By Jillian Rose Lim
For many girls, middle school comes with more challenges than just tests, tryouts, and tough grades. While the best of friendships can develop during the preteen years, it’s also a period prone to “mean girl” culture as gossip, rumors, and bullying abound.
This pattern of behaviors known by researchers as “relational aggression” can cause distress beyond the classroom, playing out days later in the hallways, playground, and even social media. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, psychologists Stephen Leff, PhD; Tracy Waasdorp, PhD; and Brooke Paskewich, PsyD; aim to tackle and transform this toxic behavior from the inside out, with the support of a new grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Recruiting 40 schools in the Philadelphia School District, Dr. Leff, who co-directs the Violence Prevention Initiative at CHOP, and his team will take the successful Friend to Friend (F2F) Program to the next level by equipping teachers and counselors with the evidence-based skills they need to help girls navigate social situations in a positive way. The goal is to not just encourage girls to become pro-social leaders, but inspire confidence in school faculty so they can support students for years to come, too.
“We really wanted a program that schools could pick up and use,” said Dr. Leff, who is also a professor of Clinical Psychology in Pediatrics and Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “We developed a coaching model so that rather than our research facilitators going in and running the program, we would train the counselors and teachers so that they could run the program themselves.”
Turning Aggressive Girls into Pro-Social Leaders
More than 15 years ago, Dr. Leff began work on F2F, an intervention initially designed for third to fifth-grade relationally aggressive girls in urban schools. Dr. Leff and his team had spent several years partnering with students, teachers, and parents to better understand how to develop a culturally sensitive, developmentally appropriate, best-practice program.
What emerged was a problem-solving initiative that used videos, cartoons, and role-playing activities to teach girls how to interpret different conflict situations. Students learned to slow down, recognize when they felt angry, and calmly think through their choices rather than react aggressively.
Uniquely, the program emphasized leadership by encouraging relationally aggressive girls — who are often perceived as popular and social leaders by their peers — to use their influence as a positive force. Once they have learned the skills taught in the program, they help teach their classmates these new problem-solving and anger management skills.
“F2F is not just about trying to change a behavior — it’s about recognizing that many of these kids have great leadership potential,” Dr. Leff said. “So, by giving them a leadership opportunity in their classroom, it can help change their reputation and the way in which they’re viewed by others.”
In its first round of studies, F2F proved to be a success: Relationally aggressive girls exhibited improved social problem-solving skills and decreased levels of relational aggression a year after the program was run. On top of that, the girls’ classmates also showed improved behavior and relationships with their teachers. For example, boys in the classroom had decreased physical and relational aggression and improved teacher-student relationships.
But despite F2F’s marked ability to help girls transform classroom culture, Dr. Leff and his team encountered a drawback. A year or two after the study’s completion, none of the schools continued to run the program, a particular concern in urban schools where counselors might not have the resources or training to work with aggressive students.
“The original plan wasn’t really intended to continue [the program], but we thought, what a shame,” Dr. Leff said. “Here we have a program that seems to work better than we had thought, with broad impacts that are sustained a year later, and yet when the research study is over, the schools go back to what they were doing before.”
Dr. Leff and his team prepared to launch a new round of trials for F2F that would make it easy for schools to sustain the program.
F2F with Coaching
Instead of research facilitators going into the schools, the new F2F model with coaching would begin with F2F coaches training school counselors for fourth and fifth-grade girls specifically, and then training fourth and fifth-grade teachers who are participating in the program. These “in-house” implementers would then work directly with relationally aggressive girls both in the classroom and out, so that they felt truly supported.
“The goal of the new grant, and what we’re really excited about, is that we’re going to be able to determine the effectiveness of F2F through coaching, as well as in the schools during the second year,” Dr. Leff said. “We’ll be able to study, when the more active coaching finishes, whether or not schools are able to maintain it and what support do they need?”
Drs. Leff, Waasdorp, and Paskewich, and the team are currently in the process of working with the district to recruit the first cohort of schools. The schools that meet eligibility criteria are then randomly assigned to either the F2F program with coaching or to a professional development condition.
“We’re hoping that we will improve the self-confidence and self-efficacy of counselors and teachers in handling challenging peer conflicts, such as those resulting from rumors and social exclusion,” Dr. Leff said. “We work with some fabulous counselors and teachers in the district, but we also hear from some that these student behaviors are hard to control and detract from valuable classroom learning.”
By providing school staff with additional support and training in how to handle these types of conflict, Dr. Leff believes the intervention could also help counselors and teachers avoid feeling burned out. And, ultimately, the trial will help inform the team on how to provide the program to other urban schools over time in a way that can be scaled up and maintained.
“We’ve been doing this [intervention] through the new coaching model in several schools on a small scale over the past few years with good results,” Dr. Leff said. “But we feel like we’re now moving in the right direction to reach more kids, teachers, and counselors. And if we can do this successfully in Philadelphia, then we could really start to think about how we could scale it more effectively in other cities across the country.”