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Reducing Relational Aggression


A 9th-grade girl returns to school in the fall to discover that her two best friends during middle school no longer want to eat lunch with her. Over the summer her friends got accepted into a more popular group, and the new group doesn't "like" her. Without warning or explanation she is cast out, alone, desolate.

Susan Wellman

A girl is taunted about hr weight for years. In 8th grade someone hands out flyers with her head imposed on a pig, with the headline: Winner of Food-Eating Contest. Soon to Go to the National Competition. She drops out of school.

A 7th grade boy is quarterback on his football team. He has friends and social standing. Another boy who covets his position starts spreading rumors that he is gay. Friends start avoiding him. He tells no one, asks no one for help. His grades begin to suffer, and he loses focus on the field. The coach replaces him with the aggressor.

A high school girl is mad because one of her friends "looked" at her boyfriend. When she gets home from school, she instant-messages all her friends that "Sally" is a slut and can't be trusted. She starts rumors about Sally's sex life that are spread throughout the chool in hours.

These images of how girls (and boys) hurt each other have received national attention with the recent publication of two books: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons and Queen Bees and Wannabees by Roz Wiseman. Through shows like Oprah and Today, our country is learning what The Ophelia Project has known for years. There is a name for this behavior â?? â??relational aggression" (RA). And it's a serious problem.

Since 1998 The Ophelia Project has been developing intervention strategies for schools and parents. We train high school students to deliver an intervention program to middle school children. We teach parents how to recognize, name, and intervene in RA when they see it happening. We deliver awareness-raising workshops for teahers, guidance counselors, parents, and communities. We have a comprehensive school-based program called CASS (Creating a Safe School) where we bring together a school community of caring staff, parents, and high school mentors to implement long-term, systemic change in the social norms of students.

RELATIONAL AGGRESSION (RA)encompasses behaviors that harm others by damaging, threatening to damage, or manipulating relationships, or by injuring peers' feelings. For example:

â?¢ Purposefully ignoring someone when angry (giving the "silent treatment").

â?¢ Spreading rumors about a disliked classmate.

â?¢ Telling others not to associate with a certain classmate as a means of retaliation.

â?¢ Excluding others at the lunch table.

â?¢ Ruining someone's reputation through instant messaging.

â?¢ Using body language such as eye-rolling, sighs, turning away, or pretending not to see someone.

â?¢ Passing notes that gossip about and put down others.

We believe that we can change the social culture of a school. It takes time and commitment, but it can be done. Together, caring adults and young people have the wisdom and resources to address the problem of relational aggression.

It's easy to dismiss this problem as a normal rite of passage for girls. "Girls are just mean little creatures, right? They'll get over it. Don't worry about it. Look at women; they do the same things to each other â?? only in more sophisticated and covert ways. We can't do anything about this anyway."

These are the myths that have surrounded relational aggression. Today we know differently. Research shows that girls, as a gender, are as aggressive as boys but express it differently. More importantly, research shows that relational agression is as harmful as physical aggression.

Think about what we do, as a culture, to help our sons with physical aggression. When Johnny hits his sister over the head with a toy, we intervene: "We don't hit. If you do it again you will have to go to your room for a time-out." We repeat this a few hundred times. When Johnny gets to school, his teachers reinforce this. There are consequences for physical aggressors. The parents are called. Aggressors get sent for help if their behavior persists. We wouldn't consider sending our sons to a school where there is no policy on physical aggression, where hitting, shoving, kicking, or bullying are ignored.

Yet we, as a nation, have done nothing about relational aggression. We didn't know how harmful it is. We didn't even have a name for it. But now we do, and i's time to take action.

Research on Relational Aggression

Research has shown that children begin to use relational aggression during the preschool years. Even at this young age, girls appear to use RA more frequently than boys. RA appears to be as stable a social behavior as physical aggression.

What are the risks to aggressors and victims? RA is associated with serious child adjustment problems such as depression, peer rejection, problematic friendships, and loneliness. Children who are frequently involved in RA episodes are more likely to experience social and emotional difficulties.

How Can a School Addrss Relational Aggression?

1. Find out what is happening below your radar screen. Use a T-bar on the board, with boys on one side and girls on the other. Ask students to list what boys do when they want to be mean to each other â?? then girls. Ask older students what was really going on when they were in your grade. Ask parents what they see happening. Gather as much information as possible. Know how your students aggress, where it happens, and who is doing it.

