The Urban Dictionary defines middle school as: “A place where your parents drop you off to be ripped apart by your equals.”
Unfortunately, that's not too far from the truth.
According to developmental psychologist Dr. Wendy Craig, who is also co-director of PREVNet, a national bullying prevention network, bullying peaks in grades six and seven, and impacts both boys and girls equally.
Why does bullying escalate when adolescence hits?
“A couple of things are happening,” says Craig. “There’s an increasing importance of peers and there’s a need to belong to popular groups."
Peter Atkinson, the Superintendent of Safe Schools at the Ottawa Catholic School Board, says middle school is also the time when kids become very reluctant to tell any adult about the bullying they either witnessed or endured.
"In elementary school, there's willingness to report, but something happens when they reach middle school," Atkinson says. "There's a culture of silence in middle school."
Many adults may think the reluctance to report has to do with fear, but Atkinson says that's not true. "What we hear isn't about being afraid, we hear, 'it's not cool.'"
That does not surprise Craig because of the type of kids who do the bullying: "Fifty percent of children who bully are popular children."
According to Craig, these bullies are a bit advanced in terms of cognitive development, so they understand the impact of their behaviour, they can spot vulnerability and they target that vulnerability.
But why do the popular kids want to bully?
A UCLA psychology study points to the peer reward system that develops during these grades: kids who bully, both through physical aggression and spreading rumours, are considered “cool” by their peers. And the more they bully, the cooler they get.
To figure out why seemingly normal nice kids get mean, it is important to look at how the brain develops during adolescence. This is the time when cognitive skills like impulse control, reasoning, problem-solving and planning are still developing.
There’s also a dip in empathy during the teen years, says Craig.
All of this means adolescent kids, especially boys, do not consider the long-term impact of their actions, have problems with impulse control, do not recognize the feelings of others, and make risky decisions.
Middle school is also the time when teaching soft skills like friendliness and good relationship building falls by the wayside in order to focus on more academic skills.
But Craig says kids in middle school still need instruction in those soft skills both at school and at home-- and it is never too late. “One adult in a child’s life can change the way they behave in relationships.”
Schools are beginning to change focus, but the strategies for reaching middle school children are different than for younger grades. "It needs to be a comprehensive approach that involves everyone in the school," Atkinson says. "Kids need to get used to the idea that bringing in an adult brings positive change."
School Climate Surveys are conducted every two years as part of Ontario's Safe Schools strategy. These surveys are anonymous and they provide schools with a good understanding of what is going on in the minds of students. These surveys are essential to the development of bullying prevention strategies.
For instance, Atkinson has used these surveys and other studies like the CPHA Safe School Study to develop some of the strategies used by the Ottawa Catholic School Board, such as OCSBconnect, an anonymous reporting system, and Samaritans on the Digital Road, a five lesson plan developed as a way to "use the technologies that engage them to solve the problem," Atkinson says.
To know what your school is doing to prevent bullying, ask to see the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan followed by your school. Every school should also have a social worker and trained professionals to help in bullying situations.
What can parents do to help prevent a child from bullying or address a bullying situation?
Both Craig and Atkinson recommend:
- Look at yourself. Kids will follow your lead so be aware of your own behaviour. This video from NAPCAN in Australia is a graphic but powerful reminder of that.
- Praise them. Look for opportunities to praise what your child is doing right, rather than what he or she is doing wrong.
- Give them time to calm down. If the discussion becomes heated, do not let it escalate. Your child will not hear you if he or she is emotionally out of control. Give your child time to calm down and then revisit the discussion.
- Create time to be together. It can be hard to win a popularity contest with friends but your child still does value time with you and needs that time to reconnect. Make open-ended statements, like: "Tell me more about..."
- Do not take away social media. Taking away the portal he or she uses to socialize only works to create more isolation and can make a bully want to bully more. Atkinson says one of the main reasons kids say they will not report bullying is because they are afraid of having the cell phone taken away. Instead, teach skills on how to engage in healthy relationships online. 25 percent of kids now have cell phones by Grade 4 so it is more important than ever to address cyberbullying.
- Don't jump to conclusions. Remember there are two sides to every story and children will often paint themselves in the best light. Do not go to the school ready for a fight. Recognize that you may not be hearing the whole story and seek out further information.
For more on bullying, check out our full page of bullying resources.