Keywords Middle school · Social issues · Peer acceptance · Teacher perspectives · Focus groups
* Molly Dawes email@example.com Extended author information available on the last page of the article
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Students’ social experiences during middle school can have a profound impact on their adjustment across the academic, behavioral, and social domains (Anderman and Mueller, 2010; Wentzel, 2002). This developmental age (i.e., typically grades 6–8 with youth aged 11–13 years) is a period wherein peer social issues become increasingly salient to youth and important for adjustment outcomes (e.g., Adler and Alder, 1998; Sullivan, 1953). As such, it behooves us to understand the social struggles of youth at school, particularly from the perspective of teachers, who play a critical role in supporting youth’s social adjustment (Farmer et al., 2011; Went- zel, 2003; Yoon and Bauman, 2014). Examining what teachers are seeing “on the ground” in their day-to-day interactions with students provides valuable insight into their understanding of and response to the social concerns of middle school youth.
Thus, our aim for this study was to explore a central question: do we need to be listening to teachers more about students’ social struggles or do we need to better connect teachers to the developmental literature to improve their understanding of typical social challenges during this developmental period and associated strategies to address those challenges? Identifying whether there are gaps between teachers’ perspectives and the social struggles and supports we know youth need has impli- cations for eﬀorts to bridge the research-practitioner gap and may inform teacher preparation and support programs.
1.1 The changing social landscape in middle school
Early adolescence is a period of developmental transition marked by various and signiﬁcant psychological and social changes (Anderman and Mueller, 2010; Eccles and Roeser, 2011). Speciﬁcally, as students move to middle school, they experience substantial changes to their peer relationships and peer dynamics that can continue across the middle school grades (Adler and Adler, 1998; Pellegrini, 2002). Repre- senting youth’s microsystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), peers hold considerable sway over youth’s thoughts and behavior and help fulﬁll youth’s desire for belonging and acceptance, motives with heightened importance at this age (Adler and Adler, 1998; Furman and Buhrmester, 1985; Sullivan, 1953). As the frequency and diversity of peer interaction grows, youth sort themselves into groups and develop hierarchies, forming their own peer society (Rodkin and Gest, 2011). Navigating the peer society successfully is a critical developmental task that all youth need to attain in order to successfully adjust to subsequent expectations in later developmental ages (Havi- ghurst, 1972; Seiﬀge-Krenke et al., 2010).
Coalescing theoretical perspectives on developmental tasks and accumulating empirical research on social concerns during the adolescent developmental period yields a number of social issues youth face including: (1) developing friendships, (2) being accepted by peers and avoiding peer rejection, (3) joining a peer group, (4) wanting to be popular, (5) displaying socially responsible behavior, (6) concerns with bullying and peer victimization, and (7) developing romantic relationships (Adler and Adler, 1998; Brown et al., 1986; Bukowski et al., 2019; Connolly and
Teachers’ perceptions of middle schoolers’ social concerns:…
McIsaac, 2009; Crosnoe, 2011; Dawes and Xie, 2016; Guerra et al., 2011; Havi- ghurst, 1972; Juvonen et al., 2003; Sullivan, 1953). Given that these concerns can consume youth’s attention (e.g., Adler and Adler, 1998), a pressing question is: are teachers aware that their students may be struggling with these social issues?
While some teachers may not consider social issues and management of social dynamics under their purview (Gest et al., 2014), the research evidence suggests that peer and social concerns can and do have a signiﬁcant impact on students’ adjust- ment at school, including their academic success (e.g., Nakamoto and Schwartz, 2010; Ryan, 2011; Wentzel, 2009). According to the developmental science per- spective (Magnusson and Cairns, 1996), social struggles are intricately intertwined with adjustment diﬃculties across other domains such as the academic and behav- ioral domains which are primary concerns in school settings. There is abundant evi- dence of the interconnections across the social, behavioral, and academic domains of development (e.g., Farmer and Farmer, 2001; Juvonen and Wentzel, 1996; Ryan, 2011; Wentzel et al., 2009) and the heightened emphasis on school-based social and emotional learning programs in recent years highlights the growing awareness of the interrelated nature of developmental domains (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2003; Yeager, 2017). The dynamics that make up students’ social lives—their relation- ships, friends, peer groups, whether they are accepted or rejected by peers, and their experiences with victimization—can impact their adjustment at school. For exam- ple, research evidence suggests that experiencing peer victimization is detrimental to students’ academic achievement (e.g., Espelage et al., 2013; Juvonen et al., 2011; Nakamoto and Schwartz, 2010) and youth who are rejected by peers are at increased risk for joining deviant peer groups which can then escalate their engagement in problem behavior such as drug use (Dishion and Patterson, 2006; Patterson et al., 2000). Although there is robust empirical evidence for the associations between social issues and adjustment outcomes in other domains, it is less clear whether teachers are aware of how their students’ social lives can impact their adjustment at school.
