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And educators need to figure out ways to encourage social mixing opportunities among students.

Middle school, as anyone whose lived through it knows, can be a social minefield. But having friends of different ethnic backgrounds can make kids feel safer.

According to new research published in the journal Child Development, middle-school students who reported friendships across ethnic lines felt less vulnerable to harassment by peers, more secure in the school environment, and less lonely.

The study, by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, looked at the relationships among 396 African-American and 536 Latino students from 66 classrooms in 10 middle schools in greater Los Angeles. As part of a larger, multiyear study, they were asked about their friendships with kids of all ethnic groups, including whites and Asians.

As might be expected, the students said they had more friends within their ethnic group than outside it. This follows a principle that social scientists call "homophily." But in more diverse classrooms, another principle of friendship emerged – "propinquity." That word is used to describe the tendency to make friends with the people who are available to you – those in your workplace or school. In more diverse classrooms, kids formed more friendships across ethnic lines.

The number of cross-ethnic friendships a kid reported, researchers found, was an accurate predictor of how safe that student felt in the rough-and-tumble social world of middle school.

Such friendships, previous research shows, are more likely to occur when the kids share similarities other than ethnic background – when they have similar levels of academic achievement, for instance, or are perceived as being in the same social ranking of cool. But as researchers in this study note, even in schools with a diverse population, organizational systems such as academic tracking limit the chances kids have to mix meaningfully with classmates from different ethnic backgrounds.

As the researchers note, previous studies have shown the positive effects of cross-ethnic friendships among children and adults alike. People with such relationships tend to look on others more favorably, and in turn to be regarded more favorably by others. They are less prejudiced toward members of other groups. They also feel safer in general.

The researchers in this study note that the school-age population of North America is increasing in diversity at a rate that outpaces any other age group. As U.S. schools grow increasingly multicultural, they suggest, it’s important for educators to pay attention to the way the school’s underlying structures and mechanisms either encourage or discourage social mixing opportunities among students of different ethnic backgrounds. Diversity itself is not enough to overcome the tendency that kids have to self-segregate.

“[C]hildren and adolescents alike still prefer same- to cross-ethnic friends,” they write, “and even classrooms and schools that enjoy a great deal of ethnic diversity may not always be organized in ways that promote cross-ethnic friendships.”

Those friendships, the researchers suggest, could be a key part of creating schools where children feel safe to grow and learn.

Top image: bikeriderlondon /Shutterstock.com

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