Peer Relationships

Positive peer relationships are associated with academic achievement, sense of connection to school and overall health and well-being (Juvonen, Espinoza & Knifsend, 2012; Ladd, Kochenderfer & Coleman, 1997; Li, Doyle Lynch, Liu & Lerner, 2011).

There are many ways to foster positive peer relationships in the classroom through various strategies, routines and learning experiences. Here, we share three main pathways (explore the tabs below for practical strategies and further information)

Getting to Know the Students/Community Building

In addition to us, as educators, getting to know our students, a foundation to a healthy classroom climate is for students to truly get to know each other as well. This requires building a safe space in the classroom, where students can show up, authentically, with all aspects of themselves – and feel seen and welcome. In order for students to feel safe to be themselves, it is important to consider and incorporate trauma-informed practices, transformative SEL, and culturally responsive / antiracist approaches in the classroom. For more information about these approaches, see links at the bottom of the page.
There are several strategies and practices that can help students to get to know each other better – while also providing opportunities to practice empathy and perspective-taking.

Some activities for building community within the classroom:

  • SEL Signature Practices: Utilizing Welcoming/Inclusion Activities, Brain Breaks, and Optimistic Closures are an effective way to build community among peers in the classroom.
  • Two minutes talks: Students write down (on slips of paper) a question they would like to discuss as a group (e.g., would you rather…). Set aside two minutes at the beginning or end of class for student-led discussions around these questions – twice a week. Create a schedule for students to take turns being the ‘facilitator’ (or co-facilitators, for those less comfortable). They key is to allow students to lead the discussion – you can stand to the side and observe the conversations unfold.
  • Class playlist
  • Mix and Mingle
  • Gab and Go

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is one way to foster positive peer relationships in your classroom and contribute to a caring learning environment. For more than 35 years, Johnson and Johnson (1978, 2009) have explored how cooperative learning structures enhance how students establish and maintain positive peer relationships, the way students feel about themselves, their teacher and school, and how students learn. Cooperative learning is a strengths-based approach to designing learning experiences and recognizes that each individual’s unique contribution benefits the whole group. In cooperative learning structures, small groups of students work together to meet a shared goal which requires positive interdependence among members. Through cooperative learning, students are implicitly taught that the success of the group is dependent on shared contribution and effort, and that, although everyone is different and brings unique skills, each person is valued and contributes in some way to the success of the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2012). In such a strengths-based and collaborative environment, prosocial acts become common, expected behaviours. Below, we outline three cooperative learning structures that can be applied to different learning experiences and across disciplines.

  • Fishbowl
    • The Fishbowl is a cooperative learning structure that allows students to observe their peers while they work together to solve a problem or complete a task. A group of students forms a small circle (usually around a work area) and the remaining students form an outer circle, standing so they can observe the students in the center. The students in the small, inner circle are given a task to complete or a topic to discuss. The outer circle observes and listens to the students as they work, taking notes about what they notice and wonder about. The students in the outer circle do this without speaking. Once the task is complete, the teacher can facilitate a discussion about what was learned through the process (and often, the groups change and another observation cycle happens).
  • Jigsaw
    • The Jigsaw structure is well suited for a group project or class inquiry. Divide the class into equal groups. These groups become the “home” group where students focus on one particular aspect or topic of a project. The students in the home group, explore and learn together and plan how to share their learning with peers from other home groups. After students are familiar with their topic/content, they move into mixed groups (where there is a representative from each home group). Each person now shares (or teaches) the others what they learned in their home group. Essentially, each student from a home group (puzzle piece) fits together with others from different homegroups to work together to form a whole (puzzle).
  • Inside Outside Circles
    • Inside Outside Circle is a cooperative learning structure that can be used to generate and share ideas, synthesize learning or collaboratively solve problems. It is a quick way for students to access the knowledge of several peers in a short amount of time. Divide the class into two even groups. One group stands in a circle facing outward, the other group forms a circle around the other group facing inward (concentric circles). Each student should be facing a partner. A prompt (question, quote, etc.) is shared and the pairs are invited to respond for a given time. When done, the outside circle rotates and is paired with a new partner. The new dyad responds to another prompt.

Circle Pedagogy

Circles are an Intentional Space to:

  • Support participants in bringing forward their ‘core self’ – to help them conduct them-selves based on the values that represent who they are when they are at their best
  • Make visible our interconnectedness even in the face of very serious differences
  • Recognize and access the gifts of every participant
  • Elicit individual and collective wisdom
  • Engage participants in all aspects of the human experience—mental, physical, emotional and spiritual or meaning-making
  • Practice value-based behaviour when it might feel risky to do so. The more people practice this behaviour in circle, the more these habits are strengthened to carry the behaviour into other parts of their lives

How is circle different from other group processes?

  • The talking piece regulates the dialogue by determining who speaks and when. This dramatically reduces the responsibility of the facilitator for managing the flow of the discussion.
  • Because participants collectively create the guidelines, the guidelines are owned by the circle members. This, too, reduces the role of the facilitator as the enforcer of the guidelines.
  • The facilitator participates as another member of the circle, sharing experiences and perspectives from his/her own life when the talking piece comes to him or her.
  • Participants are not judged by the quality or content of their participation in circle.
  • Circles do not try to direct participants toward a pre-determined outcome.

Getting started with Circles:

Remember to start small. Time is always a factor in a classroom setting, so do not plan too much to start. Start with one circle a week, and set aside enough time to give students a chance to practice being together in this way. Start with fun name games, circle games and get to know you questions as a way of making it a safe space that is inviting and comfortable.

Physical Arrangement

Physically arrange participants in a circle, whether by sitting in chairs/desks that face inward or standing in a circle so that all participants can view one another. A circle may be as short as a Check-In Question and a Check-Out Question to build community and communication skills or as long as an entire class period to discuss content and curriculum.

Effective questions

Effective questions are framed to:

  • Encourage participants to speak from their own lived experiences
  • Invite participants to share stories from their lives
  • Focus on feelings and impacts rather than facts
  • Help participants transition from discussing difficult or painful events to discussing what can be done now to make things better (restorative circle)
  • A Suggested Guide to Circles (see below)

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