An individual’s self-concept is the complex product of all life’s experiences (Christensen & Dahle, 1998). During the elementary and middle school years, students develop a sense of independence; they learn to cope with feelings of jealousy, fear, and aggression; and they form friendships and develop empathy (Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1998). Each of these social areas seems to be universal across cultures, although they may be expressed differently in various societies (Ekman & Davidson, 1994).

Independence and Responsibility

As elementary and middle school students develop cognitively and socially, they become better able to plan solutions to problems and to understand the social environment. They are more and more able to act independently. Students usually try to be independent when they find an opportunity to do so. Teachers reward positive attempts to be independent. When time is short, many teachers do not value student independence enough to provide the extra time needed for independent planning and decision making. Sometimes students’ attempts result in unsafe or disruptive behavior. When students’ independent attempts do not work, teachers assist them and guide them in learning from their mistakes (Macoby & Masters, 1970). But when help is given too quickly, it reinforces dependency, frustration, and sometimes aggression or withdrawal.

Students become independent when they are expected to be responsible (Quilty, 1975). For example, putting away materials when one is finished using them and keeping things in one’s own locker both demonstrate responsibility. Expectations of responsibility are best met when accompanied with reasons. A teacher might demonstrate the benefit of being responsible by saying, “The scissors and stapler you need are on that shelf. It’s nice that the last person who used them returned them to where they belong because now everyone can easily find them when they need them.” Students may work responsibly on a task, but they often start, then stop and attend to something else, then return to what they were working on, and so on. Teachers should recognize and reward efforts at responsibility. Independence and responsibility depend on one another. Students from various cultural backgrounds can be expected to display independence and responsibility differently. For example, students from Asian backgrounds often assume responsibility for tasks and carry them out well but might not be as likely to organize others to do a task unless the teacher indicates permission to do so (Scarcella, 1980). These students are demonstrating respect for the teacher in a manner they have learned through their personal cultural experiences. Teachers help students develop independence and responsibility by (1) planning carefully, (2) anticipating difficulties, (3) giving clear directions, and (4) providing outlines of suggested procedures. Expecting and encouraging responsibility and independent behavior show respect for students as individuals who are in the process of growing up.


Jealousy is a natural feeling that results partly from egocentrism, especially in younger students, who sometimes find it hard to accept another student being the center of attention even for a short while (Seifert & Hofnung, 2000). Reflecting on the learning cycle on sharing and negotiation, how much potential for jealousy is there in using this lesson’s development with first-graders? With fourth-graders? Even though jealousy in students is normal, it threatens their self-respect because it often means that a person is uncertain of the affection of another person in the presence of a third party.

Students express jealousy in several ways, including aggression, immature behavior, and boasting. When a student displays any of these behaviors much more frequently than is common among his or her peers, teachers may have cause for concern. Teachers who use peer behavior as their basis for comparing students’ behavior recognize that some behaviors are more common among certain groups of people than among others. Teaching that encourages students to discuss concerns and analyze their behavior, as suggested in the sample learning cycle, assists students in learning to cope with feelings of jealousy.

Contests resulting in winners and losers foster jealousy and reduce self-respect (French, Brownell, Graziano, & Hartup, 1977). Instead, an emphasis should be placed on each student performing as well as possible. Cooperative group efforts at completing a project are effective replacements for contests. Each student contributes personal strengths, gains in self-respect, and is less likely to be jealous of others. A closely related problem occurs when a teacher identifies one student as a model and tells others they should emulate this model. Students should examine historical situations, current events, and fictional situations whose development may have been influenced by jealousy and evaluate how people respond to jealousy. Teachers ask questions to help students do so, as in these examples:

  • How much do you think jealousy influenced racist attitudes toward the baseball player Jackie Robinson?
  • Students who work hard on their assignments and do well are being insulted by others. Why is this happening? Could some students who are making insulting comments be jealous of the success these students are having in their classes?
  • Were Cinderella’s sisters jealous of her beauty? Do you think this was why they were mean to her?


Fear is part of life. Fear can produce wariness, anxiety, suspicion, dread, dismay, anguish, and panic (Kostelnik et al., 1998). Students often have fears that are not reasonable. Very young children develop fears frequently between ages 2 and 5. As they mature, their ability to interpret observations and events develops; fears weaken and students become more realistic. Teachers should remember that because students’ thinking processes are immature and their personal experiences are limited, students think their fears are reasonable. Students usually grow out of their fears as they mature. Adults who use threats to enforce discipline, such as telling a child to eat her food or the police officer will make her eat it, may cause children to develop fears.

