A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Peer Influences

Negative peer influences. Peer pressures against excelling in school may increase as children grow older. Young people who desire to excel academically may feel pressured to underachieve in order to "fit in" with peers who do not believe academic success is for "people like us" (Kunjufu, 1988). Conformity to peer pressures may restrict academic engagement:

Marta (Mexican), described by one of her teachers as "brilliant,"had mixed feelings about going to college.... Her friends did not offer encouragement.... [S]he stopped going to the meetings [of an enrichment program that encourages young people of color to go to college] because they took place during lunch and her friends urged her to join them instead (Semons, 1989, pp. 11-12).

Peer influences may also push youth toward drug use and other detrimental behaviors. In a study of students in grades 6 through 12 (N=1,340), Dielman, Shope, and Butchart (1990) find a stronger direct correlation between peer influences and students' alcohol use than parental influences and students' alcohol use. A study by Lewis and Lewis (1984) indicates that peer pressures to engage in risk-taking behaviors (e.g., fights, "daredevil" stunts, stealing, drug use, sexual acts) increase as children enter adolescence, while the levels of resistance to peer pressure may decline.

Positive peer influences. Peer pressures are not always detrimental. Similar to adults, adolescents respond in varying ways to the stresses and opportunities they perceive in their environment (Ianni, 1989). If young people see value in academic success, peer pressures may encourage academic effort. Seeing peers successfully tackle classroom assignments may bolster children's confidence in their own abilities (Schunk and Hanson, 1985). Peers may also buffer stresses, providing crucial emotional support for troubled youth (Stanley and Barter, 1970). Instead of searching for ways to minimize peer influences, it may be useful to study ways of encouraging and building upon the positive aspects of peer cohesiveness and mutual support. When schools fail to build peer support for academic success, the ostracization of high achievers may cause psychosocial harm (Fordham, 1988). Withdrawn, isolated young people are not as conspicuously in danger as gang members, but they may be just as much at risk of self-destructive behavior.

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