Updated: This post was updated to provide more biographical detail about the author.
Middle school is a unique and often difficult time. Students go from the comfort and familiarity of spending all day with one teacher and one group of students to having six teachers and a wide range of classmates. For many students, this can feel like going from being a big fish in a small pond to the small fish in a big pond. Additionally, adolescence brings many physical and psychological changes. This trifecta of challenges helps explain why in the middle school years we lose many kids to drugs, violence, and despair.
An important part of adolescence is forming an identity, and a critical aspect of identity formation is establishing oneself in the social hierarchy. In my book, Belonging: How Social Connection Can Heal, Empower, and Educate Kids, I focus on how middle schoolers are especially likely to overidentify and explicitly signal their group identity.
As students are sitting in class, they are also paying close attention to the clothes, body language, tone of voice, and topics discussed by their peers. Kids are listening and watching to understand where they fit, so they can align with their group and diverge from other groups. This process of aligning with identified group norms and diverging from rivals shapes the behavior, interests, and goals of most middle schoolers. Behaviors, interests, and goals that are different from one’s social group may create tension and lead to rejection. So, students tend to adjust their interests, goals, and behaviors to align with their group.
Students who feel a part of a group tend to work harder, care more, and invest in the cohesion and success of the group, which can bring out the best in the individual, as well as the team. However, a desire to belong can also bring out the worst in students. When they are focused on maintaining the status of their group, or their status within the group, they are more likely to act out emotions of anger toward those they perceive as threats. Students will be more likely to engage in bullying behavior when they see the person being bullied as a competitive threat to their standing in their group or as a member of a rival group.
The inclination to prefer one’s group has been observed in every society on earth and in children as young as 5. Within seconds of joining a group, the brain subconsciously begins sorting alike and different, analyzing what makes a particular collection of individuals a group. When we are part of a group, we are more inclined to hold feelings of apathy or anger toward those not in our group. This rivalry dynamic makes it hard for the brain to connect with rivals, to understand their feelings, empathize, or even see them as individuals.
As a teacher, leading a class of middle schoolers focused more on their social status than academics is difficult. The ability to manage group rivalries, even violence between groups, has become a necessary skill in many middle schools.
Capitalizing on the potential power of belonging and preventing group conflicts require an understanding of how our basic need to belong impacts the brain.
See the Person, not the Group
Research exploring how belonging impacts brain activity, emotions, and behavior warns us to resist impulsive rushes to judgment of outgroup members. Susan Fiske’s research has confirmed that focusing on the unique individual can shift the unconscious biases that drive bullying and group conflict.
Teaching students to see rival group members as individuals with their own unique skills, interests, and values gives them the opportunity to counteract the apathy associated with group rivalries. By shifting their focus away from group identity, students will be better able to see and treat the other person as an individual, alleviating threat concerns and restoring their ability to empathize, understand, and connect.
Create a Bigger We
In the book Invisible Influence, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School professor Jonah Berger encourages leaders of diverse teams to create a superordinate identity. This unifying identity can allow individuals and groups with divergent identities, even rivalries, to find common ground. Skilled teachers create a superordinate identity in their classroom by building an inclusive identity that unites students rather than allowing them to remain in their group cliques.
A team is just a collection of individuals with a shared purpose. So, wise teachers create a shared purpose for the whole class that requires the contributions of everyone. Then, these teachers communicate to each student their unique value to the classroom team making sure their classmates understand the unique contribution others make to achieving the shared goal. When this occurs, teachers maximize the power of belonging, reducing the rivalries and status seeking that drives bullying.
Relationships Are Built on Similarities
Finally, it is important to be mindful of the potential to drive rivalries when we focus on differences between groups. Relationships are built on shared experiences, shared interests, shared values, and shared goals.
Ultimately, it is not likely we can stop our brain from sorting; it is a fundamental survival mechanism. However, the brain will sort based on whatever we tell it is important.
As Mina Cikara and Jay Van Bavel explain in their paper “The Neuroscience of Intergroup Relations: An Integrative Review,” there is no evidence that we are hardwired to act aggressively toward particular outgroups or their members. The researchers describe categorization as extremely flexible and context-specific. While the brain’s natural reflex is to sort alike and different, we have control over what factors the brain bases this sorting on.
Our brains are designed to quickly adopt the new paradigms that come along with a new group membership. For example, when students are assigned to a group based on arbitrary differences such as favorite color or birth date, often students will almost immediately begin finding reasons why they favor their new teammates. When we place students in diverse groups, we train the amygdala—the attention spotlight of the brain—to shift the focus away from differences and onto similarities.
When we utilize mixed and novel groups, we give our students the opportunity to find similarities with people outside of their groups. By working together toward a shared goal and having to trust one another, the potential for reducing group conflict is maximized.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.