1.2 Teachers’ role in students’ social lives
As the authority ﬁgure in the classroom, teachers have a unique opportunity to guide the social development of their students (see Wentzel, 2003 for review). Farmer et al. (2011) proposed two related roles of teachers. First, they are responsible for imparting knowledge and expectations for behavior to their students (i.e., serve as socialization agent) and second, they act as the “invisible hand,” facilitating interac- tions between students and managing peer social dynamics (Farmer et al., 2011). In their role as the invisible hand, “teachers have the opportunity to shape the general peer ecology by discreetly managing classroom interaction patterns and activities, promoting the productive engagement of all students, and helping socially strug- gling students to develop new social roles or identities that enhance how they are perceived by peers” (Farmer et al., 2011, p. 249). How teachers inﬂuence students’ social lives can be through their own relationship with the student (i.e., teacher-stu- dent relationship) or through their management of classroom peer social dynamics
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including the roles they give students in class and the seating assignments they arrange (e.g., Hendrickx et al., 2016; Kindermann, 2011; Norwalk et al., 2016; van den Berg and Cillessen, 2015).
There is some stability in peer relations and social dynamics (Hardy et al., 2002; Lansford et al., 2009; Poulin and Chan, 2010) but in general, the ﬂuidity and dynamic nature of peer interactions often means that understanding these dynam- ics can become a moving target for teachers (Farmer et al., 2011). Nonetheless, it is critical we understand these dynamics as they form the context by which stu- dents develop competencies and skills related to school success (Wentzel, 2003).
For instance, whether and how teachers intervene when they see a student being excluded from a group or see a student struggling to display appropriate social skills and behavior can impact that student’s ability to successfully adapt to the social demands of school (e.g., Farmer et al., 2011; Hamm and Hoﬀman, 2016; Kinder- mann, 2011). Based on the assumption that teachers’ involvement in their students’ social lives is critical to their students’ school success, an important ﬁrst step is understanding teachers’ perceptions of students’ social struggles. Identifying their level of awareness is important for the research-practitioner partnership: do we need to listen to teachers more or do we need to better prepare teachers to be attuned to the social struggles of their students and to eﬀectively manage peer social dynamics?
2 Current study
In this study, we sought to learn the perspective of teachers about their students’ social struggles, the strategies they use to manage those struggles, and the barri- ers teachers face in their attempts to support youth’s social development. We gath- ered information using a qualitative methodology, speciﬁcally focus groups with teachers, which is considered an eﬀective technique for gathering information from multiple participants simultaneously that can yield rich information as participants’ responses often build from other focus group members’ comments (Barbour, 2007).
Teachers shared their views on the challenges their students face socially, what strat- egies they use to manage those challenges, and the barriers they face in supporting their students.
3 Method 3.1 Participants
Seventh and eighth grade teachers from three public middle schools participated in focus groups. The middle schools were located in a metropolitan school districts in the southeastern and northeastern United States. A total of 39 teachers partici- pated in 6 focus groups (70.3% female, n = 26; 2 teachers did not specify their gen- der). The majority of teachers were White (94.6%, n = 35) with the remaining split evenly between Black (2.6%) and Hispanic (2.6%). The age breakdown of teachers
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was: 29.7% aged 31–35 years old, 27% aged 36–45, 24.3% aged 21–30, 16.2% aged 41–50, and 13.5% aged 51 or older.
Most teachers were general education teachers (82.1%) with the remaining focus group participants being either special education teachers (10.3%) or those who had other roles (7.7%), (e.g., literacy coach). Teacher experience ranged from 1 year to 21 or more years of experience. The breakdown was 33.3% of teachers had 1–5 years of experience, 25.6% had 11–20 years of experience, 23.1% had 6–10 years of expe- riences, 12.8% were new teachers with less than 1 year of experience, and lastly 5.2% had 21 or more years of experience.
