Peer opinion leaders are students who set the trends and patterns of behavior. They define “what is in and out”, “what to do and not to do” and “what to believe and not believe.” The bottom line is…peer opinion leaders influence the opinion and behaviors of others. Knowing who the natural peer opinion leaders in your class or group are is key to establishing positive standards of behavior, setting positive norms and making anything you do successful.
Almost every peer group has an opinion leader. During early adolescence, girls will have their leaders and boys will have theirs. Some can be positive leaders while others may be negative.
We tend to think we know who the peer opinion leaders are on our own. We sometimes see them as the class clowns, the most vocal or the most popular. These characteristics can be misleading. Not all peer opinion leaders have these traits. Some peer opinion leaders exercise their influence quietly and in subtle ways.
It’s very important we correctly identify peer opinion leaders. Research suggests that teachers are right a little more than half the time in identifying friendship groups. A more effective approach is to let the students tell you who their peer opinion leaders are. With the right survey, students’ answers will identify peer opinion leaders with confidence. Typically, they will be the one who the students see as having the best ideas, is the most respected and is a natural leader.
We can’t change who the peer opinion leaders are, but we can learn how to work with them. Once identified, it is important for you to bring the peer opinion leader in as part of your team. Your goal is to empower a positive peer opinion leader to continue influencing positively. The same goes for a negative peer opinion leader. However, your goal with them is to turn their negative influence into positive. You need to win both of them over. Know how each peer opinion leader feels about things and what their special talents are. Spending one-on-one time with each leader can help build a spirit of trust and cooperation. It will also help you anticipate what they might say or share in class when called on.
Peer opinion leaders can play an important role in your classroom. The most important role is expressing their opinions in classroom discussions. This should be an opportunity for them to express positive norms to the class and not just an opportunity to talk. When they speak others will be listening. Ask them to lead small group activities and help with demonstrations and role plays. What they do and the positive attitude they do it with will influence other kids’ attitudes.
Correctly identifying and involving the group’s peer opinion leaders can have a significant impact on your success as an educator or group leader. Peer opinion leaders have their followers. One peer opinion leader can lead and influence 8-10 other students. I visualize the influence of peer opinion leaders much like a mother duck leading her ducklings!
Affirming or changing one student, especially if they are the peer opinion leader, can naturally affirm and change many others in the group at the same time. Work with peer opinion leaders to ensure positive messages are carried outside of class as they are change agents that can amplify your efforts when students leave the classroom or group.
In next week's blog I will talk about the importance of identifying another group of students in your classroom or group - the isolates. I will also offer a scientific, proven survey for identifying the peer opinion leaders and isolates among your students.