When I was in third grade people called me hage – a derogatory name-calling term for “guy with bald hair”. I did not have bald hair when it all started – my hair was black, long, thin, and perfectly combed everyday. I had an average haircut of an average third grader. One humid summer day I was running around outside and my hair, bundled up with moisture, had exposed some parts of my scalp. Again, an average phenomenon for an overly excited third grader on a hot summer day in Tokyo. When my friend Yusaku saw me he shouted, “Yohei! You’re a hage!” in front of all of my peers. I did not care much, not knowing that this was only the beginning in a series of name-calling and bullying incidents that I would endure for the next three years.
Whenever my “friend” saw me in the locker room he would call me hage so loud that everyone else in the room could hear him. One of my friends composed an a cappella song called “Hage: Do You Have Hair Sir?” and occasionally performed the catchy song with his gang in front of me. Things got really out of hands when a group of guys started to sneak up behind me and plucked hair out of the top of my head, so frequently that my hair whorl actually became the size of a quarter. I never mentioned to my mother that I was being bullied, but eventually she found out and intervened. After three years of bullying my mom pulled me out of school.
Fortunately, the story above did not happen at my elementary school. I only experienced this at my ballet school where I went twice a week for lessons. I was not the only target of bullying there – I have seen other students get bullied, and there was virtually nothing that was being done to fix it.
My elementary school was a private international school, filled with students from various countries. These kids were usually from high-socioeconomic status families, with parents who were able to pay the twenty-grand tuition annually. Usually these students were well behaved. As far as my experience goes, there were no incidents of extreme bullying, and even some of the minor misbehaviors among the students were strictly disciplined and punished by the teachers. It was generally a happy environment, with students accepting each other’s differences and backgrounds.
The ijime (term for bullying in Japanese) is not specific to the ballet school. Rather, ijime has been a widely discussed problem in Japan especially since the 1980s when a series of suicide cases attracted media attention (Ministry of Justice 1995). It is seen in schools, afterschool activities, and even in the workforce. Stories about severe bullying are regularly discussed in the media. It is seen especially in Japanese middle schools, where some students who get emotionally and physically abused commit suicide. In 2003, there were nearly 200,000 cases of ijime reported by faculty in Japanese schools (elementary, middle, and high) which is more than one case per one hundred students (Japanese Ministry of Culture, Education, Sports, Science, and Technology 2013). These numbers of course do not include the forms of ijime that are not reported by the teachers – in fact, 39 percent of students in 2000 elementary schools in Tokyo reported experiences of bullying in 2003, which shows the severity of ijime as well as its invisibility (Tokyo Metropolitan Government). Further, in the same year, 240 pre-college students committed suicide mainly from experiencing ijime (Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology 2013).
Although there are forms of bullying in other countries as well, the unique form of ijime in Japan hints that it is not merely a universal phenomenon. While in many western countries bullying is seen largely between different grade levels and those who are not friends, in Japan, ijime is observed mainly within friend groups of the same class. These unique properties of ijime, along with others discussed in this paper, propel the problem to be undiscovered and unsolved. Thus, I would like to start this paper by defining ijime and some of the background information that surrounds it. What is ijime exactly, and how is it different from bullying in other countries? What about Japanese schools and Japanese society promotes some of the characteristics of ijime?
The literature suggests that there is a wide range of causes of ijime. Do these bullies have individual psychological problems that lead to physically and psychologically violent behaviors? Or is it simply a social psychological phenomenon with conformity and out-group-ostracizing playing parts in bullying? Or are there some institutional factors (e.g. the seclusion of the locker room from teachers) that facilitate bullying? Though there can be endless questions to be asked with regards to ijime, in this paper, I would like to focus mainly on investigating the systemic factors that may cause or contribute to ijime in Japanese elementary and middle schools. These factors may include the curriculum, teacher quality, class size, gender ratios, homogeneity of socio-economic background and the discipline policies.
The reason for choosing the institutional factors as a main focus is because many of the immediate solutions that can help discover and prevent ijime are found in changes in school policies, while solutions for students’ psychological problems are more difficult to fix. Therefore, in the end I would like to ask, what kind of policies do the school and the Board of Education provide to prevent ijime? How do they work and how successful are they?
