Peer groups in heterogeneous classrooms: Current directions and challenges for research and practice
In the past decades, researchers and practitioners have increasingly acknowledged the role of students’ integration into peer groups – and the lack thereof – as a factor facilitating or undermining adaptive outcomes in academic settings. As a consequence of educational policy decisions and international migration movements, peer groups in classrooms have become increasingly diverse: in terms of students’ ethnicity, linguistic backgrounds, and their academic as well as socio-emotional competencies. This fact poses new challenges – from the perspective of students, their teachers, and researchers examining processes of peer group inclusion and exclusion in heterogeneous classrooms. Amongst others, these pertain to advancing our understanding of (1) methods to adequately assess and analyze the heterogeneity of peer groups, (2) the mechanisms theoretically underlying inclusion and exclusion by peers in the light of social identity aspects, (3) educational outcomes related to heterogeneous peer contexts, and (4) pedagogical strategies to facilitate students’ experiences of belonging and recognition among their peers.
The contributions of this interdisciplinary symposium seek to respond to these challenges. The fact that the studies used different methodological approaches and were conducted in various academic settings across Germany and Switzerland can facilitate constructive discussions of the challenges and potentials associated with the used approaches.
Within the theoretical framework of differentiation-polarization theory Contribution 1 examines associations between students’ emotional experiences among peers and achievement-based reductions of heterogeneity through tracking. Focusing on linguistic diversity in academic help and collaboration networks, Contribution 2 examines whether institutional policies of monolingual and bilingual teaching practice can affect students’ inclinations to nominate helpers and collaborators within or beyond the boundaries of their language groups. Contribution 3 describes the heterogeneity of the peer context within special needs schools for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities and discusses implications for peer relationships and influence processes within these settings. Contribution 4 investigates how an intervention focusing on the diversity of ethnic backgrounds in today’s classrooms and conducted with students and their peers affects students’ adaptive outcomes, particularly their self-esteem.
A summarizing discussion will structure the potentials and challenges associated with the different measures and perspectives used (i.e., experience sampling based on student reports, student evaluation based on teacher reports, social network approaches using peer reports) as well as the contributions’ potential for refining existing theoretical approaches in the context of increasing classroom diversity.
Beiträge des Symposiums
Students’ emotional experience during peer interactions in different academic tracks
During adolescence, social interactions and get-togethers with peers become more important (Rubin, et al., 2006). Prior research at primary school level suggests that social interactions with peers in heterogeneous classrooms reveal more motivation and less stress compared to individual situations (Linnenbrink-Garcia, et al., 2011; Zurbriggen & Venetz, 2016, 2018). Students’ general social participation in class is also positively associated with emotional experience (Zurbriggen & Venetz, 2016). However, it is unknown whether these positive peer effects are also evident in less heterogeneous classrooms at secondary school level.
In line with the differentiation-polarization theory, peers have greater importance in low qualifying academic tracks whereas students in high qualifying academic tracks show more positive attitudes towards school (Van Houtte, 2006). The tracks differ also in regard to the classroom goal structures which – in turn – are closely connected to students’ academic motivation (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Due to the differential learning environments (Baumert et al., 2006), it can be assumed that emotional experience varies across different academic tracks.
This study sought to examine first the change of students’ emotional experience in the classroom from the end of primary to the end of lower secondary school. In this context, it was examined whether the change in students’ emotional states was influenced by the academic track attended. A second aim was to investigate adolescents’ emotional responses while interacting with peers in the classroom as compared to leisure time or to when being alone. Moreover, it was tested whether the classroom goal structure, social participation and the significance of peers, had an effect on students’ emotional experience in low vs. high qualifying academic tracks.
The first survey (t1) took place in classroom at the end of primary school (grade 6), the second (t2) three years later in classroom and in leisure time at the end of lower secondary school (grade 9). By means of the experience sampling method, 120 adolescents (Mage=12.4 years, t1) reported their current social context and their emotional experience on M=12.3 (t1) and M=31.3 (t2) randomly selected occasions during one week each. Emotional experience was measured with four items each on two scales (Schallberger, 2005): positive activation (PA) and negative activation (NA). Perceived classroom goal structure, social participation and the individual significance of peers were assessed by means of a conventional questionnaire.
In order to estimate true change of students’ emotional experience over time, a latent change model within a multilevel structural equation modeling (MSEM) framework (Geiser, et al., 2010; Steyer, et al., 1997) was applied. Group differences between low and high qualifying academic tracks were tested within multigroup MSEM.
First, the multilevel latent change analysis indicated that the students’ emotional experience was significantly more negative in classroom in grade 9 than three years before in grade 6. The academic track attended had no effect on the change of students’ emotional experience. Second, results showed that peer interactions in general had a positive effect on adolescents’ emotional states in grade 9. Students in low qualifying academic tracks experienced less NA in leisure time than in classroom. Moreover, the more socially included they felt in their class, the more PA they experienced. For students in high qualifying academic tracks, the effect of peer interactions on emotional experience in classroom was more pronounced. Classroom goal structure and significance of peers had no moderating effect on emotional experience.
