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Mapping Your Students’ Peer Relationships
A unique path to supporting vulnerable students and harnessing the power of classroom influencers By Natasha Broman, Staff Writer 28-Feb-19
The 1970s saw sociograms rise hugely in popularity but one hears about them across the education and media world much less these days. Sociograms have been used since their development in the 1930s across organizations to map the relationships and roles between people in a group. Founder of TIE, Forrest Broman, describes using sociograms at the Walworth Barbour American School in Israel where he was superintendent from 1974–1991: “We used sociograms extensively while I was superintendent. Nearly 30 percent of our students were suffering from learning difficulties or emotional problems. The sociograms helped us greatly in designing responses to those problems and bringing about significant progress.” For those uninitiated in this tool, using sociograms in a school reveals the patterns of interpersonal relationships in a class, allowing the teacher to see which children may be struggling with their place in the class. Some readers may feel this is something they already know simply through observing and getting to know their class over time. However, many teachers who use the tool have reported surprising results and eye-opening realities. This creates opportunities for helpful interventions to be put in place for the most socially vulnerable students. So how does it work? Collecting the data involves confidentially interviewing every child in a class and recording the answers in a specially written sociogram program such as Robin Banerjee’s free sociogram tool (link provided below). The questions may vary in wording but the aim is to gather information on whom children like and whom they dislike. The organisation that I work with as a child psychotherapist (Schools Counselling Partnership in London, UK) conducts sociograms in many of our 30 partner schools. Children are asked to list, privately, three children they like and three they don’t like. This may seem like a risky line of questioning in terms of the potential for discussion between children about whom they named. However, with an initial whole-class talk beforehand explaining the importance of privacy, we have never seen any issues arise. Once the data has been entered into the programme, a diagram is created mapping every child with a colour to show their category. Categories are as follows: Popular (high number of students who like them and few who don’t), Rejected (high number of students who dislike them and few who like them), Neglected (few students listed them in either category), Controversial (a high number of students like this child and a high number dislike them), and Average (a balanced result, meaning no concern needed). Whilst students listed as ‘Popular’ and ‘Average’ are deemed to be socially competent and tending to be prosocial, the other categories suggest the need for a closer look. The Rejected category is considered to the most ‘at risk’ classification, whilst the Controversial category highlights children who may be highly influential in class given their popularity. However ‘Controversial’ children may also be very dominant and display disruptive or aggressive traits. Children in the ‘Neglected’ category may be very shy and/or struggle to connect with other children, perhaps also falling off their own teachers’ radar at times. The results provide a huge amount of information. Rachel Martin, Head Teacher at an SCP partner school in West London spoke to me about the many ways her school has used the data. “We have used the results in many way including to identify who the opinion-shapers might be, to identify children who were rejected and support them to build links to the class through several interventions and to highlight children who may need a boost to their confidence from adults at school. Martin’s school sees high levels of mobility. The sociograms have also helped to highlight how the school’s induction processes were working in terms of enabling children to settle in quickly. On the flipside, Martin lists the high turnover as a disrupting factor in the usefulness of sociograms in her school: “They quickly become out of date as we have such high levels of movement in and out of the school throughout the year, and three new children leaving or arriving can completely change the class dynamic.” Sian Vaux, Parent Support Advisor in another SCP partner school, reported that “Teachers gain a real insight into the social dynamics of their class and are often surprised by some of the outcomes. Our sociograms were shared at a staff inset (training day) and they promoted a great deal of discussion. Teachers expressed their appreciation as this gave them greater insight into their pupils and enabled them to incorporate this knowledge into their planning including: lesson content (PHSE*), group work, partner work, job-sharing as well as modelling behaviour. The school was also able to identify pupils who would benefit from an individual or group intervention.” Interventions employed by schools to respond to the social needs highlighted by sociograms are varied and plentiful. A response is sometimes as simple as a classroom teacher making a thoughtful and consistent effort to notice a particular child who may have appeared in the Neglected category. The teacher may comment on the child’s glasses one day, highlight a piece of work the next or simply use their name more often in class. This alone, in one example of a child in our schools, made a huge impact on the behaviour (and presumably the self-esteem) of the child over the course of a semester, in turn impacting their peer relationships in a very positive way. Sociograms done the following year showed the child had moved into the Average category, showing no concerns. Children who appear in the Rejected category are often the most challenging to engage and interventions may need to take on a more organised and formal role. Toni Medcalf, CEO at the Schools Counselling Partnership (SCP) supports and provides our partner schools with the tools, training and knowledge to deliver several more demanding yet high-impact interventions. One of the popular interventions is B.A.S.E.® - Babywatching, whereby a carefully selected group of students meet once a week to observe a parent (usually mother) and very young baby for 20 minutes, whilst being supported by a staff member to notice, wonder and ask questions about the interactions they notice between the parent and baby. Results have shown that the intervention reduces anxiety and aggression and promotes sensitivity and empathy in children. A 5th grader in one SCP school in West London who was highlighted in the Rejected category, attended a Babywatching group for two semesters. In addition, every morning for ten minutes she met with a staff member who provided her with ‘active listening’ while she spoke about whatever was on her mind. This focused concentration on providing the student with consistent attention, in conjunction with Babywatching, led to dramatic changes including - amongst others - the new ability to be able to remain in her class for a whole day rather than the regular running out she used to do, great academic progress and the attainment of and ability to maintain genuine friendships with classmates. Sociograms clearly have the potential to play a powerful role in planning for our students’ successes, and with thoughtfulness and creativity, teachers’ responses to the results can be life-changing for our children. Do you use sociograms in your school? Have you seen a powerful impact resulting from the strategies you employ? We’d love to hear your stories.
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