Although there are many researches done on ijime, most of them focus on one particular aspect of the study. For example, there is literature dealing with the psychological causes of ijime without mentioning the institutional causes, or others discussing the uniqueness of ijime without linking it to the causes of those properties. By accumulating the various discussions, I would like to add to the existing literature on ijime by introducing a comprehensive analysis on the topic linking definition, psychological and institutional causes, and possible solutions.
I will conduct my research through an extensive literature review on the issues of ijime seen specifically in Japanese elementary and middle schools, as well as bullying seen in other countries. While my topic is focused mainly on ijime seen in Japan, it is essential to compare with the aspects of culture and education in other countries and their relations to the forms of bulling seen there. While I am focusing on the institutional factors of elementary and middle schools as causes of ijime, it is also important to consider other aspects, including cultural and psychological causes of ijime, since many of these topics are interrelated. I excluded articles that deal with types of violence seen outside of the education setting. Although some types of bullying in the work force are tied to the experiences of school settings, the focus is mainly on the systematic forces of educational institutions and policies. I also selected articles discussing the existing policies that are aiming to prevent ijime. By collecting data based on previous literature and analyzing them, I would like to synthesize the different viewpoints to discuss additional remedies that may be enacted.
I began my collection of literature through Google scholar search, using keywords such as “bullying”, “Japan”, “institution”, “ijime”, “psychological”, “social”, “education” and “causes”. I also searched for Japanese literature through Google Scholar Japan with similar keywords in translated to Japanese. Although there were more reports and journals done in Japanese, the English journals were useful in comparing bullying in Japan with that in other countries.
In this section, I will begin with a literature review on the definition and characteristics of ijime, discussing the unique aspects of ijime to show that it is a specific social phenomenon in Japan. Then I will discuss the main psychological mindsets seen in the bullies, victims, and the bystander that facilitate ijime. These psychological causes will then be linked to institutional practices and conditions of Japanese elementary schools, middle schools, and educational policies in general as a macro cause of ijime. Finally, I will review some of the existing remedies that attempt to prevent ijime and their effectiveness.
Definition and Characteristics of Ijime
According to Zeng and LeTendre, actions are perceived and defined as ijime only by the victims of those actions (1999). However, there are three characteristics of ijime that scholars agree upon. “First, bullying is a type of aggressive behavior inflicted by an individual or group o cause fear, distress or harm to the victim based on a wild and conscious desire to do so. [Second], It is the abuse of power committed by the powerful when there is an imbalance of power, be it physical, psychological, or social. [Third], it is typically repeated over time and felt to be oppressive by the victim who is unable to defend herself/himself” (Yoneyama, Naito 2003). Further, ijime is seen mainly in the school context, as “only 15 percent of ijime occurs outside school according to a national survey” (Akiba 2004). Though the term ijime is used in other daily contexts as well, it mainly points to the types of harassments seen specifically in pre-college schools.
Some characteristics of ijime (in Japan) are different from those of bullying (outside of Japan). Kanetsuna describes that compared to bullying seen outside of Japan, ijime is a predominantly “with-in group”  or “with-in class”  phenomenon (2009). He says, “English pupils more often described bullying as by a small number of bullies, often from higher years, and not “friends” of the victim in any case (2009:22). On the other hand, Japanese students usually get bullied by members within their “friend” group, most typically within the same grade. Table 1 shows the significant difference of this – as opposed to only 12 percent of the students in England, half of Japanese students report bullying as a “with-in group” phenomenon. More significantly, as opposed to 36.5 percent of students in England, more than 95 percent of students in Japan perceive bullying as a “with-in class” phenomenon. Kanetsuna 2009:12) Hilton says that “to avoid isolation, victims cling to the peer group despite being bullied” (Hilton 2010:418) In addition, the table shows that ijime tend to be conducted by a large group of students more than in England.
Further, Yoneyama presents the difference in the location of jime/bullying incidents. While in the United States most of the bullying takes place in the courtyard or outside of the classroom, ijime in Japan is seen most often inside the classroom. (2003).
In a cross-comparison study conducted by Hilton, she shows the difference in the forms of bullying seen between Japan and the United States. While “verbal aggression is the most common type of bullying found in the United States…in Japan, indirect bullying is more common than verbal aggression.” This indirect bullying includes “manipulation, excluding, and ignoring”, while verbal aggression includes “taunting, teasing, and verbal threats. “ “In a study of children ages 6 to 15, Japanese researchers found that 57% of victims reported indirect Ijime, 42% reported verbal Ijime, and 23% had experienced physical Ijime.” (Hilton 2010:414) (Monbusho 1994).
