Monday, June 12, 2023

Middle School Stuff #5: Cliques and Groups – Jessica Speer

This series of posts explores the tricky side of middle school. Here’s post # 5 – Cliques & Groups. If you missed earlier posts, here are links: #1 – Judgment, #2 – Friendship Changes, #3 – Popularity, and #4 – Crushes and Dating.

While researching Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, I visited 7th-grade classrooms and talked with students about school social dynamics. When I asked preteens to share middle school’s “tricky” aspects, “cliques and groups” came up often.

Cliques and Groups Defined

Students use the terms “cliques” and “groups” interchangeably, although their definitions differ. A clique is defined as “a small group of people with shared interests, or other features in common, that do not readily allow others to join them.”

A group is defined as “a number of people that are located close together or are categorized together.” Cliques and groups are common in middle school and may be categorized by names, such as footballers, gamers, skaters, etc. 

The Why Behind Cliques and Groups

So, why do humans, especially middle schoolers, band together in groups? The simple answer is that humans are social animals. Early humans increased their chances of survival if they were part of a tribe. 

In middle school, being part of a group fills the human need for acceptance and belonging. This is especially important during the preteen and teen years as kids explore their identity and begin to pull away from their families as their primary support system. As you may recall from your preteen and teen years, peer relationships matter a lot to adolescents. 

When I asked students why kids formed groups in middle school, here’s a sample of what they shared:

  • “Similar interests. Same classes. Similar personalities. To fit in. To separate us versus them.”
  • “I think it’s partly because people are insecure about themselves, so they just want a group they don’t have to be judged by.”
  • “Popular boys only date popular girls, so some kids try to get in those groups to be part of that scene. Some groups get a lot of attention too, which some kids crave.”
  • “I think kids are doing this because they have certain interests. For example, some kids play sports like basketball and football. Sometimes, other kids want to join but are not as good at sports.”
four men sitting on platform
Photo by kat wilcox on

Middle Schoolers Thoughts About Groups

When students shared about social dynamics, their comments revealed the darker side of some group behavior. Here are some student comments:

  • “Some groups are exclusive and non-accepting of others. They are filled with peer pressure to stay in the group and keep that status.”
  • “Rude comments and dirty looks let kids know they don’t belong in certain groups. My group tries not to be exclusive. We would rather it be just us, but we don’t make others feel bad if they sit with us.”
  • “Some groups own certain tables in the lunchroom. Others wouldn’t dare sit there.”

How Students Navigate the Group Scene

Navigating groups can be tricky at any age. Some groups are inclusive, while others are not. Some friendships feel good, while others do not. In middle school, the social scene and group dynamics are constantly changing, too.

So, I asked students what advice they would give to help other students navigate the group scene. Their responses were insightful:

  • “If you want to join a certain group, first make friends with a few people in the group.”
  • “If your friend is in a group you are not, don’t take it personally. If you feel excluded, go find friends that share your interests and like you for who you are.”
  • “Find a group of friends that feels like a good fit and make sure you trust them. Even though you have your group, be kind to everyone else.”
children sitting together at a boardwalk
Photo by Norma Mortenson on

Helping Kids Navigate the Group Scene in Middle School

Some kids sail through middle school with a few friends by their side and very little drama. Others experience many friendship shifts, and it takes a while to find friends who feel like a fit.

Navigating groups is complicated, especially in middle school.  The transition from childhood to adolescence is filled with change. Personalities change, interests change, friendships change, bodies change, and even moods change often. Change is the norm in middle school, which ripples through social circles too. And all of this change can be uncomfortable. 

Caregivers can help kids navigate group dynamics by regularly discussing the importance of dignity. Dignity is the recognition that all people have value and worth. Here are some concrete ways that students treat others with dignity :

  • “Save inside jokes, secret handshakes, and private clubs/group meetings for times when those not involved are not around.”
  • “Avoid whispering to someone in front of others.”
  • “Don’t rank people on scales of coolness or appearance.”
  • “Allow people to be themselves and accept differences.”

One of my favorite student comments was, “it’s possible to disagree and even dislike someone and still treat them with dignity.” Unfortunately, this skill is increasingly rare in today’s polarized world. This makes it even more important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to model and discuss dignity often. Dignity is vital to creating safe and accepting communities, whether in middle schools, homes, or the world.

About Jessica Speer:

Jessica Speer is the highly acclaimed author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships and Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised. Her interactive books for preteens and teens entertain readers while exploring social-emotional topics. Blending humor, stories, and insights, her writing unpacks the social stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence. 

She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica is regularly featured in and contributes to media outlets on topics related to kids, teens, parenting, and friendship. For more information, visit

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