Turning Teenagers’ Peers Into A Positive Influence

New research suggests that changes in way teenagers view risks and rewards when in the presence of their peers are not only a critical part of their development, but may also provide a key to motivating them, writes Sarah Sparks in Education Week. Emerging evidence suggests that changing teenagers’ behavior in positive ways requires taking account of their social circles:

“In an ongoing series of studies, Temple University researchers Laurence Steinberg and Jason M. Chein and their colleagues have found that teenagers take more risks and are more sensitive to potential rewards when they think peers are watching them—even if they consciously believe they aren’t affected by peer pressure.

‘In the same way a young child is developing in the context of her family environment, a middle schooler and high schooler is developing in the context of peers,’ said Kevin M. King, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not part of the Temple research.

‘There are huge changes in the social environment,’ he said. ‘[Adolescents] are going from one classroom to many, from parents’ making all the early friendship choices to making [their] own.’

Rather than focus on preventing adolescents from doing bad things, Mr. Chein suggested that educators focus on leveraging positive peer pressure: ‘When adolescents are with their peers, they’re more likely to pursue rewards, and those can be academic rewards.’

Programs that give students ‘social rewards,’ such as leadership opportunities and chances to meet other students in ways that improve their social status—such as peer-discipline courts—can channel adolescents’ natural inclinations positively, researchers have found.” (Read more here.)

It’s great that researchers are now focusing more on the situations teenagers find themselves in—in this case, whether their peers are present or not—and how these conditions affect behavior.

Have you seen cases in which teenagers’ attunement to peers was used in a positive way? I’d love to hear about it.

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