Students Take on Clique Busting in Jr. High

Are exclusive groups a rite of passage? Educators and students say they don't have to be.

It's Tuesday, and she has the junior high school "nobody-loves-me" blues.

"It's sort of scary knowing you're an outcast," says Lorida quietly, talking about life in the eighth grade at a large, East Coast city school. "I just feel like I don't belong anywhere," she says.

On Wednesday, a smile from someone or some praise can pierce the heavy gloom and change everything

Belonging, being best friends, having no friends, and 'Who am I?' These are everyday issues at junior high schools, where peer pressure can be intense and cliques form and fade. How those relationships ebb and flow can influence a student's entire year

While there are many definitions of social "cliques," being in a group of friends at junior high often means access to popularity. But those associations often come with strings attached.

While some students may coalesce around a shared love of sports or music, others form bonds that at best are exclusive and at worst cause adjustment problems for all involved.

Recognizing this, many junior high schools now have innovative programs in place, usually led by guidance counselors - and in some cases by kids themselves - that form a kind of dual track for students.

At the same time education requirements are being met, social programs provide boys and girls with insights and support for dealing with such issues as cliques, peer pressure, drugs, anger, and divorce.

"The ideal is uncompetitive friendship," says Patti Adler, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Some educators insist that the emotional challenges that girls and boys (and parents) face in junior high or middle school are simply a rite of passage.

The politics of school lunch

But at the hallway and cafeteria level, much more comes into focus each school day for sixth- to ninth-graders. Theirs is the adult world writ small, but no less important.

Bullies and teasers exist along with class clowns. There is the politics of who gets the best tables at lunch time. And, 'Will I ever have a girlfriend?'

"Suddenly coming from elementary school, the child is in a larger school having to go from classroom to classroom," says Faedra Weiss, a research associate at Girl's Inc., a nonprofit service organization in Indianapolis. "This is happening right when physical changes are taking place. There is also the pressure of 'How do I know I am doing the right thing?' "

Parents and educators can often help most by encouraging children to reach out. "I've had a lot of experience being an outcast," says John Alix, a sophomore at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., and a reporter for Children's Express, a children's news agency. "I didn't go to the same school consecutively for two years until I was in the sixth grade," he says.

John says he discovered that if he joined lots of clubs and got involved in activities, he made friends. "I just decided that if I became active, I'd meet people," he says. "With a little effort, it worked. I did this lots of times."

Learning to stop hurtful acts

But being part of a loose or close circle of friends is something that may require careful management. Many children need to know "refusal strategies" - how to say "no" to a questionable activity and at the same time suggest alternatives.

"A child can say no, and tell the others 'If I do that, I'm going to be grounded for the rest of my life,' " says Ms. Schaer. "They can say, 'Let's go to my house and watch a video,' or 'Let's go to the basketball court.' "

At Long Beach Middle School in Long Beach, Miss., high-schooler Randi Pope started what the local newspaper described as a "clique buster" when she was in eighth grade.

Concerned that there were so many cliques at her school, Randi designed the Circle of Friends program. It actively involved 500 students in reaching out to other students.

They signed pledges to make every student feel important and valued, and wore friendship bracelets as a sign that they were ready to help.

"We had kids who were having problems," said Dottie Warner, a teacher at Long Beach Middle School. "Other kids just circled around and took them under their wings."

Teachers gave awards for specific acts. One award went to a football player who taught a student in a wheelchair how to sing using a small tape recorder. Circle of Friends became so successful that Pope was awarded a 1997 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

Such acts can break through the pressure brought on by shifting allegiances between classmates."If we could just get over the idea that everything has to be a popularity contest at junior high, people could just relax, and nothing would be as tense as it is now here," says Trey Perkins, a student at Ouachita Junior High School in Monroe, La. "I think everyone would be happier if the pressure were lifted off our shoulders, and people would probably participate in more things."

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