Another dominant characteristic of Japanese ijime is the existence of jime between teachers and students. The media picked up the issue of corporal punishment during the 1980s after a series of cases of teachers “punishing” the students using extreme violent measures. Some of these incidences include the 1987 case in Sakuramoto Elementary School where a teacher hit a student to death (Kyoiku Hiroba). After a series of parental complaints and the enforcement of school policies against corporal punishment, the issue has alleviated, but subtle forms of ijime by the teachers still exist in Japan. Though teacher’s ijime shifted away from a violent physical abuse, verbal abuses, name-calling, favoritisms, and taking anger on students still exist within their authoritarian relationship (Yoneyama 2003). This is seen most commonly in extracurricular clubs called bukatsu where teachers or coaches strictly order students sometimes using verbal and indirect harassments. Especially in athletic clubs, teachers not only punish the players when they do not meet the coaches’ standards (misbehavior, a mistake during a game, etc.), but also deliberately make verbally abusive comments to maintain the social hierarchy (Inagaki 2012).
Though there are many similarities between bullying seen in western countries and ijime in Japan as well, the differences mentioned above helps structure the narrative that shows the different structural aspects of Japanese schools and educational policies that cause ijime. In fact, in East Asian countries which adopt similar elementary and middle school systems, the characteristics of bullying observed is similar to the mentioned characteristics of ijime as well. For example, in Korean schools, where they have very similar class structures and level of emphasis on academics to Japanese schools, “most of the bullying [takes] the form of indirect aggression such as…deliberately leaving them out or ignoring them” and happens more often inside the classroom (Lee 2003:78). These characteristics of ijime are, therefore, correlated with the school factors.
Causes of Ijime:
The literature suggests many different categories of causes of ijime. Though my main focus is the institutional aspects of Japanese elementary and middle schools as causes, it is important to understand the psychological and cultural aspects to provide a broader context. Thus, I would like to start by discussing the psychology of the individuals, then the institutional causes. At the same time, many of these causes are interrelated and must be considered as a whole.
At the very micro level, students do ijime on others because of certain psychological triggers. The literature suggests that there are psychological factors that both allow the bully to ijimeru the victim and the victim to become vulnerable to ijime. Taki suggests that many serious ijimes result from the psychological stress that the bully experiences both in and out of school (1992). Hilton says, “children in conflict-ridden homes, those who observe a strong power imbalance between the father and motherand/or destructive forms of parental problem solving have learned aggressive behaviors that they take out on their peers. Parents in unstable or hostile relationships also are likely to express a lot of negativity to the child and sibling relationships are likely to be competitive and ambivalent” (2010: 417). Both agree that the children choose to do ijime for releasing these stress.
This type of psychological stress not only facilitates bullies to abuse others but also make the victims targets of ijime. When the victims have psychological stress, they tend to become inactive in school and distanced from their peers. Family influences have an effect on this victimization – Hilton describes how victims tend to have overprotective parents, which makes them have a “victim” personality (2010).
Another typical tendency that is seen primarily in the bullies is the lack of morals (Taki 1992). In his study, Taki shows that “bullies have positive attitudes towards immoral actions and breaking social rules including school laws…these people also tend to not value social norms such as making greetings and fulfilling promises.” (1992) In addition, this lack of morals extends to the ijime’s bystanders and audience, who “find watching the immoral actions done by the bullies amusing and fun” (Magari 1987). This tendency of having lack of morals again may come from family influences, but more significantly, can also be caused by the nature of disciplinary measures in Japanese pre-schools, elementary schools and middle schools. This issue will be discussed in the next section as well.
