Washington | Students who are most connected to their peers may promote conflict resolution in school and can lead up to 30 per cent reduction in bullying incidents, a new study has found. Researchers from Princeton University, Rutgers University and Yale University in US engaged groups of influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools to spread messages about the dangers of bullying and school conflict. Using messaging platforms such as Instagram, print posters and colourful wristbands, the selected students were encouraged to discuss in their own voices positive ways to handle conflict, using terms with which their peers could identify.
The researchers wanted to test whether certain students, who they label ‘social referents’ or social influencers, have an outsized influence over school climate or the social norms and behavioural patterns in their schools. Social referents are not necessarily the most popular kids school-wide, but rather students who demonstrate influence within their smaller peer group. All activities were designed to test whether, by making their anti-conflict stance well known, these social influencers could shape their peers’ behaviours and social norms. In the course of a year, the middle schools that employed social referents saw a 30 per cent reduction in student conflict reports, the researchers said.
The greatest drop in conflict was observed among the teams with the highest proportion of social influencers, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that these students do exert an outsized influence over school climate. We think the best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices. Encouraging their own messages to bubble up from the bottom using a grassroots approach can be very powerful, said Elizabeth Levy Paluck from Princeton University.
The question of whether certain, more influential peers have more influence on social norms governing a group is what spurred the researchers to design the ‘Roots programme’. Using a survey measurement known as social network mapping, the researchers were able to identify students with the most connections to other students, both in person and online. These students serve as the ‘roots’ to influence perceptions and social norms in schools. To pinpoint the most influential students, the researchers distributed a survey to the 24,191 students enrolled at all schools.
The survey asked them to nominate the top 10 students at their school who they chose to spend time with, either in or outside of school, or face to face or online. A sample of 22 to 30 students in the intervention schools was invited to participate in the Roots programme. These students had some important shared traits, the researchers found. Many had an older sibling, were in dating relationships and received compliments from peers on the house in which they lived.
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