Results of this study provide evidence that school tracking has somewhat differential effects on the adolescents’ emotional experience. The significance of peer interactions for students’ motivation in more versus less heterogenous classrooms will be discussed. Potentials and challenges of ESM for peer influence research will be addressed.
Academic peer networks in schools with two-way immersion and schools with monolingual teaching practice
In the wake of international migration movements, classrooms have become increasingly diverse in terms of linguistic backgrounds. Yet, this diversity is not reflected in the composition of peer groups: students frequently choose friends and helpers who share their ethnic backgrounds or their first language (Author et al., 2017, 2019). Homophily regarding language backgrounds can be explained by social-psychological dynamics including perceptions of higher and lower status language groups in society (Turner & Cameron, 2016). Functional accounts underscore that proficient use of a common language can facilitate friendships among peers because it allows discussing complex issues which need to be understood by both partners (Van Der Wildt et al., 2017). Analogously, competence in a common language should be essential for efficient collaboration among peers. To our knowledge, research has not yet examined the effect of different forms of language instruction in schools on students’ inclusion in their linguistic in-and outgroups. Most German schools endorse monolingual teaching practices (MTP) with classes taught in the majority language (i.e., German). Federal Europe Schools Berlin endorse two-way immersion (TWI) where classes are taught in two languages, signaling status equality of students belonging to different language groups and allowing bilingual students to fully display their academic competencies in class.
Based on research presented above, we expected that in the overall classroom help and collaboration networks:
H1 Bilingual students should – compared to monolingual German students and those socialized monolingually in a language other than German – be more frequently nominated by ingroup peers in TWI classrooms.
H2 Monolingual German students should – compared to bilingual students and those socialized monolingually in a language other than German – be more frequently nominated by ingroup peers in classrooms with MTP.
H3 Bilingual students should – compared to monolingual German students and those socialized monolingually in a language other than German – be more frequently nominated by outgroup peers in classrooms with TWI.
H4 Monolingual German students should – compared to bilingual students and students socialized monolingually in a language other than German – be more frequently nominated by outgroup peers in comparison to classrooms with MTP.
Analyses are based on data collected in larger longitudinal research project, the “EUROPE study” (Möller et al., 2017). We analyzed the data of 833 4th graders (52.6% girls) in 32 classrooms with MTP and 18 TWI classrooms. We assessed sociometric nominations of academic helpers and collaborators within the classroom, students’ linguistic background via self-report, socio-economic background using the HISEI (cf., Preusler et al., 2019), and cognitive abilities via the figural subtest of the KFT Test of Cognitive abilities (Heller & Perleth, 2000). Ingroup and outgroup nominations were analyzed using a new index (Author et al., 2017).
Results and Discussion
Multiple regression analyses accounting for the nested data structure supported H3 and H4 (referring to outgroup inclusion), but not Hypotheses 1 and 2 (referring to outgroup inclusion) accounting for students’ gender, socioeconomic background, and cognitive skills. Monolingual German students were preferred by their language outgroup peers in schools with MTP but not in schools with TWI, suggesting their higher status in MTP classrooms. Conversely, bilingual students were preferred by their language outgroups in TWI classrooms but not in MTP classrooms suggesting their higher status in Europe schools. Also, Europe Schools seem to succeed in presenting bilingualism as a resource that classmates acknowledge, apparent in their help and collaboration nominations. Help and collaboration nominations of students socialized monolingually in a language other than German were mostly limited to their ingroup, implying that teaching concepts need to take such forms that academic competences of monolingual students can be recognized by their peers.
Special needs schools for students with intellectual disabilities as a peer context: School and classroom composition characteristics
Background: Several studies show that the classmates` characteristics influence students` individual development of social adjustment (for an overview, see Müller & Zurbriggen, 2016). However, less is known on peer influence in students with an intellectual disability (ID). ID is defined as a significant impairment in cognitive functioning (i.e., IQ<70) and adaptive behaviors, such as conceptual, practical, and social skills. In the German-speaking countries most of these students attend special needs schools (e.g., 89% in Germany; Kultusministerkonferenz, 2018). As a first step in shedding light on peer relationships and peer influence in these settings, the present study aimed to systematically describe the peer context in schools specialized on students with ID. Information on the levels and heterogeneity of students` competencies in these schools will allow to hypothesize on peer relationships and influence processes. Regarding the competencies considered, we assessed students` adaptive behaviors (“everyday-life-skills”).
Research question: What are the means and distributions of students` adaptive behaviors in special needs schools for students with ID (individual, classroom, and school levels)?
Methods: Reports on students` adaptive behaviors were provided by 366 special needs teachers working in 182 classrooms in 16 Swiss special needs schools for students with ID. Teachers reported anonymously on 1096 students (from a total of n=1148 attending the participating schools). Students` age ranged from 4 to 19 years (M=11.26 years, SD=3.78) and 31% were girls. The mean classroom size was 6.65 students (SD=1.75). Adaptive behaviors were assessed using the 193-item questionnaire ABAS-3 that allows to calculate percentile ranks with reference to norms of a typically developing sample of individuals (Harrison & Oakland, 2015; Bienstein, Döpfner, & Sinzig, in prep.). For the purpose of the present research question, we analyzed our data in terms of mean levels of students` competencies and their variances across individuals, classrooms, and schools.
