Any middle school student could tell you that gossip, rumors, and manipulation of social relationships are hallmarks of "mean girls." That pattern of behavior is better known as relational aggression to researchers who work to understand these dynamics and intervene to help young people develop healthier relationship skills. Behavioral researchers have observed another trend that youth might find obvious:
“Relationally aggressive kids are very socially influential and perceived as quite popular,” said Stephen Leff, PhD, co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and professor of Clinical Psychology in Pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Leff led a team that has demonstrated it is possible to turn that influence into a positive force for pro-social behavior not only among relationally aggressive girls themselves, but among their classmates and teachers.
Implementation of the Friend to Friend Intervention
The new study is a broader look at the classroom impact of their behavioral intervention, called Friend to Friend (F2F), that is targeted to ethnic minority girls in grades 3 to 5 in urban schools, after a randomized clinical trial of the program. F2F is a pull-out small group intervention for relational aggression and bullying behaviors that uses age-appropriate cartoons, videos, and roleplaying activities to engage with girls and help them slow down, act like “social detectives” in their peer interactions, and think in moments when they might otherwise react aggressively. It encourages girls to give others the benefit of the doubt and consider their choices in social settings.
Dr. Leff and colleagues at CHOP have worked for more than 15 years to develop the F2F intervention collaboratively with input from girls, parents, teachers, and other school stakeholders such as lunchroom and recess supervisors, and then to test it.
They compared classroom climate in classes where a subgroup of girls had participated in F2F with control classrooms where the eligible subgroup of girls at risk for relational aggression received an educationally-based group intervention focused on homework and study skills.
The previously reported main outcome of the randomized trial of 144 relationally aggressive girls in six schools was itself noteworthy: Girls enrolled in F2F had improved social behaviors compared to girls enrolled in the homework program, and those improvements were sustained a year later. The researchers reported that outcome last year in the journal Psychology of Violence.
Empowering Girls to Use Positive Social Influence
Next, they examined the broader impact of F2F on everyone else in the classroom who did not participate in the small-group program, including non-relationally aggressive girls, boys, and teachers.
“Part of the model was not only working with at-risk children in small groups, but also doing it in the context of their environment, classrooms and teachers, so they’d have opportunities to show how they were being more positive,” Dr. Leff said.
For example, about halfway through the 20 session small-group F2F program, the relationally aggressive girls in F2F co-teach 10 sessions in their own classrooms to share the program’s lessons with their classmates. This helps participating girls reinforce their new skills while extending the intervention to the whole class and also potentially changing classmates’ perceptions of the girls’ reputations.
“In the past, the girls might have been excluding people, and that’s how they used their influence,” said study co-author Brooke Paskewich, PsyD, program manager for VPI. “If they demonstrate how they use their influence to include people and encourage people to do positive things instead of negative ones, they hold on to popularity and influence while doing something positive.”
In the study, the students in each class rated their classmates on a variety of behavioral measures, both positive social behaviors and aggressive and disruptive ones, before and after the intervention. Teachers also completed pre- and post-surveys describing the type of relationships they had with each student.
In classes of girls who received the F2F intervention, boys and girls uninvolved in the small-group sessions received higher peer ratings in friendship and nice behaviors and improved closeness with their teachers than those in the classes whose relationally aggressive girls received a homework intervention. Boys in the F2F classes also received lower scores on negative behaviors including rumor spreading, exclusion, and fighting, and lower teacher conflict scores.
In short: Even though the program was targeted to those girls at the highest risk, it showed benefits for the entire classroom environment. The team reported these results in the journal Behavior Modification.
What Everyone Can Do to Curb 'Mean Girl' Behaviors
Drs. Leff and Paskewich recommend that, even for aggressive girls who are not enrolled in a formal program like F2F, teachers and parents can help build pro-social skills by looking for positive teachable moments and reinforcing social behaviors when they catch kids behaving well.
“We know that kids who are aggressive, especially aggressive girls, have tons of potential and a lot of resilience,” Dr. Leff said. “When they do something right, give them positive attention and reinforce it. When appropriate, look for opportunities for leadership, such as mentoring younger girls, or talking about when they resolved a situation in a positive way.”
Read more about the F2F intervention and its broader impacts in a post by Dr. Leff on the CHOP Center for Injury Research and Prevention blog.