© Daniel Müller, illumueller.ch. The illustrations are taken from the children's book "Die Buschbanditen - Gefahr für Herr Tännle". This serves as the basis for the friendship project that Jeanine Grütter conducts at schools.

Practising tolerance in schools

In an interview, Jeanine Grütter, education researcher at the University of Konstanz, explains which social dynamics take place in today's classrooms. She studies the emergence and prevention of discrimination and prejudice in school classes, in particular.

How does discrimination manifest itself in schools?
Jeanine Grütter: This happens whenever children experience negative social interactions or are put at a disadvantage because of their group membership. For example, when children are called names or rumours are spread about them because they are not proficient in the language of their host society. Discrimination can also include aggressive or violent behaviour. Similar to bullying, such negative experiences are often due to an imbalance of power within peer groups at school. On average, one to two children per class are either treated as outsiders or bullied.

How do these negative experiences affect children?
Jeanine Grütter: In some cases, children are limited in their focus on school content, which can have negative impacts on their academic performance. Children may mostly monitor what happens around then and worry about peer issues. For example: "What are the others doing right now? Am I about to become a target again?" This means they are concentrating less on learning material and are also less willing to participate in class.

Children and youth who experience discrimination no longer perceive school as a safe environment and often feel a low sense of belonging at school. In some cases, they may succeed in finding other sources for positive reinforcement of themselves. If not, their self-esteem can be impeded long-term by these negative peer experiences. Research has shown multiple times that children who often become target of negative peer experiences are at risk of developing psychological disorders later on in their life.

What role does the teacher play when discrimination occurs in a class?
Jeanine Grütter: In responding to discrimination, teachers play a particularly important role. By intervening, teachers help children treated as outsiders to feel safe at school since they experience that teachers watch out for them. At the same time, the children who act negatively realize that they cannot get away with such behaviour. Importantly, the children not directly involved in the actions, the bystanders, also receive a message, namely: "There is zero tolerance for exclusion at this school." Motivating bystanders to intervene in negative peer interactions is one of the most effective ways to prevent bullying, exclusion or discrimination.

Unfortunately, I still sometimes encounter teacher attitudes that avoid taking responsibility for children’s social experiences at school, for example: "This is not really much of my business as a teacher. I'm not responsible for taking care of this." However, it is definitely a teacher's responsibility to pay attention to whether children feel comfortable at school and feel like they belong there.

How can teachers positively shape social dynamics in their class?
Jeanine Grütter: There are many opportunities for teachers to take on responsibility for positive social relationships in their class. The first step is to recognize the social dynamics within the school class. In order to help teachers understand these dynamics, we draw social networks representing the social relationships of children in a class. Based on this information, we can determine each child's social status and plan strategies on how negative peer dynamics could be changed, for example, by using strategically planned group games, group discussions, seating arrangements and other group set-ups. Thus aware of group dynamics at school, teachers can thoughtfully create lots of spaces for children to interact positively with each other and to form new friendships. Thereby, teachers can facilitate positive social relations or even friendships between children who have different learning needs, ethnic backgrounds or other social identities in which they are different from each other.

In addition, stories about children who are different from each other are very useful for prompting group discussions about discrimination. Potential questions are for example: Did the characters behave fairly or unfairly when a child was excluded due to learning difficulties? What could the story protagonists have been thinking while this was going on? How do they feel? The idea of these discussions is to help children understand the reasoning involved in deciding whom to include in group activities; and thus, to strengthen their awareness for their own attitudes and behaviour. Based on these insights and our own research, we have created the Friendship Program, a program including an interactive learning tool to facilitate positive group dynamics at school.

The full interview  (in German) with Jeanine Grütter is available in the University of Konstanz's online magazine campus.kn. It includes further information about the causes of discrimination as well as a specific project for school classes to practice greater openness for other people and their individuality.