Why the meanest girls in school may be boys

13th March 2015 at 00:00
Spiteful behaviour is often associated with female pupils, but the problem crosses the gender divide and needs to be addressed

Like rice cakes, lipstick and watching The Notebook, relational aggression is usually associated with girls. There's a widely held belief that while boys bash their way through school, knocking seven bells out of each other in their battle to become top dog, girls seek social primacy through subtler means of aggression, such as social exclusion, spreading rumours and threats to withdraw friendship.

The popularity of this view is clear from the huge number of resources dedicated to dealing with emotionally aggressive female behaviour. Websites and intervention programmes such as the Ophelia Project and Girlss (Growing Interpersonal Relationships through Learning and Systemic Supports) offer advice on how to deal with female relational aggression. But their male equivalents - "Boyss" or the "Hamlet Initiative" - are conspicuous by their absence.

However, a new study challenges this Mean Girls mentality. Recent research led by Pamela Orpinas, a professor at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health in the US, reveals that not only is relational aggression common in schools but boys indulge in emotionally bullying behaviours even more than girls. Since the study is based on a relatively small and geographically limited sample - all 620 students involved come from Georgia middle and high schools - we may need to take the findings with a pinch of salt. However, as Orpinas is quick to point out, the research does flag up one key imperative: both boys and girls need to be targeted by programmes and initiatives to reduce these harmful behaviours.

"We have books, websites and conferences aimed at stopping girls from being aggressive, as well as a lot of qualitative research on why girls are relationally aggressive," Orpinas says. "But we don't have enough research on why boys would be relationally aggressive because people assume it's a girl behaviour."

Male order

Many teachers agree with Orpinas' finding that boys can be as mean as girls, and the problem affects all schools, not just mainstream institutions. Jack Taylor, a head of year in a special school for children aged 4-16, explains that pupils of both sexes indulge in equally socially manipulative behaviour. In his view, the only difference between the sexes is that girls will victimise peers of either gender whereas boys only pick on boys.

"The girls in my school - especially the more cognitively able - spread malicious rumours and gang together to form cliques to separate and ostracise others," he says. "Their behaviour is very explicit and they seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from rubbing the victim's nose in it, saying things like, `We're doing this at break and you're not', just so the victim will know that they are being excluded.

"But the boys' behaviour is different. For a start, boys only pick on other boys. They gang up on the kids they see as the weakest - especially the ones who are not good at PE, or who they see as being a bit too feminine - and call them names. They can be really cruel in what they say.

"But the biggest difference between them is that they never pick on the girls. The girls don't operate such fine distinctions; they'll turn on anyone."

Emma Blair, who teaches at a Glasgow secondary school, agrees. She sees both sexes as equally manipulative but says boys are more likely to express their relational aggression on the playing field.

"Boys use team games to be mean to each other," she explains. "On the football field they'll gang up against another student. They'll avoid passing to a particular kid, making it hard for him to play. Or they'll pass the ball behind him to make him look like an idiot."

Hide and sneak

So can you simply transfer the tactics you use for mean girls on to mean boys? Regardless of the sex of the perpetrators, tackling these behaviours is a challenge. Positive reinforcement is a useful strategy, as is using role play to encourage empathy. Drama-led sessions can be particularly effective - such approaches have proved successful in helping boys to empathise with characters in books or in addressing female relational aggression.

Applying sanctions is more problematic. Mean kids' insidious tactics make their behaviour hard to pin down. You know where you are with a fight, but with relational aggression the bullies are harder to spot. One minute, everyone's getting on with their work. The next, someone has rushed out of your classroom in floods of tears, leaving no obvious sign of a crime behind them. And if you ask what happened, the perpetrators will usually just shrug to indicate their innocence.

My theory is that relational aggression acts as a kind of retrovirus. You are exposed to it once, then after a period of festering incubation, you inflict it on somebody else. Stopping the spread is key. And finding that cure early is crucial, because mean behaviour doesn't end at puberty.

Working it out

Professor Sharon Mavin of Northumbria University has conducted several studies of "mean" behaviour later in life. Her research on "negative intra-gender relations" in the adult workplace reveals how "intra-gender micro-violence" or "Venus envy" can prevent women from getting to the top; a stumbling block previously attributed to men. Do men continue their relational aggression into adulthood, too? As before, there simply isn't the research to tell us.

It's difficult to know whether boys indulging in the covertly harmful behaviours associated with girls is a new phenomenon or simply one that society has previously failed to acknowledge. Perhaps the metrosexual male - with his brow-threading and back-waxing - comes with the unexpected side-effect of nastiness. Whatever the cause, one thing is for certain: we need a lot more "boys can be mean too" websites to help us nip the problem in the bud. We are yet to fully tackle this behaviour in girls, but we haven't even started with boys.

Beverley Briggs is a teacher and creative producer at an education agency. Her final TES column appears next week

Classroom climate change

If relational aggression is "missed, dismissed or underestimated", it can escalate. So follow these tips from Elizabeth Manvell's The Violence Continuum: creating a safe school climate.


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