Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Peers Influence School Success

April 17, 2006

I often meet parents who are distressed and dismayed with their underachieving teen-age children. They know their children are bright and capable. These children have had a track record of good school grades, hard work and intellectual curiosity. Then the bottom falls out - either in their middle school or high school years. Why?

The most likely explanation is they have changed friends and taken the attitudes and behaviors of their new peer group. They stop doing homework, live for social occasions with their friends and start to resent or ignore the demands of school. No amount of parental pleading, long talks about the importance of education or parental restriction seems to make a difference.

Peer Influence. A research study of 20,000 high school teens in nine public schools in Wisconsin and California found that a student’s immediate peer group had the greatest influence on their academic performance.

The study compared the academic careers of students who began high school with the same grades but joined with different types of friends during the years that followed. Teens who had academically oriented friends did better in school than those who chose to hang out with underachieving and delinquent friends.

Researchers concluded that by high school, the influence of friends on school performance and drug use is more substantial than the influence of parents.

Do "birds of a feather flock together," or does the "flock dictate how birds should think and behave?" For parents who do their best to install a work ethic, the value of education and religious/family values into their children's lives - only to see the peer group sweep them away - the answer is the latter.

Why is peer pressure so powerful? People are group oriented. Teens are highly influenced by the values and norms of their peer group. They might think they are highly individualistic but in reality they are much more conforming to what they think the standards are in their peer group. The behavior of immediate peers is the strongest influence on personal behavior.

Not only are peers influential but the "perception" of what teens think everyone else is doing has a direct impact on their choices. Teens may be fairly accurate in their assessment of their own behavior but are clearly mistaken about what the majority of their peers are doing.

The images in pop culture mistakenly portray teens as caught up in social life, entertainment and more independent than they really are. These values seem more important than education.

Academics are not cool. Preppies - college preparatory students who are also caught up in popularity and social fun - try to have it both ways. They do well enough in school to stay on track for college. They also have to play down their academic striving to be "cool" and accepted. When "push comes to shove" they understand they need a measure of classroom success for parental approval and admission to college.

If the prevailing attitude among peers is ‘getting by is good enough,’ then there is substantial pressure on students to underachieve. Too many youths grow up feeling that success will eventually come to them but that for right now their friends and their freedom are more important. They don’t understand how attitudes and habits harden and educational deficits accumulate.

The preppies tight, exclusive social circle is a threat of self-esteem to the less privileged students who find preppy snobbiness and rejection offensive. They may gravitate to groups who downplay the importance of education. They buy into the whole package of social disdain and rebellion and engage in self-destructive behaviors. If their friends drink, smoke, use drugs, have sex and carouse, they will too.

Many students are caught in a dilemma - what do they do when they have a major falling out with a best friend or are suddenly on the outs with their former friends? Switching groups of friends to find acceptance is often a turning point in their descent into unmotivated school performance. They take on the attitudes of their new friends.

Some unmotivated groups have been together since early elementary years. Their lack of social skills and/or peer rejection forced them to band together for social support. Lack of enthusiasm for school has been a part their coping strategy from early on.

Who are the winners? They are the highly motivated students whose friendships include other striving teens who take academics seriously and for whom achievement means a lot. It’s often the teens who find themselves on the fringes of social popularity and concentrate on academics. They get parental support and attention from teachers for their strong academic efforts.

What can parents do?

- Train children early. Having a good foundation of learning, goals and work habits are crucial before they hit the challenge of peer pressure. Help your children develop special talents and interests to bolster self-esteem.

- Encourage church affiliations and other group activities that help your children associate with peers with high standards and values. Know their friends and encourage relationships with children of high standards.

- Emphasize early social skills and awareness of opportunities for quality childhood friendships. Discourage friendships with peers who have antisocial or anti-education attitudes.

- Communicate with teens and help them work through peer and friend rejection. Help them rebound by learning to be patient and to cultivate new quality friendships.