Minimizing Relational Aggression Amongst Tween Girls

  • by: Dr. Lee Binder

A School of Values, Honesty, Respect
Greenfield Day School, a Jewish Day School in Florida, serves children Grades K-8. The school population is composed of a wide range of multi-ethnic Jewish families; within this population, there are varying levels of religious observance. In this contemporary setting, the mission of the school is “to instill Jewish values to the children as well as foster a commitment to honesty and respect.” Three goals within this mission involve: 1) developing tolerance, 2) sharing Jewish cultural heritage and 3) creating an atmosphere within the school community that encourages self-reliance.
A Welcoming Environment
Over the years as principal of Greenfield Day School, I have encountered behaviors between children which appeared intolerant and unkind. As these are contrary to the school’s mission and purpose, it became important to search for information and guidance regarding such problematic behaviors. Since our philosophy is to provide a learning environment in which each child is welcomed, understood and acknowledged, priority was placed on creating a program that honors each child and establishes an environment which feels safe, secure and validating.
‘Under the Radar’ Aggression and Bullying
Three years ago, after reading Rachel Simmons book, Odd Girl Out, (2002), I began reading more on the topic of female “bullying behavior” which Simmons defines as “relational aggression.” She goes on to conclude that these behaviors, which begin early and often, are exhibited as overt actions. The fuel that often charges the aggression is: desire, jealousy, competition and anger.  Judith Solomon (2002), states that “aggressive behavior peaks at the ages of 10 through 14.” Noted psychologist, Carol Gilligan (2002), expressed that during these years, “the girls start internalizing societal mores, repressing and replacing their fierce appetites toward open conflict.” However, many educators have observed that the aggression and bullying behaviors are ‘under the radar’, implying they go unnoticed or cannot be observed and manipulated.
Information and data was gathered for research and curriculum development, as well as terminology for behaviors observed at school and throughout the community. Examples of these behaviors were: 1) girls rolling their eyes at each other, 2) whispering to one person while looking at another, and 3) excluding a particular girl at the lunch tables. When ‘under the radar’ behavior occurs, there is undetectable action and behavior on the part of the bully. In other words, there is no overt/tangible behavior the victim can prove.
Bullying Prevention
According to Gandhi, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.” As bullying behavior effects the lives of children in our school, the “group building program” was developed; the goals were to create more communication, positive bonds, and tolerance among Middle School age girls. Lisa Sjostrom, a nationally recognized program designer, specializes in “bullying prevention.” She notes that “schools who take a proactive approach see a marked decrease in bullying activities.” According to Ms. Sjostrom’s findings, “80% of bullying scenarios have bystanders present. Bystanders, even if not directly involved, are negatively affected by the experience.” These findings serve as support for encouraging a group program to facilitate more activities that reinforce better communication and problem solving thereby lessening bullying and its effects.
Small Groups Enhance Communication
The school is a community with its own culture. In order to create a more collaborative culture, the girls need an environment which supports tolerance, open communication and peace. Reardon (1997) defines “conviviality” as a means of living together so that the individual contributes reciprocally to the wellbeing of others and to the whole community. In this environment, it has been the researcher’s experience that meeting in groups of 8 to 10 has proven to be the most successful venue for communication. Therefore, these small groups, based on ages 10-13, were formed to help the girls learn effective communication skills and strategies and achieve more positive relationships in an informal, nonthreatening setting, and counter the detrimental effects of “relational aggression” or bullying.
The Lift Program
The peer-support group process became known as the “Lift Program” (LIFT). LIFT is an acronym for Living in Friendship Together. The mission of this program is to assist our girls in their developmental process and healthfully decrease the exclusivity of cliques. In response to concerns presented by parents, school staff and the girls themselves regarding unkind behaviors and what was observed as a movement towards more mean-spirited behaviors, one of the goals of LIFT was to better equip the girls with the tools and strategies to express their feelings and opinions in order to build appropriate foundations and make wise choices. An additional goal was to empower them during a frustrating, bewildering time of life, as well as an often physically changing and challenging time-period. Colman McCarthy (2002) suggests that the goal in teaching Peace is “not to tell students what to think, but how to think.” Although in schools around the country, intolerance may be becoming more prevalent, our goal through Greenfield’s LIFT program is to increase tolerance and understanding. It is through programs like LIFT that peer support groups may become the vehicle and the arena in which young women can reflect about issues and practice more critical as well as creative thinking and effective problem solving. A noted educator, Betty A. Reardon, (1997), shares that for a more positive future, “a moral education through applications of ethical standards can best be learned through the practice of choice making.” Therefore, by creating an opportunity for better communication, understanding and tolerance for each other, it is possible for new concepts to be taught, presented and experienced as alternatives in which choice and reflection produce acceptance, healthy social growth and development.
