Class Closed: The Effect of Peer Groups and Social Skills

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Schools all over the country have closed their doors as a precautionary measure against coronavirus. Institutions once brimming with laughter and mindless chatter now stand empty, silent. And while most students still have the opportunity to learn via online platforms, they have lost a large part of their schooling. This part exists solely in cramped hallways between classes, parking lots before and after school, and bustling cafeterias. This part changes its lesson with each passing conversation. This part is where they learn who they are, how to express themselves, and how to deal with complicated situations. This part of their education is where they learn their social skills. And while they may learn how to communicate in their classes, much of their education comes straight from students’ relationship with their peers. 

Institutions once brimming with laughter and mindless chatter now stand empty, silent.

American psychiatrist, Henry Stack Sullivan explained the role of students’ peers as they progress through the education system through his own observations. In elementary school, students work in large groups as they spend their school day in a collaborative classroom with the same students every day. When peer groups emerge, students often gravitate to students of the same sex. Towards middle school, students begin to determine their one or two best friends. Finally, in high school, they take steps toward romantic relationships to achieve physical and emotional needs. Throughout this process, Sullivan notes that the role of family “plateaus, if not decreases.” Meanwhile, the relationship students have with their friends continue to rise, eventually peaking in adolescence. We are likely familiar with this process. But what we probably didn’t know at the time, however, was that the friends we chose to surround ourselves with impacted our social skills and academic performance. The same can be said for current students. 

According to a study performed by Pepler and Bierman titled “With a Little Help from my Friends— The Importance of Peer Relationships for Social Emotional Development,” peer relationships are the easiest and most natural way to develop social skills: 

Peer interactions have unique characteristics that contribute to their developmental influence. With peers, children are interacting with relative equals. The frequent conflicts that occur within peer interactions provide opportunities to learn about getting along with others, promoting the understanding of others’ perspectives and feelings and the growth of problem-solving skills.

In other words, these students are able to develop positive, prosocial behaviors through the very natural process of making friends. These positive behaviors turn into practical social skills that lay the foundation for healthy relationships and a successful academic career. 

The NASP Center describes social skills as those that “enable us to know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in diverse situations.” When students’ social skills are engaged properly, students learn how to manage negative feelings, resolve conflict, effectively communicate and actively listen to others. The ability to perform these kinds of behaviors are not only important inside the classroom but outside the classroom as well. In fact, students who better exemplify these behaviors with their peers are more likely to be successful later on in life. 

The NASP Center describes social skills as those that “enable us to know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in diverse situations.”

An experiment titled “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” found that students whose teachers ranked them highly on their social competence in kindergarten were more likely to better outcomes in education, employment, criminal history, and mental health as young adults. Conversely, students with low social skills are more likely to “evoke negative responses” from their peers, which can lead to school violence. They are also more likely to demonstrate poor academic performance and engage in criminal activity (according to NASP Center). 

In addition to developing positive social skills, students’ relationships can affect their own outlook on life as well. Childhood peer relationships: social acceptance, friendship, and peer networks cites several studies which found that “Children who describe their friendship more positively tend also to possess higher self-esteem, report less loneliness, enjoy wider peer acceptance, and exhibit better adjustment to school.” These students are also increasingly happier at school with each passing year and report fewer school-related issues. The student, themself, doesn’t even have to feel positively about school. StateUniversity.com states that students simply who surround themselves with students with “peers who value learning” and “the educational process” will develop their own affinity for school as well! 

“Children who describe their friendship more positively tend also to possess higher self-esteem, report less loneliness, enjoy wider peer acceptance, and exhibit better adjustment to school.”

So where does that leave us now that our students learn from home, away from their peers? According to an article published by Penn State University, online education doesn’t necessarily damage every element of social interaction. The article states, “studies have shown that actively working to increase the academic performance of children early in their school careers, through interventions such as math and reading tutoring, can lead to positive social development.” Another study, Social Skills Comparison of Online and Traditional High School Students found that there was no difference in the social skill abilities of online students and traditional learners. 

While these studies are vastly different than what the world is experiencing right now, it is still promising that students may continue to thrive in their virtual classrooms. So our schools continue on, hoping for a better tomorrow; a tomorrow in which we may laugh in hallways and share one another’s company once more.

Class Closed: The Effect of Peer Groups and Social Skills

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