as leaders.”

Usually there’s silence. A lot of these students have never thought of themselves as leaders. For some kids, this is a “moment.” There’s a palpable feeling like, “wow, I’m a leader.”

Then we tell them: “We, the adults in the school, have noticed that there are problems in the school climate. We can’t address these problems by ourselves. We need your help.” Then we tell them they’re invited to a program that will train them to be “safe school ambassadors” – training that will help them learn how to make their school a safer place….

When you make that kind of sales pitch, that appeal for enrollment, you can get students motivated. People want to be empowered to change their own environments. Too often, we’ve given kids demeaning jobs like turning people in on a tip line. Kids want a larger role.

TT: If I’m teaching at a school that isn’t doing Safe School Ambassadors, how can I adapt the program for use at the classroom level?

RP: You probably know who the leaders are in your classroom. Enroll them. Engage them, empower them. If young people have the opportunity to see themselves as contributors rather than consumers, they usually more than willing to get involved. Ask the “alpha kids” to get involved in shaping the culture and the norms of the school in a positive way. Ask them what they think it would take to make an anti-bullying program successful. As a teacher, it’s in my interest to see kids not as a problem, but as my allies.

TT: In your book, you make a point of identifying bullied children as “targets” rather than “victims.” Why?

RP: We want kids to speak up about aggression. The word “victim” often discourages people from taking action. It carries a lot of emotional weight. Sometimes when you hear the word “victim,” you see that person as weak, or feel that maybe they deserve what they get. Sometimes you feel sorry for the person, but in a way that looks down on them.

“Target” creates more empathy. Anybody can be a target: you’re just minding your business, and something lands on you. Kids are more likely to intervene for a “target” than for a “victim.” These words carry a lot of meanings for young people, and those meanings have an impact on their behavior.

TT: We’re all familiar with the emotional and academic toll bullying takes on targets and bystanders. Your book also focuses on the cost of bullying to the bullies themselves. What are the effects and why did you choose to focus on them?

RP: Clearly the prevalence of bullying has a serious effect on the target, and on the bystander, who feels disempowered. But it does indeed affect the aggressor in negative ways as well.

The bully develops a persona, a reputation – in a way, it’s a form of self-labeling. Now imagine that you’re in a comprehensive four-year high school. Imagine you want to change your label, your sense of self. If you’re known as the aggressor, you don’t get to leave that role.  You have to maintain your social position. There’s a strong feeling that if you do lose social status, you’ll become a target.  So you keep doing what you’ve been doing.

As a result, the bully usually falls behind developmentally. If you’re locked into this position, you miss out on important opportunities to develop empathy, negotiating skills and cultural competence.

Bullying also gives a person an inflated sense of self-worth. You have the sense that you are better than other people, that you have the right to push other people around. As it turns out, that kind of thinking gets people into trouble later in life. Aggressors follow their relationship patterns into adulthood, and as a result, they have high rates of substance abuse, workplace violence and domestic violence. What works in junior high school doesn’t work in the workplace.

TT: Don’t students often fill more than one of these roles, and aren’t there sometimes muddled areas between target and bystander, bystander and bully?

RP: It’s true that most students aren’t locked into a single role.

Let’s say you bully me because you’re a senior, and maybe you’re bigger and older. I may take out my frustration by turning to a freshman, cornering them in the locker room, and doing to them what you’ve done to me. Or I may sit passively while someone else does these things.

The bystander is the critical player in all of this, because the bystander is usually passive and allows the bullying to go on. You can’t change the culture of the school unless you activate the “influential bystanders” whose behavior is emulated by other bystanders.

TT: Time is always at a premium in the K-12 school. What would you say to teachers and administrators who struggle to find the time to implement these solutions?

RP: We hear this a question a lot. “How do we find time to do this?”

A better question to ask is, how much time are you spending on discipline issues now? If you go to the average assistant principal’s office, you’ll see that they’re spending a great deal of time with issues of “he said/she said,” rumors, investigations and complaints by parents about a student’s treatment of their child. You waste less time if you devote time to prevention rather than punishment.