Finally the student’s homogeneity and fear of social exclusion act as a social psychological factor in facilitating ijime. Yoneyama suggests that victims usually have a characteristic of being different from other average students in the classroom, which affects the targeting more largely than other characteristics such as vulnerability or physical weakness. (2003). These “outsider” characteristics include homosexuality, mixed ethnicity, strange social behaviors or even extraordinary success in academic achievement such as high test scores (Hidaka 2006). The stigmatization of the victim as a social outsider further facilitates the issue and affects the behaviors of bystanders and the bully as well. Hilton argues that bystanders do not want to intervene and stand up against the victim because that will label the bystander himself as the social outsider and become the target of ijime as well. Kanetsuna says:
the majority of pupils (71%) do think that bystanders should actively intervene when they see bullying is happening, by telling the bullies to stop it directly or by telling a teacher. However, many fewer pupils (30%) think that bystanders actually do so. Instead, more pupils think that they actually do not do anything but try not to be involved in it (31%) or even enjoy watching it (23%). This lack of intervention is mainly thought to be because of the fear of getting attacked by the bullies” (2009:24).
In addition, the bullies themselves tend to be afraid of social exclusion and do ijime in order to position him or herself as the social “insider” (Taki 1992).
This fear for social exclusion is stronger in Japanese schools than in other western schools because Japan is a homogenous society that values conformity. Most Japanese middle schools require school uniforms, restricting expression of individuality. This social value is engrained in the youths of Japan, whose desire for social conformity is causing this fear.
The three main psychological problems that affect ijime – stress, lack of morals, and fear of social exclusion – are rooted in many of the institutional aspects of Japanese schools.
While I mentioned the stress coming from family influences, the school also creates stress that may cause ijime. Many Japanese elementary and middle schools emphasize the philosophy of integration and learning to work collaboratively. Most Japanese public schools implement the oosoji (cleaning) policy, where students rotate during the year to stay after school and mop the classroom (Takemura 1998). During lunchtime, some schools enforce the students to eat at their own desks, which is usually picked by a monthly random drawing. Students also participate in a yearly school event called Bunkasai (Cultural festival) where students collaborate in assigned groups to put up an event, such as talent shows, food stands, and musical performances) Yoneyama argues that this puts students in undesired relationships, where they are constantly forced to collaborate with others and thus increases stress (Yoneyama 2003). This argument is under scrutiny however, since the school’s attempt to teach students integration should effectively decrease alienation. Further, group projects are an integral part of the U.S. school curriculum and have their own benefits. Though collaborative work themselves do not facilitate stress, it may be stressful to those who are targets ijime because this form of student interaction makes them more vulnerable to indirect bullying such as ignoring and excluding.
A more significant component of students’ stress is the academic pressure that they start to experience especially during late elementary grades and throughout middle school. In Japan, most private middle schools and high schools admit students based solely on the score of a single entrance exam. To prepare for this “life changing” test, parents put pressure on the students to study, most often sending them to after school cram schools called juku. The number of hours they spend in jukus depends, but on average they spend three hours after school for three nights a week (Benesse). Because the content of the entrance exam is so advanced and potentially not covered by school curriculum, the main attention of the students’ learning shifts to these jukus. Not only do these students get stressed out by the pressure, but they also get bored during school because the curriculum is so behind their studies (Treml 2001) . Therefore, going to school becomes difficult when the classes are so mundane and unimportant.
Even though the school classes become boring, the students obviously still have to attend the classes to graduate. In the United States the average class days per year for a middle school student is 180days – however, in Japan, that is 240 days (Treml 2001:109) This is because many Japanese schools have shorter breaks and require students to attend classes on Saturdays. In addition, the heavy emphasis on club (bukatsu) involvement becomes another source of stress for students. On average, students spend 12 hours a week on clubs, which becomes a stress especially when they have to think about attending jukus for succeeding in the entrance exams (Treml 2001:108). These elements that cause pressure and stress cause ijime in ways that I mentioned in the previous section.
Another issue that causes ijime, is the lack of morals in bullies and the bystanders. I would like to investigate the concept “lack of morals” in two ways – one, where the student does not know what is right or wrong and further cannot sympathize with the victim, and two, where the students know that they are immoral but is not controlled by others. One of the main issues regarding this is the relationship between the students and the teachers. Teachers are trained to have authoritative power over the students partially for cultural reasons but also for practical reasons. The cultural reason will be explained in the next section. The practical reason is that since there is a large decline in the number of teachers per student body, the classes become large, mostly consisting of more than 35 students (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology 2015). Because having authority over the students increases efficiency, the teachers tend to distance themselves from the students. This is seen in the classroom structure, where all students face towards the teacher in organized manner while the teacher stands on a platform to lecture. Right after class ends, the teacher leaves the classroom immediately to the faculty room and will rarely interact with the students. Even during breaks, there is no supervision inside the classroom, where most of the ijime happens. Partially because there is no supervision by the teachers, and partially because there is so much physical and emotional distance between the faculty and the students, teachers do not notice the ijime happening. At the same time, the distant relationship between the teacher and the student prevents reporting of ijime by bystanders happen. Since there is a lack of trust between the students, the bystander cannot believe the teacher’s ability to handle situation (Taki 1992).