Stan Davies, in his article “Stop Bullying Now” (2002), expresses that “girls are raised to please everybody.” He believes that girls suppress their true feelings as they become conscious of the culture around them. These societal mores can influence girls at a very stressful time during puberty. The root of the aggressive behavior is a young girl’s struggle with meeting societal standards of being a “nice girl” while at the same time being true to one’s authentic self.  Brown and Gilligan report in their book, Meeting at the Crossroad, (1992), that “the pressure to deny the authenticity of themselves, robs girls of the ability to communicate sincerely with one another.” To be successful and socially acceptable, they adopt the cultural rules of restraint and soon suffer a loss of selfesteem. This suppression creates a volcano-like pressure which erupts in often covert or non-verbal ways. Clearly, without appropriate intervention and strategies regarding the diminishment of aggressive behaviors, the future appears dismal.
The Lift Program Objectives
Based on the literature evaluated as it applied to the behaviors of 10-14 year old girls at Greenfield Day School, the school administrator and child development specialist outlined specific objectives for the LIFT Program. The objectives for LIFT were to:
1) Create greater awareness opportunities in  order to: Identify and name one’s own emotions. Identify one’s perceptual filters and defense systems and those of others. Expand and clarify awareness of the physical, social and emotional environment.
2) Receive comments and constructive criticism in order to: Experience when to receive and filter comments and to choose to pass or suspend judgment.
3) Respond to comments and criticism in order to: Communicate personal expressions in a variety of ways. To identify, establish and participate in environments in which personal responses are invited, encouraged and valued.
4) Value the feelings of peers in order to optimize: Opportunities and instruction in constructing and clarifying personal values and respecting those of peers.
5) Form a hierarchy of valuing in order to: Identify a variety of value systems, clarify short-term goals and examine them in relation to personal values and value
systems as well as respect for other value systems.
6) Evaluate Outcomes of Decisions in order to: Examine how values and belief systems effect decisions in world events. This provides an opportunity to move from the school community to the greater global community.
LIFT Activities, Goals and Success
Implementation of the objectives began three years ago with a committee composed of the school administrator, child development specialist and parents. That  committee planned an initial evening seminar to include other parents and family members to introduce the LIFT program, its concepts and objectives. In addition, two evening meetings were arranged to ensure that home and school were working in concert. In order to foster better communications, the committee believed it important to share Reardon’s belief that: “Values continue to be a source of potential problems for educators in that even the most widely held values are subject to varying interpretations, and often parents and others in the community perceive such education as threatening to the systems of values they seek to impart to their children.” This would support the desire of the committee to increase involvement between the home and school environment. The LIFT groups were divided into four sections by age (10, 11, 12 and 13 year olds), each meeting once a week for an hour. Specific activities included: creative problem solving, i.e., moral dilemmas, ethics vs. law, inter and intra dependence and perceptions; as well as cooperative activities, i.e., sharing art projects, friendship bracelets, and airing mutual concerns and issues. Community guests and activists shared stories and problem solving strategies. Journaling was included in order to create opportunities for the girls to share effective responses to life experiences and incidents. Given that LIFT is a weekly program, the following is a chronological overview. The goal for the initial few weeks was to create a tone of respect, safety, and confidence. In Seven Worlds of Moral Education, Efron (2005) reports that children educated in a supportive environment “perceive their classrooms as fair, safe, caring places that are conducive to learning.” Agreeing with this premise and acknowledging the success of the first three weeks, the girls were invited to share challenging issues, some personal and some group related. By the fourth week the girls began to facilitate the conversation by initiating problems, issues and overt concerns such as: rolling the eyes and spreading gossip. According to Kathleen Vail, (2003), in the article How Girls Hurt, “these frequently covert acts of aggression also affect your school climate and culture, as well as the girls’ grades and sense of self-worth.” Additionally, “Girls who are caught up in these dramas are not thinking about their grades.” By LIFT’s third and fourth months, more complicated issues such as “eating disorders, keeping up appearances and peer approval were presented and discussed.” Personal Observation: Resulting from the safe and non-judgmental environment the girls were comfortable enough to share a serious concern about another girl and her eating disorder. The school was able to intervene and the girls provided additional support. This unexpected, but positive side effect of the peer support groups validates that when given a safe, secure venue, girls’ compassion and empathy for each other comes to the forefront.
