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Cliques and Hierarchies: Larger Schools Have More 'Mean Girls'

Cliques and Hierarchies: Larger Schools Have More 'Mean Girls'

Cliques and hierarchies within teens thrive in high schools across the country, but a recent study finds that smaller schools do not have this issue as much as larger schools.

According to a recent study, cliques and groups "thrive in large schools with diverse populations where students can have their pick of friends and lots of other choices - such as the freedom to shape their workload or select where they sit in class," said an article on The Washington Post.

The study, which is scheduled to appear in next month's American Sociological Review, found that students "don't tend to form cliques or social pecking orders in small, regimented schools that offer a limited choice of potential friends," said the article. The research is "based on data collected by McFarland in classrooms at two high schools [one a traditional, nearly all-white school of 1,600 students in a small Midwestern town, and the other a magnet school of 900 students in a distressed urban neighborhood.] It also draws from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a school-based survey administered to kids in 144 middle schools and high schools."

"Previous research shows that adolescents seek friendships that offer them security, familiarity [as in others who are similar to them,] and some measure of control over their social status," the article said. "That’s true across the board no matter what the school size."

Daniel McFarland, lead author of the study and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, said students in large schools "form hierarchies and cliques within."

"Yet these needs are amplified in large schools where students cope with the many choices they have to make by clustering with those who are like them," McFarland said. "They form hierarchies and cliques within. And they segregate, sometimes by race, social status, gender or age. They’re being exposed to a bunch of people they don’t know, so they’re concerned about security,” McFarland said. “With choice and diversity, people tend to sit with their own people in the lunchroom.”

By contrast, the article said, "students in smaller schools are forced to mix, especially if teachers control the amount and type of interaction that takes place in class as well as the seating arrangements. Also, the cost of excluding someone when the pool of potential friends is limited can be steep."

“If you’re in a school that is engineered to be different than what adulthood might be, that just might not prepare you for adulthood,” McFarland said.

Besides, the article said, "sometimes cliques be supportive and protective. Even segregation is not necessarily problematic."

“There might be cases where you might want to preserve your culture, and you might want to find a degree of similarity with others,” McFarland said. “But we don’t know what amount is good for society or for those particular groups and individuals.”

The article said that the study "has its limitations, and does not mean that all students are better off in small schools with fewer choices."

"In other words, it doesn't answer the types of questions parents might have, such as: would my over-achieving middle schooler thrive in a large or small high school? Or what type of school setting would work best for the social development of a gregarious child versus a shy one?" the article asked. 

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Article by Kassondra Granata, Education World Contributor

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