Interestingly, a deliberate lack of teacher intervention can be seen in Japanese preschools. The teachers at Japanese preschools are trained to not intervene between the student’s arguments and fights, attempting to teach the students how to handle conflicts. This was seen in an ethnographical research done in Komatsudani pre-school in Kyoto, where a teacher ignored a strong boy hitting a younger girl, while asking some of the girl’s friends to resolve the problem (Tobin 1991). The elementary and middle school students’ belief that teachers are not meant to intervene perhaps comes from this philosophy, and is believed by the teachers as well.
The authoritative teacher student relationship also has another effect: in order to show the social hierarchy between students and teachers, teachers often use words that signify power, such as “OMAE”, which means “you”, but with a condescending connotation (Yoneyama 2003). Yoneyama says that students “learn” this power relationship and the use of power exerting words and apply it to their aggression towards ijime (2003). In addition, the teachers exploiting this authoritative power that leads to the teachers doing ijime towards the students can also increase the with-in student ijime. When one teacher picks on one student, that student not only feels stress from unfair treatment but also becomes targets of ijime by other students.
Finally, social exclusion and the fear of it can be caused by school factors as well. Because the structure of Japanese curriculum forces the students to stay in one class for the whole year, the students must learn to make friends within the classroom. Similarly to American elementary schools, Japanese elementary schools have the same students in the same class for the whole school semester (or school year) – however, this is true with middle schools too, unlike the schools in the United States where students have different class members for different subjects. In this situation, fear of social exclusion becomes large, since the only people that a student will interact with will mostly be within the classmates. This is a large cause of the bystander effect, where students cannot side with the victim because of the fear of social exclusion (Taki 1992). This, again, becomes powerful especially in a conformist society like Japan.
There is little academic literature on the solutions of ijime, partially because many focus the issue as a problem of the individual students, not of the schools. The Japanese government, however, recognizes the severity of ijime in Japanese schools and has enacted policy changes in an attempt to prevent and intervene with the problem. In 2002 the Ministry of Education enacted the “Yutori Education”, an educational policy that cut the school hours of pre-college students and simplified some of the required curricula and courses (Terawaki 2008). The goal of this was to lessen the stress of the Japanese youth and prevent ijime. However, the number of cases of ijime has not made significant changes after this and resulted in the decrease of average test scores (Ministry of Education 2015). After Abe became the prime minister in 2006, he abolished the “Yutori Education” observing its ineffectiveness.
In 2013, the Ministry of Education enacted a law aimed at preventing ijime at elementary and middle schools. In summary, this law encourages schools to take initiative on the issues of ijime and must do their best to intervene when such behavior is discovered (Ministry of Education 2013). Although this law is relatively new and is difficult to measure its effects, I am skeptical about its effectiveness because the law relies on the schools to take action, while they neither have the knowledge nor motivation needed to make a change. In addition, it ignores the fact that one of the biggest problems of ijime is that it is invisible from the teachers.
The NIER (National Institute of Educational Policy Research) suggests a prevention program called the “Japan Peer Support Program” which attempts to teach students how to interact with their peers and gain social skills. “[This] consists of two parts… the first part is basic social skill training for children to encourage their motivation to interact with others. The second is the school activities for older children to help others” (Taki 2001:4). This could include activities such as learning how to make friends and dealing with conflicts. However, the “Japan Peer Support Program” could prove to be ineffective because it assumes that ijime occurs because of student’s social incapability of and lack of social skill, while the literature suggests that it comes from somewhere else, such as high stress levels and lack of trust between teachers and students. Further, using Yoneyama’s theory, these intervention programs could potentially make the problem worse, since it forces students to be in undesirable relationships and to feel like they are wasting their precious time to study for entrance exams.
