Looking at Peer Pressure through a Positive Lens

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist

What is Peer Pressure?

Everyone has been in a situation where they’ve felt pressured to make a specific decision or choice, to conform to another’s opinion or thoughts. When I was young, it was pressure to fit in by wearing the right clothes, using the “cool” words, etc. Before the digital age, “cool” was defined by what we saw on TV or heard on the radio and the norms changed slowly, at a pace we could handle as young people.

Things have changed for the youth of today. Social media has created an environment that puts teens on the edge of vulnerability every second of the day. As a principal, I’ve seen first-hand the self-esteem of students be battered and beaten day after day without provocation or ability for protection of the student/victim by any adult. A scenario that we see often: a photo is taken unknowingly of a student, posted to social media with a negative caption, and an onslaught of negative or mean comments are posted under the photo of that student. The photo is often posted under an account with a fake name, making it almost impossible to intervene or address the person who posted the photo.

The fear of this kind of bullying is what our youth today face daily. Understandably, it creates a sense of peer pressure that is exponentially more powerful than the generations before have had to withstand and makes it easy to forget that not all peer pressure is negative. There are manners of positive peer pressure, and reversing the emphasis on negative to positive is a movement that we’ve already seen young adults across the nation championing. Our investment in curricula that teach Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), bullying prevention, and restorative practices is more important than ever.

Peer Pressure Awareness Activities

The keys to understanding positive peer pressure and combatting negative peer pressure are activities that teach our students to recognize it and how to respond. The context of these lessons is mostly easily incorporated into time built within the school day; often called “SEL,” “WIN time,” or “Advisory.”

Define It

Our students can define the types peer pressure and what they look like better than any adult. They’re living it every day. Teach them what it is and ask them for scenarios that they’ve experienced.

Brainstorm Scenarios

It is important to also explore with students the possible antecedent or reasons that they may feel pressured. What makes them feel pressured and why? Sometimes the pressure is overtly caused by another person, and at times it is subconsciously inflicted upon ourselves. An example of overt pressure from another could include criticism of physical appearance or clothing: “What happened to your hair?” An example of self-perceived peer pressure could be: “VSCO girls are so pretty and they’re all skinny. I want to look like them.”

Calling attention to body shaming vs. positive body images is also crucial to the development of self-esteem in teens. Ask students to brainstorm scenarios from their own experiences and then how they would respond to the situation should it arise again. Also, how can they become conscious of the messages they’re telling themselves and the voices they’re listening to (media, family, themselves)?

Create a Summary

Application of this in the classroom is a huge opportunity to incorporate student choice within the lesson(s). In addition to navigating peer pressure at a level higher than most of us have personally experienced, they also have technology and adaptability skills that we cannot match!

Ask students to choose two examples of peer pressure (one positive scenario, one negative scenario) and summarize them in the mode of their choice. This could be a flipgrid, slide presentation, video recording, stop action video, comic book, etc. Encourage your students to be creative and imaginative so that their work can be shared to help educate and encourage other young people. This is their chance to help their own generation and the one that comes after them learn to recognize, withstand, and respond to negative peer pressure in healthy ways and to create positive peer pressure.

Reimagine Past Experiences

Our students have without a doubt already made choices under negative peer pressure. There may be students who are carrying some guilt over those decisions, especially if they created harm upon another person. Revisiting past experiences and describing how they would change their response to peer pressure had they known then what they know now can help students release the burden of guilt that they are carrying and also make amends with those they’ve harmed. This can be accomplished through responsive circles facilitated by a neutral party. Students must know that they can repair any damage they’ve done and that they do not need to carry their regret forever. Conversely, reflecting on positive peer pressure experiences may inspire them to continue spreading positivity and encouragement to others.

Practice What You’ve Learned

Information regarding peer pressure is not only plentiful and easily accessible, but also covers an enormous range of topics. Resources for activities teaching the effects of positive and negative peer pressure are many. There are also resources for parents of teens that explain the science behind positive peer pressure, such as this one from Scientific American. Regardless of the lens from which information comes forth, one thing is clear: peer pressure awareness matters!

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