Rethinking Upper Elementary Discipline

We rise by lifting others.

peer support groups

As educators, we understand that developmental stages affect how and what our students should learn. We can’t teach history to a 5-year-old in the same way we do to a 12-year-old. When it comes to elementary discipline though, we are far more likely to treat them all the same—from kindergarten to sixth—in the name of consistency. Our approach to behavior support must shift as our students grow and change. One strategy I’ve found particularly helpful for upper elementary students is a Peer Support Group.

Welcome the change from lower and upper elementary

In second or third grade, a teacher can give the stink eye and many students will comply to make the teacher happy. Try those same techniques in 6th grade and you may be inviting yourself into a power struggle. Midway through 5th grade, students seem to shift from trying to please the teacher to trying to please their peers.

From a behavior support standpoint, this shift demands that we change our approach when redirecting students. If students are obsessed with peers, then use peers as your leverage.

How peer support groups work

We had an upper elementary student who was really frustrating his teachers and peers. He wouldn’t do his work, he’d say wildly inappropriate things to peers, and he’d repeatedly lie. I met with the students and his parents. I doled out detentions. At one point, I told him that every time he said something inappropriate, he was going to be removed from the classroom. It changed nothing.

I decided to shift my approach by asking him if he was willing to try a peer support group. The student and I met with the students he respected. He told them about his struggles—lack of focus, inappropriate language, and lying. He asked the group if they would be willing to help him do better in school. The other boys of course loved this because they enjoyed being asked.


The peer support group came up with a few strategies:

  • sit next to him in class and tap him when he became unfocused.
  • pay no attention to him when he started talking badly about others.
  • remind him to stay focused on his classwork.

The shift in this student’s behavior was dramatic, almost instantly. This team worked together so well, their behavior as a group improved dramatically as well.

You try it

A Peer Support Group may not be the right choice for every student, but here are a few tips for running a Peer Support Group effectively:

1. Present a Peer Support Group as an option, not a mandate.

If a student isn’t interested in doing it, it could end up doing more harm than good.That said, I’ve yet to see a student turn it down.

2. Let the student choose 3 to 4 students in their group.

Don’t dictate the students yourself – it’s important that the student is invested in the relationships with the peers. If their choices are really off, then have a discussion or negotiation about who is in the group.

3. Let the students do most of the talking in the meetings.

In the initial meeting, ask the struggling student to describe the issues, prompt the other students for confirmation or other insights. Then, have the group come up with strategies and supports. Later, help the group decide how often they need to check in to start.

4. In the check-in meetings, always start with the struggling student’s reflection.

Ask them what they did well that day, what issues occurred, how the issues resolved, and how peers helped. Next, ask the peer support group for additional feedback on what the student did well and what they thought the struggles were. Then, ask the struggling student what the focus is for the next day and what the peer support group can do to help. Stay positive and action-oriented.

5. Be consistent.

As a principal, I have a lot on my plate so it wasn’t easy to meet twice a day with a group of students. I ended up being late for dismissal duty a lot over the course of those first few months, but I had to let something go if I was going to show this student that I was invested in his success.