Free article: The link between peer-group relationships and truancy and school absenteeism

Published: Thursday, 05 February 2015

Professor Ken Reid, OBE, looks at how friends and acquaintances can influence pupils’ behaviour.

Summary

  • During infancy, children are most influenced by their parent/s, siblings and other family members.
  • For older children, their ‘friends’ and acquaintances start to exert a greater influence upon them, including on their beliefs and behaviour.
  • Children and adolescents naturally tend to join peer groups whose members contain people with similar ideas and interests to themselves.
  • When children are younger, peer groups are often comprised of the same gender. However, during adolescence, peer groups tend to undergo significant changes, including more of a gender mix.
  • Sometimes children do not develop normal peer-group relationships and this can be a sign that they may have some form of social or psychological problem or are being bullied.
  • Peer groups can affect attendance as friends may encourage pupils to truant.

What is a peer group?

A peer group is a social group of primary people around whom an individual spends his or her time both in and out of school. The members of this group are likely to influence a person’s beliefs and behaviour. Normally, to be included within a peer group, members will share certain similarities such as age, background and social status. When children are younger, peer groups are often comprised of the same gender. However, during adolescence, peer groups tend to undergo significant changes, not least in the composition of their gender make up.

Developing normal peer-group relationships is a regular part of an individual’s developing socialisation processes which, in turn, leads to him or her developing individual characteristics and personality. During infancy, children are most influenced by their parent/s, siblings and other family members. As they grow older, their friends and acquaintances start to exert a greater influence upon them. This is quite normal behaviour.

Sometimes children do not develop normal peer-group relationships and this can be a sign that they may have some form of social or psychological problem or, perhaps, are being bullied in one way or another. Explicitly, the link between cyber bullying and truancy has increased significantly in recent years. When interviewed, some truants have indicated that they first started to miss school because they were ‘encouraged’ to do so by one or more of their friends.

As children develop physically and mentally, and grow increasingly confident, they tend to spend more time with their peers and require less adult supervision. Often, they begin to either resent or dislike having adult interventions, especially when they are categorised as being unnecessary or a form of either ‘interference’ or ‘meddling.’ Young adolescents, for example, often prefer to discuss issues such as sex, fashion and music with their peers rather than with adults. We have all been through this stage ourselves at some point during our own development.

Children and adolescents naturally tend to join peer groups whose members contain people with similar ideas and interests to theirs. Most children, like adults, prefer the company of those with whom they feel both relaxed and comfortable. As they develop and mature, children are much less likely to accept those of their age group whose interests and attitudes differ a great deal from their own.

Researchers and educationalists use sociometric tests to ascertain pupils’ peer group status. They typically ask such questions as:

  • How large is the peer group?
  • Who are the leaders and followers within the peer group?
  • Who has a lot of friends and who has very few or none? Why?
  • How does the peer group influence a pupil’s seating position or learning or behaviour within a form group, teaching group, or in other school-based activities?

Peer groups and group truancy

Perhaps surprisingly, there has been comparatively little research into the link between peer group relationships and truancy and school absenteeism. However, one of my earliest studies, reported in Truancy and School Absenteeism and building on earlier research undertaken by people such as Croft and Grygier, Tyerman, Ralphson and Mitchell, did ascertain that certain categories of absentees tended to have fewer friends in school than their regular-attending peers. This particularly applied to institutional absentees (pupils who miss school for educational reasons) and psychological absentees. Both these groups tended to have significantly lower general levels of self-esteem and academic self-concepts as measured by the Coopersmith and Brookover Scales.

Up until the 1970s, most truants and persistent absentees were considered to be male, ‘isolates’ and ‘loners’ as typified by Billy Casper in the highly acclaimed Ken Roach film Kes. Since then, there have been some major changes in the study of truancy and school absenteeism. Today, as many, if not more, girls than boys play truant and become absentees or persistent absentees. Far more pupils, both boys and girls, participate in group truancy. This is often pre-planned, pre-meditated and can be mixed gender, especially during adolescence.

Studies have found that the size of truancy groups can vary from two or three to 20 plus, sometimes including pupils attending different schools, which may be part of the problem.

However, there are some significant differences between male and female group truancy. More girls than boys participate in parental-condoned absenteeism. Girls often meet at one another’s family homes and stay indoors or visit shopping centres. Boys often spend more time in outdoor group activities such as riding bikes or playing football. The link between truancy and school absenteeism with pupils wishing to spend more time on the internet is also growing apace, not least because so many pupils now claim to be ‘bored’ while at school.

Similarly, there are elements of group truancy in specific lesson absenteeism, post-registration truancy and ‘patterned’ absence. Often, this is when pre-arranged peer groups meet and encourage one another to miss school, for example going to the cinema.

Recent developments

Currently we do not know precisely how many pupils truant or miss school because of the influence of their peers. Why? This is partly because each study tends to differ in its methodology and in the specific definitions it uses, as well as in its findings. However, we can state confidently that the influence of peer-group relations and having adverse peer-group relationships are both factors in some pupils attending school regularly and for others pupils truanting and becoming occasional or regular absentees. Clearly, further research in this field is needed. We need to ask, for example, is the influence of peer groups more significant for boys or girls or among certain ethnic groups?

Some studies have found that some pupils who attend school regularly actually dislike their schools as much as or more than persistent school absentees. They attend schools for ‘compensatory reasons’. These can include:

  • having more friends
  • enjoying the daily company of their peer groups
  • participating in more school-based activities both in and out of school, for example, music, drama, sport or hobby-based activities.

Studies suggest that the inter-relationship between peer groups and effective teacher–pupil relationships are two of the major reasons for differences between and within schools over a range of performance variables. These include such factors as why some schools experience less challenging behaviour, less exclusion, less bullying, less school absenteeism and better teacher–pupil classroom-based learning and interaction than others.

In recent years, there has been a much more sinister side to the development of group truancy. This includes:

  • a rise in disaffected behaviour, criminality, gang membership, culture and inter-group rivalries; even of involvement in knife crime in some of our inner-cities
  • a growth in distinct sub-cultures which may be related to drugs, alcohol abuse and sexual activity, and joy riding among other things.

When pupils develop normally and form pleasant and effective peer-group relationships, their lives are seriously enriched. However, when they join or are influenced by adverse peer pressure and bad influences are brought to bear, things can go badly wrong both for them and their parents and families.

Sadly, most research evidence shows that far too many pupils begin their lives of crime while they are truanting from school. This is currently several times more likely for boys than girls. It is, therefore, one of the main reasons why governments, society and schools should do all they can to prevent pupils from becoming truants or persistent absentees.

Further information

  • Truancy and School Absenteeism, Reid, K, Hodder & Stoughton, 1985
  • Truancy and Schools, Reid K, Routledge, 1999
  • Managing School Attendance: Successful Intervention Strategies, Reid, K, Routledge, 2014
  • An Essential Guide to Improving Attendance In Your School, Reid, K, Routledge, 2014

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

Most frequently read