Fear often is expressed so strongly that the adult cannot help but be aware of it. The best approach is to listen to the student, discuss the fear, and show sympathy for the student’s feelings (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, Stein, & Gregory, 2002). Although the fear cannot be talked away, the student will know that the fear has been recognized as real and upsetting. Activities in which students describe situations in which they feel fear and how they try to cope with it can be helpful. Focus on inventing strategies with the students that are successful in helping them recognize and cope with their fears.

Middle school students often develop fears related to their social situations. They worry when placed in a situation they feel has the potential for ridicule, such as making an oral presentation. Young teens may be nervous, or freeze entirely, unable to remember a word of what they want to say. The growing pressure young teens feel in social situations and the fear of ridicule cause inhibitions and anxiety.

Teachers need to help students develop confidence. Because young teens often compare themselves with the polished presentations actors create for videos and commercials, it is important to discuss the bloopers that professional actors make and to encourage students to watch a program that features such bloopers. Once they realize that professional presentations are the result of many retakes and much editing, as well as years of professional training, they may be able to set more realistic expectations for themselves and their peers. Allowing students to videotape their presentations beforehand or to use PowerPoint to revise and perfect them before presenting them helps overcome fears.

Teachers have limited ability to help reduce fears generated by personal situations and must recognize that some fears are legitimate, especially in cases of abuse or violence in the streets. Therefore, it is important to work to reduce fears when possible but to be aware of whom to contact for assistance when a student is involved in a situation in which the teacher can provide only limited assistance or none at all. Fears that may be shared by several students should be examined. Reflect on how fearful students were during a recent weather event—a tornado warning, a severe rainstorm with lots of thunder and lightning, a blizzard. Are students afraid of getting caught in the middle of older adolescents shooting at each other because of an insult? How frightened are they of getting AIDS?

Aggressive Feelings, Bullying, and Conflict Resolution

Do you view yourself as more or less than, or about as aggressive as the average person? What situation(s) cause you to feel aggressive? Terms such as desk rage and road rage have surfaced in the news in recent years. Complaints about increased aggression in sports, even among young athletes and spectators, are of increasing concern. Other nations think that U.S. culture is so aggressive and violent that no one is safe on our streets.

Some students are consistently more or less aggressive than the average student. Their aggression is part of their personality since they are temperamentally noisy, active, and distractable with more difficulty in adjusting to changes in routine (Berk, 2000). Situations, however, also create many aggressive feelings. Some students are poor social observers, finding it hard to accurately interpret others’ facial expressions and words. So they do not understand that no hostility was intended and develop a history of not getting along with peers (Dodge & Crick, 1990). Some students become aggressive when frustrated. Often, positive reactions to frustration, such as sharing, cooperating, talking, and other prosocial behavior, have not been strongly reinforced in these students (Herrenkohl, Egolf, & Herrenkohl, 1997). Such students often associate with other aggressive students (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000). Families who use erratic physical punishment often have aggressive children. These students believe the only reason not to be aggressive is to avoid getting caught and punished. Punishment often pushes them into further aggression. Aggressive models in real life and in the media teach aggressive behaviors. Some students come from cultural backgrounds that encourage higher or lower levels of aggression than are typical among most students. Most students also learn to feel guilt when they act aggressively in situations for which their society does not sanction aggression. As a result, they are more likely to avoid aggression as they get older (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000).

Reducing Aggression One way to reduce aggression is to eliminate conditions that promote it. These include frustrating situations and aggressive media programs. Another way to reduce aggression is to teach students that aggression does not reward them, for example, by using time-out procedures. Teaching students how to resolve conflicts and interact positively with others helps. Using cooperative learning exemplifies the type of learning students need to practice if aggression is to be reduced. Finally, helping students monitor and control their own behavior is important. These strategies help students realize that less aggressive behavior results in more positive attention, affection, and approval (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000).

Students should examine the aggression that occurs in current events. One country fights with another: Who is the aggressor? A traveler is attacked on a subway train: Who is the aggressor? Historical events can be examined in light of aggression. How did the Choctaw first react to the aggression that settlers exhibited as they appropriated the native lands and began to farm them? One major source of aggression is being unable to identify alternative solutions to conflict situations.

When children can think of just a few ways to get their point across, they tend to use some kind of attack as the fastest, surest choice (Smith, 1982). Children who come up with several choices less often use violence (Spivack, Platt, & Shure, 1976). So teachers have group discussions about possible solutions, teach assertiveness and negotiation skills, and teach conflict resolution.

