November 2015

Educational Intervention Decreases Mean Girls’ Relational Aggression

The “Mean Girls” phenomenon is not just the subject of fiction. Relational aggression, such as using gossip and social exclusion to harm others, is all too common among preadolescent and adolescent girls. A new study from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests that educational interventions including problem-solving skills and leadership opportunities can help, with lasting effects.

“As a psychologist and researcher with a particular interest in bullying, I am always interested in digging deeper into the ‘why,’” wrote Stephen Leff, PhD, in a blog post about the study, which he led. “Why is relational aggression — which involves the manipulation of social standing or reputations through gossip and social exclusion — so predominant among girls? Why is it associated with detrimental long-term outcomes for victims such as high levels of anxiety and depression? And, beyond the ‘why,’ how can we develop and test interventions that can combat this pervasive type of school violence, before it has a chance to become entrenched?”

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Violence, provides a partial answer to that last question. It is the first and only demonstration that a relational aggression intervention decreased these behaviors among urban minority girls for at least a year after the conclusion of the program. Specifically, in a randomized controlled trial, the Friend to Friend (F2F) aggression prevention program improved urban African-American relationally aggressive girls’ social problem-solving knowledge and decreased their levels of relational aggression.

“Including this type of positive skill development in urban school curricula is important because children attending inner-city, under-resourced schools are at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems,” said Dr. Leff, who is co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative and a psychologist at CHOP. “There is evidence that having these skills and positive leadership opportunities increases their resilience and leads to better future social interactions. This is indicative of the positive approach taken by all of the school-based prevention programs that are part of our Violence Prevention Initiative at CHOP.”

The F2F program’s curricula and innovative teaching methods, including videos, cartoons, and role-plays, were developed and refined through more than a decade of committed research at CHOP in partnership with key community stakeholders. Students, teachers, and parents were all engaged as partners in the program’s design.

The current study involved 144 relationally aggressive girls in third to fifth grades from 44 classrooms across six School District of Philadelphia elementary schools. Participants were randomly assigned to either F2F or to a homework and study skills development program as a control group.

“Teachers were vital implementation partners for us, particularly in reinforcing newly learned pro-social skills and strategies outside of the structured sessions,” Dr. Leff said. “Having their buy-in and support was essential.”

To learn more about this study, view the CHOP press release and blog post from CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

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