Cliques and Put-Downs in Elementary Schools

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Cliques occur when a group of children exclude others. Even though they are most prevalent among middle school and high school students, they are common in elementary classes, as well. Both girls and boys form cliques, but girl cliques are usually more covertly hurtful in the way they treat others outside their group. Boys establish themselves socially by being athletic, tough and/or funny. They frequently name call and make jokes at other’s expense. Generally, they push, shove and are more physically hurtful than girls. Both boys and girls can be observed ostracizing classmates who do not look or act a certain way.

It is natural for children to want to feel accepted, protected and supported by peers. Not being included in ANY group can cause a child to feel dejected and unable to do his/her best work. Exclusive cliques that ridicule others do harm since many children base their self-esteem on what their peers think. Girls, in particular, are overly concerned about being liked, and thus are strongly affected by rejection (see Aggressive Girls).

Cliques can be minimized in the school setting when teachers stress the importance of accepting individual differences and informing students that exclusion and ridicule are forms of bullying. They need to emphasize that spurning behaviors are unacceptable and provide consequences if they continue. If children persist in bullying their peers and all other measures have failed, the leaders of cliques may need to be separated into different classrooms (see Educator’s Guide to Bullying).

Additional ways teachers can be helpful:

  • Build the rejected child’s self-image (see Understanding Self-Esteem) by listening, reassuring and encouraging positive peer interactions.
  • Connect him/her with others by calling attention to ways they are similar, i.e. both like to read, draw, run fast, etc.
  • Pair the child with someone who is kind for a class project.
  • Mix the children into compatible groups.
  • Provide structured games inside and/or on the playground that involve all of the students.
  • Ask a friendly child to include the child in playground activities.
  • Encourage the child to develop a friendship with a new child or with one who has few friends.

Ask the school counselor for assistance that might include:

  • Providing lessons on cliques;
  • Establishing friendship groups that foster social skills; and
  • Meeting individually with the child.

If there is cause for concern a teacher or school counselor could meet with the child’s parent(s). Together they could brainstorm ways to support his/her friendships. One idea is for the parent to make “play dates” for the child, or he/she could involve the child in social groups outside of school. If the parent knows the parents of the children in the clique, she might feel comfortable calling to invite them to meet together with their children. They could share feelings and discuss possible solutions. If the parents agree not to tolerate their children’s behavior, the situation could improve.

A “put-down” is when a child’s comments cause another child to feel rejected. The following is an example of how one teacher creatively addressed this issue. When she observed her students saying hurtful things to peers, she held a class meeting to remind them of their rule to respect each other. Then she drew a large picture of a child on chart paper. She named the child and said that he was their age and that he was feeling sad because children in the class were calling him names. After defining a “put-down,” she gave each student a piece of paper and asked them to write “put-downs” they had heard students say. Some examples are: “Nobody likes you.” “You stink.” “You’re ugly.” “Loser!” Then she asked each child to come to the front, read their words, discard the piece of paper, and tear off a small piece of the pictured child. She then discussed apologies and statements that would help a classmate feel included. She asked the students to say an apology like, “I’m sorry I said you were ugly,” or words to help him feel better such as, “Would you like to play?” as they tried to tape the torn child back together. After everyone had a turn, the paper child appeared somewhat whole, but tattered. The teacher continued that words cannot be taken back once they are spoken and that even if you apologize, it will not erase all of the hurt they caused. Then she had the students make a “NO PUT-DOWNS!” poster to hang next to the child’s picture.

Another teacher discussed “put-downs” with her students, and then told them about "put-ups," encouraging words they could say to one another. She had the children brainstorm positive remarks they could make as she wrote them on the board. Then she showed them a box and form to fill out if they observed another child using a “put-up.”The observer could write down what was said, who said it, his/her name, and place the form in the box. The teacher reported reading the “put-ups” at group time and providing applause or another commendation to the reporters and the children named. The forms are then posted on a “PUT-UP” poster as examples of helpful comments children can make.

Since many cliques and “put-downs” occur outside of the classroom, teachers and/or school counselors might initiate a peer helper program. Training students in the fifth and/or sixth grade to be playground helpers could decrease cliques in their grades and help younger children learn peer interaction skills. The educators train the older students to be empathic, listen carefully (see Educator’s Guide to Active Listening), and use the steps to solving problems (see Solutions Through Peer Mediation). Peer mediators help younger children work through their problems when others call them names, tease them, or when fights occur. The interaction not only assists younger children in learning coping and social skills, but the older students gain leadership skills.

Another way that schools can discourage cliques and “put-downs” comes from Teaching Tolerance (for activities and lessons see ""). It is called “Mix It Up” and it helps children learn that they are much more alike than they are different. It reinforces the idea to respect others for who they are, not for what they look like or what they can do. Elementary schools may “Mix It Up” for a day or week. A “Mix It Up” lunch happens when all the students are assigned new seats. Some schools provide a list of questions that the children can ask each other during lunch, such as: “What is your favorite TV show?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “What sport do you like to play?” Other activities could include having the students create an inclusive theme and/or color for each day, make a class banner to display, or make name tags with adjectives or strengths that define themselves. The goal is for students to become more tolerant and accepting of peers (see Learning the Value of Diversity).

Helping children learn to appreciate individual differences and to think twice before forming exclusive cliques or using “put-downs” will contribute to all students being able to trust their school environment and put forth their best effort.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [], 5/07.

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