Results: Results indicate low mean levels of adaptive behaviors among students of all age groups (percentile rank M=9.12). At the same time, teacher reports suggest that students attending schools specialized on ID are very heterogeneous regarding their adaptive behavior levels (SD=12.14 PR), ranging from individuals with extremely low to a few students with adaptive behavior levels in the normal range (sig. variance between individuals, p<.001). This great heterogeneity was not only found on the individual, but also on the classroom and the school level: Classrooms differed significantly from each other in the means of adaptive behaviors and in their within-classroom heterogeneity (indicated by sig. variance of within-classroom standard deviations, p<.001). Schools differed from each other in the means of adaptive behaviors (p<.01) and their within-school heterogeneity (p<.01). Finally, schools differed from each other in terms of how heterogeneous classrooms are composed in terms of students` adaptive behaviors (sig. variance of within-classroom SD between schools, p<.01).
Concluding, the present findings indicate generally low levels of adaptive behaviors but large heterogeneity between and within schools and classrooms for students with ID. Considering the great variances within the small classrooms, one may expect that it can be challenging for students to find similar others to form friendships within class. The whole school peer context may thus play a more important role for peer relationships within special needs schools compared to regular schools. The heterogeneity found makes it difficult to hypothesize on peer influence processes. For example, it could be that classroom-level behavioral norms are less consistent within special needs classrooms and peer influence may occur more on a dyadic level. Perspectives for future analyses of peer relationships and influence processes in special needs schools for students with ID will be discussed.
Adapting the Identity Project intervention for German schools: Promoting cultural identity development and positive peer relations among 7th graders
Ethnic-cultural identity is related to positive adolescent adjustment in terms of feeling well and doing well (see meta-analysis by Rivas-Drake et al., 2014 and studies in Germany such as by Schachner et al., 2018 and Schott et al,. 2018). However, most of this research is correlational. The Identity Project, developed by Umaña-Taylor and Douglass (2017) is an 8-week classroom intervention designed to promote ethnic-cultural identity exploration. Based on social and developmental theories of identity development (Erikson, 1968; Phinney, 2003; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), adolescents explore their ethnic-cultural identities through activities with peers, short videos, stories, and guided discussions to test whether greater exploration leads to positive outcomes.
Initial findings of a randomized control efficacy trial of the Identity Project with US adolescents are promising. Compared to the control group, students in the intervention group reported greater ethnic-cultural identity exploration and resolution, greater general identity cohesion, and better adjustment in terms of higher self-esteem, lower depressive symptoms, more positive other group orientation and greater academic engagement, one year after the intervention (Umaña-Taylor, Kornienko, Bayless, & Updegraff, 2017; Umaña-Taylor, Douglass, Updegraff, & Marsiglia, 2017).
The purpose of the current pilot study was to adapt and test the Identity Project in Germany.
The sessions provide guided opportunities for students to actively discuss with their peers how identity is multidimensional and changes over time, and the importance of culture to understanding oneself. Three main themes were highlighted: 1) we all have cultural identities, 2) we share both similarities and differences to our peers who may seem different from us, and 3) history is important to understanding how diverse groups interact. Because intentional group work is built into the curriculum, adolescents learn not only about themselves and their own heritages, but also their peers’. These opportunities for group work encourages greater intergroup contact, which can promote positive intergroup attitudes, and ultimately more positive peer relations (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).
Our sample included 93 7th graders in four classrooms in a high school with 85% of students with migrant background. Two classrooms were randomly assigned to the intervention and two to the wait-list controls. Two moderators in each class led the intervention, with teachers present. Baseline data (Time 1) were collected from adolescents prior to the start of the intervention. Follow-up data were collected one week (Time 2), five weeks (Time 3), and 15 weeks (Time 4) after the end of the intervention.
We hypothesized that adolescents in the intervention group would report higher cultural identity exploration and global identity resolution, higher self-esteem, more positive relations with classmates, more positive classroom climate, and better academic adjustment. Preliminary results with Times 1 and 2 data showed that adolescents in the intervention group increased in cultural identity exploration (t(21) = -3.58, p = .002) and self-esteem (t(21) = -2.63, p = .017). There was no change regarding the other variables for either intervention or control group. We will analyze Time 3 and Time 4 data to test for possible longer-term effects. Focus groups with teachers showed that one helpful aspect of the project was that they learned important information about their students’ lives. Focus groups with students showed that some enjoyed learning about their peers and engaging in discussions together. One methodological challenge is the time-intensive intervention requirement for each class, resulting in a small sample size with implications for analyses. Nonetheless, if results support the original Identity Project findings, it will offer one way to engage positively with adolescents and their peers in diverse classrooms. Our study is pre-registered on the Center for Open Science website.