School Climate & Safety

Shorter School Grade Spans Linked to Bullying

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 04, 2016 5 min read

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
Gremlin/E+
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor Invisibility to Inclusivity for LGBTQ Students
To the Editor:
I read with interest “The Essential Traits of a Positive School Climate” (Special Report: “Getting School Climate Right: A Guide for Principals,” Oct. 14, 2020). The EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and teachers provides interesting insight as to why there are still school climate issues for LGBTQ students.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked
In states like Georgia, the push to empower the youth vote comes to fruition at a time when “every vote counts” is more than just a slogan.
6 min read
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Brynn Anderson/AP