Any teacher who has been in the classroom has experienced a “mean girl.” Dealing with mean girls is something that I really struggle with as a teacher. Having been on the receiving end of mean girl cruelty as a student myself, it hurts me to see girls go through the same thing. Unfortunately many teachers and administrators see this type of behavior and just make the assessment; Girls can be mean. Its a fact of life. They have been and will be. Oftentimes more of a focus is on the boys who are physically aggressive and we forget that relational aggression is just as unsafe and damaging.
Research has shown that girls can be just as aggressive as boys if we take the term “aggressive acts” to not only include physical aggression, but also verbal aggression. Verbal aggression includes things like cruel words, silent treatment, exclusion, backstabbing, rumor spreading, and other similar behaviors. These types of behaviors have been reported to be just as painful as physical harm and can have more lasting effects according to “Relational Aggression in Middle School: Educational Implications of Developmental Research.” If we are trying to create a positive school environment where all students feel safe, we can no longer ignore and just brush off these types of behaviors as girls just being girls.
Most teachers will agree that every child will have to deal with some sort of verbal aggression in their school experience. However research shows that by adolescence, this systematic set of “female interactions” has taken its toll on girls’ psyches and self esteem according to “Relational Aggression: The Social Destruction of Self Narratives”. Girls that deal with these types of behaviors oftentimes have more problems in peer relationships and have higher levels of depression. Results indicate that children that have difficulty with their peer group at school will perform less well on measures of learning and achievement. I am making it a goal this year in my classroom to address this topic and to create a classroom environment that is safe for all learners so that everyone can achieve their best.
So how can I stop the relational aggression in my classroom? The following are some tips that I came across in the book, “Little Girls Can be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades” by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert. I am going to try implementing these this year to see if it will diminish the amount of relational aggression present in the classroom.
Create a “Caring Community” – Have students do “popcorn appreciations” at the end of each day’s community circle. These should be thoughts spontaneously offered without waiting to be called on. If you notice that some students aren’t being spontaneously appreciated, show it yourself as the teacher or say something like, “Look around and notice who hasn’t been mentioned yet today. Who is ready to appreciate those classmates?”
Before Social Struggles Begin – At the beginning of the year and then again at each break:
1. Tell or remind children of the roles they can play at school to help create a Caring Community. Some ideas: friend, helper, sharer, includer, encourager, risk taker.
2. Give examples of how children can meet these expectations, with explanations in words or by showing kids in action with photos.
3. Observe (and comment on!) behaviors every chance you get. Tell your class that they will be able to point out these Caring Community behaviors at the end of the day meeting. Building on the concept of popcorn appreciations, students can say, “I noticed that Jane was a supporter today when she told Sarah what a good job she did on the math quiz.”
Sharing Stories – When a student comes to you concerned over an interaction, open the door to communication by telling the student, “One time I had a student who faced the same issue as you are facing now.” If she feels less alone, she will be more ready for guidance.
Extend your Caring Community with Letter Writing – Ask students to observe the ways parents or others help in the classroom and then invite students to form a connection by reaching out with a thank-you note.
Mini-celebrations – Making time for min-celebrations during a class meeting will help build all children’s sense of self-confidence. Don’t forget the power girls feel at having their classmates celebrate their accomplishments along with them.
Student Gems – Tell your students, “I know I have a room full of gems, but some of you don’t seem to think of yourselves in that way, and I want to help all of you realize how wonderful and special you are – each one of you! So take five minutes to make a list of all the ways you are special, unique, and wonderful. I can’t wait to read your ideas!”Have each student write an accomplishment on a slip of paper. Put them in a jar and then during the week, draw one slip and have the class “celebrate” their classmates gem.
Appreciating Community Members – Being a good winner/loser is similar to being a good community member. Create a bulletin board and invite students to tangibly share their appreciation for classmates.
Observing for Clubs – Clubs and social exclusions often take place on playground, away from teachers’ supervising eyes. So take a few moments to observe your students before and after lunch or recess. Are there children who seem more apprehensive or withdrawn than usual?
Responding to Clubs – When clubs or cliques get in the way of your Caring Community, you have a role to play in helping children realize what is happening and guiding them to change. You can address the class and say, “I notice there is a club going on that is interfering with my ability to teach and your ability to learn and it has gone against what we are working towards in our caring community. What can we do about this? (Take suggestions) Knowing that members of our class are being excluded hurts us all, so if you are approached by children to be in a club that excludes others like this, be strong and refuse to be apart of something that goes against our class goals.” Or talk to particular children separately. You’ll be amazed at the influence you have.
Lunch Bunch Club – If you notice certain girls always on the outside of friendship circles or clubs, why not invite them to join yours? Take the opportunity to connect with your ousted, lonely, or isolated students and invite them to have a lunch bunch club with you. Have them invite a classmate to come. It may be just what the doctor ordered to boost their confidence or increase their social “value” in the eyes of their peers.
Identifying Potential Friends – If you notice a child is being ostracized or seems socially isolated, encourage her to be a detective. Ask her, ” Who are the kids who get along with everyone? Who are the ones who say positive things to others? Who shares easily?” Then encourage your student to reach out to or seek to be included by the children she has identified as friendly and kind.
Other thoughts? Suggestions? Other ideas? I would gladly welcome them.