Conflict Resolution Conflict resolution abilities are important for managing students’ personal and interpersonal aggressive feelings. Conflict resolution refers to programs encouraging students to resolve disputes peacefully outside traditional school disciplinary procedures (Conflict Resolution Education Network, 2000, p. 27). Schools with conflict resolution programs teach, model, and incorporate the processes and problem-solving skills of mediation, negotiation, and collaboration. Fundamental to such programs is the idea that the disputing parties solve the problem themselves. Peer mediation is the most common type of conflict resolution process, having students act as neutral third parties to resolve disputes. This is most effective in middle school and to some extent in upper elementary grades. Components of conflict resolution can be used effectively with younger children. The Conflict Resolution Education Facts section of the Conflict Resolution Education Network website is a useful source of information on conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution requires specific skills: knowing how to listen, empathizing, reasoning analytically, thinking creatively, and understanding another person’s viewpoint. Generally, six steps are followed:

  1. Agree to meet and set ground rules.
  2. Gather information about the conflict.
  3. Identify what the dispute is really about.
  4. Suggest possible options for resolution of the dispute.
  5. Select one or more workable options.
  6. each agreement (Conflict Resolution Education Network, 2000, p. 27).

Conflict resolution programs support school polices to prevent violence by teaching skills and processes for solving problems before they escalate into violence. Such programs help students develop personal behavior management skills, act responsibly in the school community, and accept the consequences of their own behavior. Students develop fundamental competencies, such as self-control, self-respect, empathy, and teamwork, that are necessary throughout life. Students learn to respect others as individuals and as members of a group. Finally, students learn how to build and maintain responsible and productive intergroup relations (Conflict Resolution Education Network, 2000).

Bullying Bullies are unhappy children who likely make poor social and academic progress. Proactive strategies must be used with bullies and their victims. Students are bullied because of (Bullying Online,

  • Weight
  • Hair color
  • Their schoolwork
  • If they work hard
  • If they are a different religion, color, or culture
  • If they have dyslexia or dyspraxia
  • Looks
  • Their family
  • If they are not popular
  • If they have a disability
  • If they wear glasses or a hearing aid
  • If they've been off school due to illness

When dealing with a student who is being bullied, it is important to remember that the student will be very upset, although it might not show on the outside. If the student has found the courage to talk to you, then he or she needs to know you will take the problem seriously. How you react and respond to that student may make the difference between resolving the issue or allowing misery to continue that could affect the rest of the student’s school life.

Students must be taught guidelines for protecting themselves from bullying:

  • Tell a trusted adult about the bullying, and be persistent until the adult takes action.
  • Tell a staff member at your school if the harassment is school related. Schools have bullying policies in place.
  • Save threatening e-mail or written or text messages in case action must be taken later.
  • Never agree to meet alone with the bully.
  • If possible, block the bully from your chat or instant messaging accounts.
  • If you are threatened with violence, inform the local police.

Teachers try to get students who might be bullies to recognize that any of the following behaviors indicates they are a bully:

  • There’s a boy or girl (or maybe more than one) whom you’ve repeatedly shoved, punched, or physically pushed around in a mean way just because you felt like it.
  • You had someone else hurt someone you don’t like.
  • You’ve spread a nasty rumor about someone in conversation, in a note, or through e-mail or instant messaging.
  • You and your friends consistently have kept one or more kids from hanging out or playing with you.
  • You’ve teased people in a mean way, calling them names or making fun of their appearance or the way they talk or dress or act.
  • You’ve been part of a group that did any of these things, even if you only wanted to be part of the crowd (Stop Bullying Now!

Bullies must be told that their behavior will not be tolerated and must be taught ways to control angry impulses (e.g., talking oneself out of a quick reaction, deciphering behavioral cues that tell how someone else is feeling, and experiencing logical consequences from bullying).

How to Intervene When You See Bullying. When you see bullying occurring, immediately step in and stop it. Identify the bullying behavior and say that it is against school rules (e.g., “Name calling is bullying and is against school rules”). Then, support the bullied child so he or she can regain self-control. Help the child save face, if needed. Include bystanders in the conversation and give them guidance about how they could intervene or get help in the future. Do not require students to apologize or make amends in the heat of the moment. As appropriate, impose immediate consequences on the bully (e.g., take away lunch in the cafeteria). Let students know you are watching them and their friends. Notify your colleagues. Do not require the students to meet together to work things out. Give bullied students some time to process the event and vent (Stop Bullying Now! Assist victims by supporting verbal assertiveness so that they establish their desires and protect their rights. Assertiveness training reduces bullying. It helps to teach children how to appear more confident and how to interpret social cues. Also, helping children form friendships reduces their victimization.


