January 2021

Mean Girls and Rough Boys

By Lisa Fulton
For years, my frustration grew as students ignored me during bullying prevention lessons. I’d introduce the topic. The students would all agree bullying was a significant problem. But nothing I taught them seemed to be making an impact. Then I noticed that male students would talk to me about how another boy just called them a name, teased them, pushed them and elbowed them in the hallway. Female students would tell me about a horrible rumor being spread about them or how they just found out someone was talking about them behind their back.

This revelation about the different ways boys and girls bully, and reading “Owning Up Curriculum: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying and Injustice” by Rosalind Wiseman, got me to question my entire approach to bullying prevention. Maybe the problem was that male and female students experienced bullying differently. What might happen if, to teach bullying prevention, we separated the students into same-gender classrooms? What if we then focused on the different needs of our male and female students?

Girls, especially in middle school, tend to be more socially oriented than boys and form their identities around relationships with others. It only makes sense that female students use these relationships for “drama” – bullying other students by spreading rumors, gossiping and excluding their targets from social groups. Boys tend to experience more physical bullying than girls. Shoving, wrestling and even punching are a part of many boys’ daily routines. Although both groups experience verbal bullying, that also is expressed differently.

Together, my assistant principal and I created a four-lesson program targeting gender-specific bullying behaviors and prevention techniques. At the end of each school year, we examine what worked, what didn’t and update our lessons accordingly. Here’s an overview of our current bullying prevention program.

Lessons in Action

We begin by pointing out that the classroom is same gender and asking why that might make sense in terms of bullying. Students quickly bring up the differences in how boys and girls experience bullying. We then move on to helping the students define and recognize what is or is not bullying. We explain that bullying is an intent to do harm that is repeated over time and involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the target. In this first lesson, we also cover the three types of bullying: verbal, physical and social. We explain these concepts with gender-specific movie clips. The boys see clips from movies such as “Back to the Future,” “The Any Bully” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Girls see clips from “Mean Girls,” “The Clique” and “Odd Girl Out.” At the end of each clip, we lead discussions to identify the bully and the target, what type of bullying was occurring and what actions the students could take to help combat those behaviors. These discussions serve as a springboard for the future lessons.

The second lesson focuses on the different roles all students play in bullying: bully, sidekick, supporter, disengaged onlooker, possible defender, champion and target. Our goal is to help the students identify the role, or roles, they play in the bullying process. Although the roles are the same for both genders, this lesson helps them see the roles in the bullying situations that occur for their gender. We also address how all students need to take responsibility for their actions in the bullying that takes place within the school. It is important for students to understand that by watching someone get bullied and doing nothing to try to stop it, they are at least partly responsible for the ongoing problem.

The third lesson is the most gender-specific – and perhaps the most important. I have observed that middle school bullies frequently seem completely unaware of the true impact of their behavior. Our goal in this lesson was to help students who’d been engaging in bullying behavior to see the results of their actions from their target’s point of view.

When working with female students, the lesson focuses on rumors and gossip. We want the girls to understand how gossip and rumors can often manifest as bullying behavior and how they can help prevent the drama. By playing the classic telephone game, the girls can see how sharing true gossip (at the time) or false rumor can lead to hurt feelings and misinformation. We teach girls assertiveness techniques and conflict-resolution skills to deal with problems, rather than spreading rumors about each other.

The male unit is about perspective and the difference between bullying and teasing. It begins with the classic “young lady or old woman” picture and “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” with the goal of teaching the importance of perspective and a different point of view can give a completely new understanding of an event. Too often, a male student will mercilessly tease another, only to finish with a “just joking.” We encourage boys to look at those situations from the target’s point of view and ask themselves if “just joking” will really make the target’s hurt go away.

Lesson four addresses the actions of the supporters, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders and champions. Again, the objectives are similar for both the male and female lessons, but we use gender-specific situations. Students are presented different scenarios and determine as a group the possible actions that could be taken to help the target and combat the bullying behavior.

The female lesson has an additional component to demonstrate the impact of exclusion. Students receive an index card with an animal name on it, and then must form groups without speaking. To set up the activity, one card should have the name of an animal that is not on another card. Thus, as groups are forming, one student always ends up in a group by herself. As the lesson continues, we discuss how one girl is alone, showing how exclusion hurts and how girls routinely exclude other girls from classroom work groups, from the lunch table and from social events.

After the Lessons

Once the lessons are over, the students’ challenge becomes implementing what we’ve taught them. Our challenge is figuring out to what extent the students are succeeding. We give each student pre- and post-tests and use the results to determine how much the students’ behaviors have changed as a result of the class.

Like the lessons themselves, the pre- and post-tests have both gender-neutral and gender-specific questions. Over the years, we’ve consistently found that our targeted lessons have produced positive results on gender-specific topics. In a recent year, we saw a 114 percent increase from pre-test to post-test in girls’ understanding of the connection between gossiping and bullying, and 23 percent of girls said they’d witnessed fewer incidents of bullying following the program completion. These results have convinced us that using same-gender classrooms works for bullying prevention lessons in middle school.

Lisa Fulton is a school counselor at Eastern Lebanon County Middle School and the Pennsylvania School Counselor Association president-elect. She can be reached at lfulton@elcosd.org.