Non-physical aggression between girls should not be dismissed as normal teenage behaviour, says a Nelson teacher.
Verbal putdowns, spreading rumours, the silent treatment and eye-rolling are widespread between girls in New Zealand schools, with damaging results, says Waimea College psychology teacher Angela Page.
As part of her doctorate, she interviewed 282 girls, aged 12-15, and 15 teachers in different parts of New Zealand about their experiences of "relational aggression" in the classroom.
She found that every teenage girl interviewed had experienced it in some form.
Direct verbal aggression – yelling put-downs across the classroom – was the most common form of aggression in the classroom. Spreading rumours and excluding other girls were also widely experienced.
Her doctorate adds to research already done on aggression in teenage girls by Upper Moutere-based anthropologist Donna Swift.
Dr Page's PHD, through Otago University, focuses on the classroom, an area overlooked by previous studies.
Relational aggression is considered a more subtle and covert way of damaging a relationship than physical aggression.
Classic examples of relational aggression teenage girls use include spreading rumours, rolling their eyes, verbally putting girls down, and giving girls the silent treatment.
Dr Page said she was keen to study teenage girls after witnessing relational aggression in the classroom first-hand.
"I was standing in the classroom and watching that unfold before me, and I didn't really know what it was and what to do with it."
She also has a teenage daughter, and saw the negative impacts that relational aggression could have on girls.
Dr Page said she had expected to find text bullying and cyber bullying to be a problem, but due to school management and the good policies schools had in place, that kind of bullying was not prominent in the classroom.
Teachers and girls considered relational aggression to be normal and more acceptable than physical violence, and this needed to be challenged, she said. It was not only hurtful and upsetting to girls, but also affected their learning.
Dr Page said girls experiencing relational aggression in the classroom might not come to school, or "had their head down" in class and stopped connecting or participating.
There could also be long-term emotional effects on girls who had experienced relational aggression.
The girls she interviewed wanted their teachers to stop relational aggression happening in the classroom, she said.
"We have a tendency to ignore it, to normalise it, saying, `It's just girls being girls'. But the girls are saying, `We don't want you to do that. We want you to do something about it, because we don't like it, even though we think it's normal as well'."
Teachers needed to acknowledge and challenge relational aggression, and catch it early on, she said.
As part of her thesis, she had developed strategies for teachers to use in the classroom.
She said aggressors generally fell into three identifiable groups: the tough girl, the regular girl and the popular girl. The strategies she advised teachers to use varied accordingly.
Dr Page said that as girls got older, their behaviour often improved, so it was important that teachers concentrated on addressing relational aggression and better ways to interact in Year 9 rather than in later years.
Teachers also needed to teach and model better models of behaviour, as this was likely to have an impact on girls and help them recognise that both non-physical and physical aggression were not OK.
Changing the way people viewed relational aggression between teenage girls could have long-term consequences, she said. Studies had found that those who engaged in relational aggression as a way to get what they wanted at school were also using it as adults. "Everyone thought it was an adolescent phase, but it wasn't."
Dr Page's findings have gained international attention. Last month she was invited to present her thesis at the American Education Research Association's conference in Vancouver.
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