2. Teach students the language of relational aggression.Tell them there is a name for how girls are mean to each other. Teach them that RA is everybit as harmful as physical aggression. Girls have rarely been told that their behavior is actually "aggression" and that relational aggression is just as much "bullying" as physical aggression. Take a classic example. Someone is mad at Kelly and tries to get all Kelly's friends mad at her, too. This is called "alliance building." Without ever confronting Kelly with her grievance, this "friend" sets it up for Kelly to be excluded from the lunch table, ignored in the halls, and not invited to the weekend sleepover. In this scenario, girls need help in identifying the roles of aggressor, victim, and girls in the middle. They need to know that this kind of alliance building is a form of bullying. They need to know that this is as harmful as taking Kelly behind the school and beating her up.

3. Use role-plays to empower the girls in the middle to take postive action against relational aggression.Find older students who can come into your classroom to do role-plays. Take the information you have gathered from your students; create a scene to show the aggressor, victim, and girls in the middle. (Suggested scenes: 3-way phone calls; spreading rumors or hallway gossiping; inviting all but one girl to an event; excluding persons because of appearance.) Stop the role-play when the aggression has taken place, and use the actors to demonstrate each role. Touch the actors on the shoulder one by one and ask students to describe what each might be feeling. Name each role. Use this to build empathy for the victim and recognition of the problem. Then do the role-play over, showing how the girls in the middle can change the dynamics.

At the end of the role-play, freeze the actors and ask the girls in the middle how they were feeling or what they were thinking as they took positive action in the role-play. Then give them another scene and ask them to get into small groups and work out a role-play solution to the problem that was posed.

4. Create a classroom mission statement on how students want to be treated by other students, in and outside of the classroom.This statement is a description of the new norms your school wants to infuse. The various classroom statements can then be compiled by a committee of students, mentors, and an adult to create a schoolwide mission statement to be used in every classroom.

5. ntervene when you witness RA in the classroom.

Watch and record all incidents of relational aggression. Intervene immediately by:

  • Verbally interrupting the behavior with compassionate but very firm authority.

  • Firmly repeating the "respect/responsibility" requirement for being in "our" classroom.

Make an appointment with the guidance counselor, parents, school principal, and aggressor and:

  • Determine what happened, emphasizing the hurt caused the victim.

  • Determine the aggressor's willingness to recognize and change behavior.

  • Develop an agreed-upon plan of action signed by all for the aggressor to begin to follow "now."

  • Monitor the aggressor's behavior in the classroom with written notations when necessary.

6. Consider becoming a CASS school.

High School Mentors

One element that makesCASS (Creating a Safe School) unique is our use of high school students as mentors in middle and elementary schools. We train them to deliver our intervention program to groups of 30 students at a time, both boys and girls. We also train mentors to come into the school and "hang out" with younger students at lunch or recess.

High school students are powerful role models and agents of change. Through role-plays, small group discussions, activities, and coaching, the mentors empower kids in the middle to intervene in peer aggression and promote a new social norm: "It's cool to be kind."

There are five basic components to becoming a CASS school: (1) School Procedures, (2) Safer Classrooms, (3) Parent Education, (4)Mentor Intervention, and (5) Schoolwide Practices. The Ophelia Project is recruiting 1 CASS schools for 2003-2004. There is a survey form on our web site for interested schools. (See bottom of page.)

Anne Cass is Principal of Riverdale High School ( in Portland, Oregon, which has made a commitment to becoming a CASS school. She says: "We saw it as a way to address the nastiness among girls and kids treating each other disrespectfully. Because we're a very small school, it just takes one weekend party, one event, one breakup to have a huge toxic impact on the school."

The Ophelia Project trained all Riverdale staff, 15 high school students (girls and boys), and parents (high school and grade school). High school mentors were trained to do two workshop presentations (one for 5th and 6th graders, and the other for 7th nd 8th graders) to introduce the concept of relational aggression and ways to intervene. Anne Cass says: "This has raised the awareness of faculty. We now use a common language: `Is that really respectful?' `How would that make you feel?â?? â??That doesn't fly here at Riverdale.â??â?

Riverdale now has a SAFE (Safe Atmosphere for Everyone) Task Force comprised of grade school and high school teachers and parents, a board member, two principals, and a student. It meets once a month. The Task Force has written a districtwide policy about relational aggression, defining it and its consequences. Riverdale has also had parent evenings to introduce parents to relational aggression and to talk about what the high school and grade school are doing about it.

Principal Cass comments: "We've seen subtle differences at scool. Kids are using the terminology. `Wait, we don't do it that way at Riverdale.' It's not a panacea. Say `RA,' and some kids will roll their eyes. The school has to be truly committed to make this work. It's a culture shift."



Susan Wellman. â??Reducing Relational Aggression.â? The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility Newsletter vol. 9 #1 (Fall, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from Center for the 4th and 5th Rs.

The Author

Susan Wellman is the founder and president of The Ophelia Project.

Copyright © 2003 Center for the 4th and 5th Rs
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