All study procedures were approved by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institutional Review Board. Trained research staﬀ conducted each focus group including a lead senior research member with 20 + years of research experience and an additional research member (average of 6 years of research experience). We con- ducted the focus groups in the Fall of 2014. Focus groups were deemed the most appropriate method for collecting information about teachers’ perspectives for a number of reasons. First, focus groups aligned with our goal to uncover teachers’ diﬀerent perspectives of students’ social struggles to better understand if they recog- nized the pressing social concerns youth themselves express. Second, focus groups provide for more in-depth exploration of teachers’ perceptions of students’ social issues as compared to surveys, particularly in the absence of existing measures that capture the phenomenon (Barbour, 2007; Krueger and Casey, 2009). Lastly, as com- pared to interviews with one person, focus groups involve dynamic information exchanges among participants that yield rich data and insight that would not other- wise be gleaned from individuals alone (Hennink, 2014). Given these beneﬁts, we utilized focus groups to understand teachers’ perspectives of their students’ social concerns.
All research staﬀ received training in protocols for qualitative focus groups and the responsible conduct of research, including human subjects’ protection. School administrators from each participating school (n = 3) identiﬁed teachers that we then recruited to participate. Teachers willing to participate signed informed consent forms. We informed participants that their participation was voluntary and that they were free to leave the focus group at any time. We also told participants that all the focus group discussions would be recorded for transcription and coding but that dur- ing the transcription process, we would remove all identiﬁable information about individual participants. We conducted focus groups during teachers’ planning peri- ods. They lasted between 45 to 75 min.
The two primary questions that we were interested in for this current study were: (1) What kinds of challenges do students have socially in the 7th and 8 th grades? (2) How have you addressed these challenges? We used open-ended prompts dur- ing the focus groups for clariﬁcation or to elicit more detail. At the end of the focus groups, we verbally summarized the major topics discussed and gave participants the chance to elaborate on or add to any of those summarized issues. Further, after
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focus group sessions, we solicited focus group members’ feedback by sending sum- maries of the major discussion points to members and inviting them to respond.
3.3 Qualitative analyses
We transcribed the audio recordings from focus groups verbatim. All identiﬁable information such as school names, names of identiﬁable school programs, teach- ers’ names, and references to speciﬁc locales were removed by research staﬀ. We then imported the transcripts into Atlas.ti software. For level one coding, a senior research staﬀ with 7 years of experience with qualitative research used open cod- ing to identify categories and themes in the data following grounded theory (Cor- bin and Strauss, 1998; Strauss and Corbin, 1998). We added new codes with each successive focus group transcription and discussed additional codes in research team meetings. After we developed the full coding scheme, trained research staﬀ double coded each focus group transcription. We calculated Kappa scores on two transcripts (i.e., 20% transcripts) to assess interrater reliability. The resulting average score of 0.81 indicates high reliability.
Following reliability analyses, discrepancies in codes were identiﬁed and resolved by the research staﬀ who coded the same transcript. We addressed any lingering discrepancies in team meetings with lead research staﬀ. This process continued until coders assigned a ﬁnal code which was then used in axial coding to identify themes.
Our qualitative analysis of teachers’ responses during the focus groups revealed that middle school teachers are keenly aware of several social struggles faced by their students. They also report various strategies to help handle these struggles while acknowledging the challenges they face when attempting to help their students socially.
4.1 Social struggles faced by middle school students
Teachers discussed various social struggles adolescents face during the school day including: (1) students’ concern with peer acceptance; (2) how peer concerns can impact mental health and academic functioning; (3) how romantic interests inﬂu- ence academic participation; (4) use of aggressive behavior, and (5) maturation aﬀecting peer interactions.
Teachers’ perceptions of middle schoolers’ social concerns:…
4.1.1 Concern with peer acceptance
Teachers recognize the vital role of peers in students’ daily lives at school. Teach- ers notice that as students age, peer acceptance becomes more important to them than adult approval. As one teacher stated “They want to belong so badly. They feel so deeply when they’re not part of a group or the group they want to be part of. And they will do virtually anything to gain peer acceptance. That’s way more important to them.” The same teacher believes that peers hold more sway com- pared to adults: “I’ve had people say that it’s [peer acceptance] not more important to them than adult approval [but] I think that peer acceptance is way more reinforc- ing right now. They’re with their peers all day, they’re with us for part of it.