The discussion done on the solutions of ijime have a few things in common. Firstly, they are conducted from a macro level institution that may not directly influence a micro level phenomenon such as ijime, while having negative side effects on other issues. For example, government intervention programs such as “Yutori Education” could not tackle ijime without lowering the youth’s academic ability and influence the complex phenomenon at all. Secondly, they ignore the fact that the most difficult problem of ijime is its invisibility. Even if the school comes up disciplinary policies for the bullies, there is no change in the situation if ijime itself is not discovered. Considering these two points, I would like to propose some policy recommendations that can be realistically enacted and attack the causes that I mentioned in previous sections.
First of all, the students’ idea of morality can be trained through a change in disciplinary philosophy and teacher training. While Japanese teachers, especially preschool teachers are trained to ignore conflicts between students, teachers in the west are trained to intervene. By intervening in the conflict and assisting its resolution, students are able to learn what is good and bad, and will help them avoid such conflict in the future. Not only teachers in preschools but also those in elementary and middle schools should be trained how to intervene in conflicts in a way that could teach the students morality and the consequences to bullying others.
The above policy recommendation acts both as a prevention policy and an intervention policy, but it will only work when teachers are exposed to the conflicts themselves. In order for the conflicts to be seen easily by teachers, the emotional and physical distance between the teachers and the students must decrease. For physical distance, teachers should supervise the children during recess inside of the classroom instead of doing work at the teacher’s lounge. During lunch, the teachers should sit with the students and converse with them, while monitoring any ijime happening in the classroom.
Further, in order for the emotional distance to shorten, teachers must gain students’ trust. One way to do this is for the teachers to participate in outside of class events such as sports day and Bunkasai, where students can freely interact with the teachers in a less pressured situation. This way, students will view the teacher as a friend, a person who they can comfortably admit they are being bullied or are witnessing ijime. Another way is to include academic curriculum and teaching styles that encourage students to speak up and feel at the same social class as the teacher. For example, students can do a science research presentation, teaching the rest of the class the topic they researched and analyzed. Putting the students in the role of the teachers will diminish the authoritative teacher-student relationship and remind the students that teachers are “one of us”. Also, a discussion based history class could facilitate the students to form their own opinion and feel comfortable expressing their views to the teachers. This idea of freedom of expression will hopefully allow the ijime to be more visible to the teachers, who can take disciplinary measures before the situation becomes serious.
Finally, a concrete measure for the students to report to the teachers freely should be implemented. One of the ways could be a mandatory, voluntarily anonymous diary that the students must submit to the teachers, where the students are required to write down anything they want, including some of the ijime that they might experience or witness. In addition, if there is a school counselor in each of the schools, the students experiencing a problem can go to him or her for help. This counselor may have a monthly meeting with individual students to talk about their life, where the counselor can take action to intervene with any problems with ijime.
The teacher training of western style discipline and a more available resource for the students to report ijime will help the problem alleviate because it becomes more visible and resolvable.
Ijime has been a widely discussed social problem since the 1980s in Japan, yet teachers and scholars have yet to find a concrete solution to this phenomenon. Though some of the problems lie outside of school influences such as family and individual psychological problems, the phenomenon is seen predominantly inside the school, proving that school factors are a large part of the problem as well. Factors such as authoritative teaching method, lack of teacher intervention, and isolated classrooms push the victims to get stressed, become scared of social rejection, and decide not to report the abuse they experience. Promoting the trust between teachers and students and creating a communication mechanism would alleviate the ijime because they attack the institutional causes of the problem. This sociological problem holds importance in the world we live in because severe conflict and abuse seen during their childhood can damage their life entirely – the individual schools and the education sector of the government should scrutinize this phenomenon carefully in order to prevent such tragedy.
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 In this paper, I will be using the term “ijime” to describe the forms of bullying seen specifically in Japan, and the term “bullying” to describe those seen outside of Japan. Though they are similar in meaning, there are differences in the nature of bullying seen in Japan and in other countries, which I will discuss later in the paper.
 A “with-in group” phenomenon refers to the interactive behaviors seen inside of a “friend group”, where the members of a social group acknowledge each other as close friends.
 A “with-in class” phenomenon not only refers to the behaviors seen within students in the same grade level, but also (and particularly to) those in the same classroom.