Throughout childhood, students add to the number of acquaintances they have and develop close friendships. At different ages, students have different expectations for friends, so the character of friendship changes over the years. Students usually are closest to others who are similar in age, race, sex, interests, degree of sociability, and values (Hartup & Stevens, 1997). Through the early elementary school years, students prefer a friend who is easily accessible, has nice toys, and plays easily. Students, also prefer someone who quickly rewards attempts at friendliness (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000). During the middle of the elementary school years, shared values become important. Beginning in middle school, students really start to care about what happens to a friend. They stress mutual understanding and closeness but still expect friends to be useful to them (Reisman & Shorr, 1978).

Students who make and keep friends are skillful at initiating interactions with their peers, maintaining ongoing interactions, and resolving interpersonal conflicts. These skills are developed through four primary strategies that teachers can help students develop:

  1. Greeting another student directly (“Hi! What’s your name?”)
  2. Asking appropriate questions (“What’s your favorite TV show?”)
  3. Giving information (“I like to play checkers.”)
  4. Trying to include the new friend in their activities (“Do you want to play tag at recess?”)

Students need to know that it is important to keep trying even when rejected. Teachers should recognize that the willingness to keep trying depends on self-confidence.

Through daily classroom activities, teachers can effectively coach students in social skills that help them begin and continue satisfying friendships. Coaching involves telling or showing students how to use a specific social skill. This includes giving students opportunities to practice the skill and giving feedback with suggestions for improving the use of the skill. Among the skills that are effectively taught are asking questions, learning to give positive reinforcement to others (such as smiles), making good eye contact, and taking turns (Kostelnik et al., 2002). Once a friendship has begun, many skills can contribute to its continuation:

  • Rewarding a friend by smiling at him or her
  • Imitating the friend’s actions
  • Paying attention to the friend
  • Approving of what the friend does
  • Complying with the friend’s wishes
  • Sharing things with the friend
  • Communicating well
  • Being a good listener
  • Giving information needed by the listener
  • Judging whether your own actions have shown or not shown respect for others’ rights and welfare (Hartup, Glazer, & Charlesworth, 1987)

Friendships can be examined by discussing current events and historical situations. Consider the following questions as ideas for content that can be discussed within social studies units:

  • At one time the United States has been both a friend and an enemy of Germany. What might be the characteristics of friendships between the leaders of these nations?
  • What is meant by a media report that someone got a city building contract because he was the friend of the mayor?
  • Does a real friendship mean you do illegal things for your friends?
  • Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were close friends. What was the basis for their friendship?

Empathy and Helpful Prosocial Behaviors

Empathy is the ability to vicariously experience the emotions of another person. It is thought to play an important part in developing friendships (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000). Empathy relates to prosocial behaviors. These are positive social actions that benefit others such as sharing, helping, and cooperating.

As early as kindergarten, children demonstrate empathy by responding helpfully to another person’s distress: comforting, giving things to another child, warning a child of further danger, and inquiring of a child in trouble. Teachers foster empathy and prosocial behaviors by encouraging high-quality peer contacts, such as those that often occur in cooperative group or pairs activities. Researchers have found that children raised in cooperative rural Israeli kibbutz communities exhibited more empathy and prosocial behaviors than usually are found among city children (Eisenberg, Hertz-Lazarowitz, & Fuchs, 1990). Teachers foster empathy by (1) giving verbal approval to students’ prosocial behaviors, (2) modeling empathy and prosocial behaviors, (3) using instructional practices that involve cooperative activities, (4) analyzing the words and acts of characters in stories and books for prosocial behaviors, and (5) using activities in which students’ have greater control of their learning.


Self-esteem and self-concept are closely connected. If a person is pleased with his self-concept, he will have high self-esteem. Most students have formed a stable sense of self-esteem by the middle school years. Self-esteem appears to be related to social behavior. Students with high self-esteem participate frequently in discussions and other activities rather than simply listen passively (Coopersmith, 1967). Expressing opinions, approaching new tasks with self-confidence, resisting peer pressure, and making friends easily are thought to be the result of high self-esteem based on positive self-concept. However, high self-esteem could be the result of these positive characteristics rather than the cause of them. Teachers need to work to foster a positive self-concept in each student and to indicate respect and appreciation for each student’s abilities and cultural background. Because self-esteem affects motivation and the desire to study and learn, teachers use instructional strategies and management procedures to support its formation.