If maybe we taught the same kids all day long they would become attached enough to care what we thought about them but if they don’t like what’s hap- pening in that room, they go to [teacher’s name] room and they tell her how evil I’ve been to them.”
4.1.2 Social experiences inﬂuencing school functioning
When students are struggling socially, teachers see it aﬀecting all aspects of their daily functioning. One teacher stated: “if their social world is not, like, intact for them, nothing else is going to matter. Like, that’s all, I mean, that’s what matters to them, is their friends and their sense of belonging and you know what group they can identify themselves with.” In particular, many teachers discussed how social concerns directly impacted students’ academic functioning. Speciﬁcally, these struggles can aﬀect student participation, either intentionally by students wanting to appear cool or impress their peers, or unintentionally when students struggle to maintain focus because they are distracted by social issues. One teacher believes that students think to themselves: “I’m going to say something just to impress who’s sit- ting next to me instead of actually focusing on what I’m supposed to be learning or what I’m supposed to be answering.” One teacher reported that on days where stu- dents are not accepted or recognized by their peers, it can be distressing: “it aﬀects them and how they can perform in the classroom. Some of them are strong enough and conﬁdent enough to not let that get to them but that’s maybe 5 out of 150 that I teach.” Another teacher recognizes how social concerns outside the classroom (e.g., in the hallway) can carry over into the classroom “I think that’s at the forefront of their minds half the time and academics is not. I mean, what happened in the hall, you know, on the way to class or before class, is much more important than than what’s going on in class.” Such carry over can take up precious class time as one teacher reported: “So when they come in, like, to start the class period, are you hear- ing a lot of conversation about what just happened? And then getting them to transi- tion from ‘I just had four minutes of social exchange’ to ‘I have to put that down,’ that takes a lot of time.”
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Teachers also expressed concerns with technology (i.e., social media) amplifying social issues outside of the school and interfering with school. The teacher remarked “It goes home. And they were talking about snapchat the other day, they were talk- ing about Facebook, Instagram, so I mean, this is like 24/7 for them. It’s not just during the time they’re here with us.” It was clear that teachers were troubled by how much their students were constantly dealing with peer issues on social media and recognized how peer issues at school can continue beyond school boundaries.
4.1.3 Romantic interests
A few teachers acknowledged that their students become increasingly concerned with romantic and/or sexual relationships during this developmental time. Speak- ing speciﬁcally about how romantic interests can impact academic participa- tion, one teacher discussed how a girl would downplay her smarts, seemingly to impress a boy. “I have a girl who, one-on-one she is smart and articulate, and in a small group today, I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ She was like talking like this [soft, quiet voice] and she was being very meek and hehe giggly and I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a smart, articulate, young woman, what are you doing?’ You know, but it’s kind of like you see this, this not safe feeling or maybe the cute boy was like, you know, inﬂuencing or so. I deﬁnitely think that boy girl piece and not being conﬁdent in who they are, you know, plays a part for um what I see anyways in taking those academic risks.” This scenario described by the teacher demonstrates how youth’s desire to impress a potential romantic interest can stiﬂe their academic participation and engagement which may have a cascading impact on their comprehension and achievement.
4.1.4 Appropriate behavior
Recognizing that students want to ﬁt in and avoid being targets of aggression, teachers reported seeing their students using aggressive behavior to achieve those goals. One teacher observed that she sees students “purposefully making com- ments to people to exclude them or, you know, almost seems to me like uh a way to transfer so that the attention isn’t on them for something. They almost like ﬁnd a weak link to put down so that they can feel better about themselves or not be the butt of the joke if they’re the one to strike ﬁrst. I see that kind of protect self thing happen quite a bit.” Reﬂecting the interconnected nature of emotional and social development, teachers talked about how students’ levels of maturity can negatively impact their interactions with peers. Teachers see the variability in maturation within and across grades, with some students possessing a well- developed sense of self (typically 8 th graders according to teachers) whereas oth- ers are overly reactive and emotional (typically 7th graders according to teachers).
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Those that are overly reactive emotionally struggle to let go of small problems, and instead further exacerbate those problems. As one teacher remarked “they just get annoyed with each other over every little thing because they don’t know how to appropriately deal with unwanted behaviors towards them.”
