Positive Peer Pressure

Teens are highly social creatures.” – Captain Obvious

One of the most powerful tools a teacher can wield is positive peer pressure.  It can be used to get students to show up to class on time, curb distracting behavior, to promote higher rates of homework completion, and even to get students to study at home on their own.  I’d like to share with you a few ways that I use positive peer pressure to achieve these things.

First, to establish positive peer pressure you must create the perception that the majority of students do the thing you wish them to do.  How you frame statements can go a long way to serving this end.  Consider these examples from outside of the classroom.  (An excellent source of inspiration can be found in this episode of the Freakonomics podcast.)

During the drought crisis in California, a water company added a simple graphic to their billing statements and it drastically reduced water consumption.  The graphic showed something along the lines of, “The average water use in your neighborhood is _________ gallons per month.  This month you used ___________ gallons.”  Electric companies have done similar things and both realized reductions in usage by their customers.  In England, something like, “99% of British citizens pay their tax bill on time,” was added to tax bills and an increase in people paying their taxes on time was realized.  As I mentioned in 6 Ways to Get Students to Class on Time, Stanford University created a video starring upperclassmen who falsely claimed the steps they took as freshmen to promote academic success.  Freshmen were shown the video and academic improvement was realized.

We are far more like herd animals than we realize.  While we do have autonomy, our desire to conform is powerful.  This can be used to improve student behavior and performance in your classroom.  You need to decide what you want your classes to “look” like, then work to create the impression that is how things are.

How Do I Create This Perception?

  1.  When discussing your expectations of students, frame the expectations properly.  Let’s look at homework expectations.  You could say, You have to do your homework, which is often followed by, If you don’t do your homework, this is the consequence.  Not only is this is not framing your expectation as though it’s a common behavior, the statement really says you expect them NOT to do their homework.  Instead say, Students in my class do their homework, that’s why we are successful here. 
  2. When students start to stray you have a great opportunity to lay out the path for them.  Suppose kids are failing because they’re not really paying attention in class.  You could say, “Pay attention!”  You could warn and admonish their behavior.  Or, you could say, This is pretty typical of what happens with Freshmen (or whatever age/class it is).  Every year, about this time, students forget what habits led to their success and suffer some bad grades because of it.  But they always realize this and begin paying attention and participating in class because of it. 
  3. When discussing behaviors, outcomes and habits with your class, frame the bad behaviors in a negative ratio.  An example would be, Out of the 35 students in this class, all but 3 are passing!  That means 32 of the 35 here are passing. To make that even more powerful, before sharing the numbers of students passing or failing, you could ask the students to imagine being in a class where everybody was passing … except “you.”

This is Much More Than Positive Behavior Enforcement

The idea here is to make the desired behaviors the perceived norm.  This is far more than just focusing on good behavior and using positive reinforcement of those behaviors.  You want to be constantly telling a story where the students that exist in your class behave certain desirable ways. The goal is to get the students to look for how common-place and normal the desired behaviors (that you outline) really are.  They will begin policing each other and conforming their own behaviors to fit this story you’ve created.


I hope this has been informative and provided some insight and inspiration for you.  Whether you focus on the positive or negative behavior of your students internally, always vocalize and frame, for the students, that the majority are doing what’s desired from you.  It helps create the norm of behavior and will apply this proxy of peer pressure upon them to do the right thing.

Thank you for reading.

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