School Climate & Safety

Shorter School Grade Spans Linked to Bullying

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 04, 2016 5 min read
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6-8 schools. The fewer the grade levels below the “top dog” grade in a school, the bigger the gap between students in the top grade and those in the bottom grade on the school pecking order when it came to bullying, fights, gang activity, and whether students felt safe, welcome, and known at school.

Amy Ellen Schwartz’s quip sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

The Syracuse University economics professor and her colleagues have found there’s truth to the old “top dog, bottom dog” theory of the campus pecking order: A school’s grade structure significantly affects its student hierarchy. As students move through grades, they gain social power, becoming more likely to take on leadership positions and less likely to be bullied.

Now, there’s evidence that separating students into a shorter 6-8 grade span in middle school intensifies bullying of lower-grade students and makes them feel less connected to school.

Educators have known middle school is a problem area for a long time; prior studies have found that the transition from elementary to middle school can be harder on students than the transition to high school. When students move into middle school, they report higher rates of bullying, math and reading achievement declines, absenteeism rises, and students feel less connection to school.

But why? Is it just the perfect storm of raging hormones meeting rising standards?

“If it’s just miserable to be 12 and better to be 15, that’s not about the school,” Schwartz said. “But that’s not it. It matters where you stand in the grade span. And part of the reason grade span matters is you are grouping kids together in ways that create a top and a bottom."In their new study in the September online-first issue of the American Educational Research Journal, Schwartz and colleagues at Syracuse and New York universities studied 500 New York City schools, which in the mid-2000s created hundreds of small schools in K-8, K-6, 6-8, 5-8, and 6-12 configurations.

Pecking Order

The researchers analyzed reports of bullying, feelings of belonging, and engagement in schools among more than 90,000 students in schools of different grade spans. They tracked students who transferred between schools as well as those who progressed through grades at a single school or feeder pattern, to compare the differences between being a new student at school generally to being a member of an entry grade. They also looked at students’ relative height, weight, and age to determine whether a school’s social hierarchy was influenced by a student’s experience in school or level of physical development.

“Young adolescents are going through tremendous identity shifts,” said Dru Tomlin, the director of middle-level services for the Association for Middle Level Education, who was not involved in the study. “Not only are they changing developmentally and physically faster than at any time in their lives besides 0-to-3, but they are changing socially and emotionally. They are prone to misreading not just verbal cues in language but also nonverbal cues. Middle grades are the landscape on which we need to focus on [social-emotional] learning.”

Even after controlling for students’ background characteristics, class sizes, and school types, the researchers found that 6th graders at K-8 and 6-12 schools were less likely to report bullying, fighting, and gang activity, and more likely to report feeling safe and welcome at school and participating in school activities than did 6th graders at 6-8 schools. The fewer the grade levels below the “top dog” grade in a school, the bigger the gap between students in the top grade and those in the bottom grade on the school pecking order when it came to bullying, fights, gang activity, and whether students felt safe, welcome, and known at school.

“I can say, I’m not surprised at all that 6-8 schools have higher rate of bullying,” said David L. Hough, an education professor at Missouri State University, who has studied middle grade academics but was not involved in the new study. “When you have a lot of kids at close to the same age together, it’s not as healthy an environment [as a broader age range].”

Relationships Key

The researchers also separately compared students who were new in any grade and students who were relatively taller than other students. While being the “new kid” did seem to lower students’ sense of belonging at any grade, a student’s relative position in the grade-level pecking order had a stronger effect than whether he was new or smaller than other students.

“It could just be that you are bullied by other kids when you start, and over time, you develop stronger social relationships in your school,” Schwartz said. “By the time you get to the top, you have developed bonds that protect you.”

That could also help explain why, in schools with a wider grade span, 6th and 7th graders felt better about the school environment, but the youngest students did not report much of being bullied or feeling unwelcome in school. Students might be kinder to students far below them than those who are just beneath them on the pecking order.

“Eighth graders are not going to pick on a bunch of 1st graders; 12th graders are not going to pick on 6th graders, because they are just so much younger,” Schwartz said.

Tomlin of the middle-level association agreed, but cautioned, “Grade-level configurations alone don’t necessarily mean you are going to have less bullying and better transition through the grade levels,” he said.

“Schools that do a lot of mentor-mentee relationships, where older students go in and tutor or mentor younger ones—schools that do those types of programs are doing it right. Students feel more comfortable, and parents feel more comfortable about younger students being in a building with older students.”

The findings build on a 2010 study, also in New York City schools, which found that students who attended K-8 schools were higher-achieving academically by the end of 8th grade than those who attended K-5 and then 6-8 schools.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as Shorter Grade Spans Are Linked to More Bullying, Study Finds


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