4.2 Teacher strategies to support middle school students socially
Teachers described numerous ways they try to support their students including: (1) establishing classroom expectations; (2) modeling appropriate behavior and teaching social-emotional skills as part of their interactions with students; (3) and managing peer social dynamics.
4.2.1 Establish expectations
Several teachers discussed how they use rules and expectations to prevent problems from arising and handle problems that do occur. One teacher described how she sets expectations at the beginning and tries to get peers to buy into them as well so that classroom norms condone inappropriate behavior: “What I do in my classroom is I just try and like stop it. And it’s, it has quieted down, like they know that they can’t do that, they’re not allowed to say that and like if one kid says it, then other kids are like “You can’t say that.’” Another teacher describes a similar set up where students in her classroom take ownership for the actions that occur within the class, creating a shared sense of responsibility for the smooth functioning of the classroom. “I feel like creating an environment where they feel like your classroom is their classroom helps jump start it. That doesn’t work for all of them because of course some students take advantage of that and they wanna try and be your friend, but allowing them, like she [other participant] was saying to take own- ership of the things that they’re doing in the room.” Another teacher uses token economy and rewards for appropriate behavior: “We create a job system that kind of ties in with their economics and that allows them to take ownership. They get paid every Monday so things, like, that encourage them to do what they’re supposed to do so that they can have these types of privileges and having those real conversations with them, letting them know, like, ‘This is what I expect of you’ and you know, ‘You let me down’ and ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘How can we ﬁx this together?’”.
4.2.2 Teacher-student interactions
Teachers discussed several strategies they use directly in their interactions with stu- dents to help manage social issues including serving as a model for behavior, pro- viding emotional support to students, and teaching social-emotional skills. Speaking to the need to model appropriate behavior, one teacher remarked: “If I expect my kids to say please and thank you, that I gotta say it too. And so it’s just ingrained
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that every time they do anything, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Can you please do [something].’” Some teachers discussed how they try to teach social-emotional skills that can engender more positive peer interactions such as perspective taking. One teacher sees how opportunities to be involved, particularly in causes that are relevant and meaningful for students, can help shape them: “So we have lots of things that give kids an opportunity to be charitable and think outside themselves but there are cer- tain things that they really attach on to and it becomes personal and it changes some- thing.” The same teacher described another teachers’ strategy to show a video at the beginning of the year to get students to “a common place where they’ve all seen the same thing and how our words aﬀect others and um, you can see the culture of the group change and kind of pull together and like recognize that this isn’t how we’re going to do business here.” Teachers also try to develop their students’ perspective taking skills when stu- dents tell them that peers do not care or are not bothered when they are made fun of: “They laugh it oﬀ and we always try to tell them you don’t know what someone goes through at home. You don’t know what they’re feeling, what they’re going through.”
4.2.3 Manage peer social dynamics
Teachers also report how setting up the physical space of the classroom can help them manage peer interactions. One teacher described how setting up the classroom and making speciﬁc seating arrangements allows her to avoid problematic interac- tions between peers that do not get along to achieve the ultimate goal of creating a smooth functioning, inclusive space. As the teacher described: “We do placement strategies or the way we arrange our rooms so that it feels more inclusive, not exclusive. There are things that, you know, you do for aca- demic reasons but also for behavior management and safety of the students.
If there are certain students that you feel like don’t work well together or if there’s some pickiness going on, you do your best to keep them separate.” Another teacher had an alternative approach, not deliberately choosing peer groups but reminding students of the expectations for inclusive behavior in the hopes that peers who are left out will be included: “I’m a teacher that does not, I don’t group students. I let them choose their own groups. Um, but before we do that I always say ‘And I know you’re going to be really kind people and make sure that no one is left out.’ So then that’s a challenge to them that when that one kid is sitting there who is not comfortable inserting themselves, they go over and say ‘Hey, you can be in our group’.” Teachers recognize the need to understand what motivates each student, thereby informing the types of social consequences that will lead to eﬀective changes in behavior. For instance, one teacher individualizes the consequences for diﬀerent stu- dents depending on what works for them: “So like, I know the public embarrassment is really hard for this kid to deal with, so I’m going to pull them aside and I know that peer pressure works for this kid, so I’m going to say something in front of eve- ryone, you know?”.