By the spring, the focus of the groups became more divergent as the thirteen year olds were now faced with the transition of leaving a small environment to a Public High School environment (a much larger and diverse environment). The tweens embarked on conversations regarding sexuality, acceptance, body image and popularity (as defined within the group) and about the transition to Middle School. In Amy Blumenfields’ article, Girls Into Women, she suggests, “nastiness from peers, pressure from parents, a poor self-image, and the issues that can arise during adolescence are much more than teenage angst.” The end of each year provides a concluding social and educational event to connect all the LIFT participants while providing a bridge for the next year.
Peer support groups were lead by two doctoral level, specially trained facilitators. Evaluations were conducted via pre-program and post-program, self-report and family questionnaires, as well as, through observing students in problem solving situations (some in vivo and others during role play) throughout the year. Further evaluations were analyzed through feedback loops from participants, numbers of requests for transfer out of or requests for increased time spent in group and overall positive effective changes. At the end of the year, the parents and the girls were given evaluation forms to fill out. These evaluations are designed as a reflective essay which describes the individual behaviors before the LIFT Program and the newly learned behaviors after a year or longer. Several comments from some of the parents involved in the program are:
• My daughter was unable to communicate and express her feelings. Now she communicates and values tolerance in her relationships, along with practical problem solving techniques.
• My daughter noted four achievements at the end of the LIFT Program: 1) getting along with others, 2) expressing her feelings clearly, 3) dealing with problem solving skills and 4) transitioning into high school more self-confident.
• My daughter believed her problems were unsolvable until the LIFT Program. She was able to share and listen in a safe environment while working out issues with her peers.
Several comments from the girls involved in the program are:
• My friendships were strengthened through the LIFT Program.
• I learned about including rather than excluding.
• I was able to confront problems rather than keeping things bottled up inside.
• I learned how to communicate positively and effectively with my friends.
• I learned to open up rather than be sarcastic.
Conclusions and Implications:
LIFT has evolved into a positive forum for girls to thrive. Over the last five years the girls have displayed greater tolerance for each other and ways to verbally communicate their feelings, both positive and negative, to one another. They have expressed that “words can hurt” and “think first to formulate a more acceptable response would be best.” At least 50% of the LIFT girls request increased time to resolve issues. One-hundred percent (100%) have accepted new girls to the school in a warm and welcoming way. Whereas, two years ago, 10% opted not to participate in all the “girl talk” opportunities. Now all of the girls are actively engaged in weekly groups. Many girls also choose to have additional small group gatherings to discuss issues and resolve disputes that may arise. The girls in 8th grade are looking forward to High School and the future and are questioning their beliefs. They believe these years with LIFT have given them greater awareness and openness. More opportunities to become sensitive to others, walk in someone else’s shoes, and not need to be accepted by everyone, resounds as a mantra from the 8th grade girls. Interestingly, another positive outcome is the increased awareness and requests for a LIFT Program for the Tween boys. They are asking for help with interpersonal relationships and believe they would benefit from communication skills, training and problem solving techniques.
In conclusion: Parents, staff and the students themselves have acknowledged a positive change in the tone and effect of Greenfield’s tween girls. A peer mentor program is being established by the tweens to invite other youngsters into this model. The indicators and reports reflect that the mission of LIFT is being accomplished, one girl, one voice, at a time.
Blumenfeld, Amy. “Girls Into Women.” Hadassah Magazine. April 2005 (8-12).
Brown, Lyn Mikel and Gilligan, Carol. Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Press, 1992.
Davis, Stan. Stop Bullying Now.
Farber, Nancy. “Just a Girl in the World.” ASC School Counselor. May/June (2003): 13-17.
George, Patricia. “Out With the In Crowd: The Negative Power of Queen Bees.” Leadership. 31.2 (2002): 16-19.
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McCarthy, Colman. I’d Rather Teach Preach. New York. Orbis Books, 2002.
Reardon, Betty A. Tolerance – the threshold of peace. France. UNESCO Publishing, 1997.
Rimm, Silvia. See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1000 Girls Become Successful Women. Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Simmons, Rachel. Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. Orlando. Harcourt, 2002.
Solomon, Judith. “View from the Bully Pulpit.” The Jerusalem Report. September 2003: 48-50.
Talbot, Margaret. “Girls Just Want to be Mean.” New York Times. 27 February 2002.
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Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees and Wannabees. New York. Crown Publishers, 2002.
mean – spiteful or unkind, a contemptible pettiness or unkindness of character or conduct
bullying – harass, threaten or browbeat
under the radar – covert behavior, not seen by others
relational aggression – bullying behavior
covert behavior – concealed or hidden
cliques – exclusive group of girls who are close friends
non-verbal communication – not spoken
ostracism – behaving as if others were not present or did not exists
harassment – deliberate behavior to intimidate and degrade others