The Counselor's Guide to Tackling  Relational Aggression in Upper Elementary

By: Neeti Sarkar

Girl drama. Bullying. Relational Aggression. Call it what you may, as much as we dread dealing with it, as school counselors, there's no way to escape it. If we're being completely honest here, I must admit the end of semester one and the start of semester two has seen more girls (from upper elementary) in my office, in tears, than usual.

girls bullying

Of course, developmentally, we expect cases of relational aggression to crop up around now, but is it just me, or do you also feel the pandemic has made things far worse, especially in this regard? While being responsive is a huge part of our job, there's no harm in taking a preventative approach to nipping relational aggression in the bud. Or at least we can try.

If you're wondering how to tackle relational aggression in your school, here are some tried and tested ideas that may help.

1. Teach Preventative Classroom Lessons

One of the things I've found worth my while is using semester 1 to teach class lessons on self-regulation (this is one I've been using for years), friendship, conflict resolution, and bullying (this is what I use for upper elementary).

In my school, we use Kelso's Choices so students get familiar with solving small problems by using a variety of Kelso's conflict resolution strategies such as 'share and take turns, 'walk away', 'ignore it', 'tell them to stop', 'go to another game', 'talk it out', 'make a deal', 'wait and cool off', and 'apologize'. While I use the posters and some of the stories that come with the curriculum, I've found that role-playing these choices using real-life scenarios of conflict relevant to that specific grade level, helps children understand how to manage conflict and their feelings about it. They also learn that big problems such as bullying need to be reported to a trusted adult. The advantage of using Kelso's Choices is that there is uniformity of language school-wide, as it is with the way I use the Zones of Regulation, school-wide when teaching about recognizing and managing one's emotions.

In my experience, preventative lessons on these topics help a majority of students navigate the daily friendship issues that come up, and reduce, to some degree, the frequency and intensity of relational aggression.

2. Host a Relational Aggression Small Group

Of course, you cannot fully alleviate relational aggression with whole class lessons. There will always be a bunch of girls who can't seem to get along, who are involved in spreading gossip and rumors, and who generally think everyone but them is in the wrong. Semester 2 somehow always has me receiving referrals from teachers for a relational aggression group.

Typically, students who have been observed to repeatedly have an issue with being relationally aggressive are the obvious candidates for a small group like this. However, it is wise to include some role model students who demonstrate good social problem-solving skills too. It's important to mix the two sub-groups of students when planning activities lest cliques form within this well-intentioned small group.

small girl group

Run for eight weeks, some of the topics I cover include recognizing big feelings and understanding the circle of revenge, positive and negative friendship character traits, types of friendships, perspective taking and embracing diversity, empathy, conflict resolution, reducing gossip and rumors, and how to report bullying/ peer-on-peer abuse.

Some activities that have worked well for Relational Aggression groups I've hosted in the past to teach these big themes/concepts/understandings include, but are not limited to:

a. Explicit Instruction

Do your kiddos know the meaning of relational aggression? Are they able to identify overt and covert aggression in a friendship? Do they know what an I-statement is and how to use it? I usually set aside not more than 7-10 minutes for explicit teaching and I make sure the exit ticket for the day has something to do with it, simply to reinforce what we've learned together.

b. Role Plays

This is my go-to activity and the kids love it. Armed with strategies to be a better friend, enacting scenarios and then acting out how they would respond to them positively, provide equal amounts of fun and learning.

relational aggression role play activity

c. Bibliotherapy

I am always on the lookout for SEL books and I find a way to use them in all my small groups. For instance, in one of your initial sessions, you could even take a simple fairy tale like Cinderella and ask students to identify different types of drama/aggression in the story.

My favorite books to teach students how to identify as well as deal with relational aggression are My Secret Bully, Trouble Talk, The Invisible Boy, and Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig. Julia Cook's Tease Monster and Rumor Has It are also great for a group like this. Stand in my Shoes by Bob Sornson, Friendship Tug-Of-War by Erainna Winnett, The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania, and The Recess Queen by Alexis O'Neill are other books I use, depending on the theme/topic for the week. Book reading is followed by a group discussion, a sorting activity, or a role-play.

SEL Books

d. Sorting and Matching Activities

When helping students understand the meaning of terms such as sarcasm, exclusion, silent treatment, personal jibes, etc., I prefer having them work in smaller groups on a sorting/matching activity. For students who are not fluent in English/for slightly younger students, these cards could be pictorial instead. I also use an activity like this when working on differentiating between healthy and unhealthy friendships.

e. Crafts

One of the reasons I include craftivities in my small group sessions is to build community. Instead of working individually, each member of the group has a role to play in creating the final product. This could be a friendship bracelet, a kindness quilt, or even something as simple as a collage related to the topic we're dealing with that week.

crafting friendship bracelet

f. Journaling

Learning and understanding a concept or skill is important. But taking positive action is what we’re hoping for when we create groups like this. Do your kiddos know how their actions have impacted someone else’s feelings or behaviors? Are they able to identify their role in stirring the drama pot? Journaling is a great way to get students to think and reflect on their own. I prefer having students do this at the end of each session or if we run out of time, they are asked to complete it at home before we meet again. I used the self-reflection quiz, journal prompts, and discussion cards from this activity pack to help students self-reflect on their possibly aggressive or bullying behavior.

g. Games  

Team-building games are my go-to. You could create your own board game if you have the time. I use this conflict resolution board game in the groups that I host. Apart from that, I’ve found that games like charades, team scavenger hunts, Pictionary, etc., work just as well in such a group.

h. Videos

For your visual learners, videos and movies are what might get them thinking, talking, reflecting, and taking action positively. 

While putting together group activities isn’t impossible, we all know how time-consuming it is. If you would rather purchase a ready-to-use Relational Aggression Small Group Curriculum, your search could possibly end here. This 6-week curriculum aims to enable students to learn skills for assessing social media behavior, making and maintaining friendships, developing empathy, and determining how to attain positive attention.

3. Facilitate a Cross-Grade Initiative

If you’re running similar groups in different grades, it might be worth considering school-wide initiatives that could shape up alongside/ on completion of these groups, as a way to promote relational aggression prevention. Be it a movie screening (Chrissa Stands Strong is something that might interest you) as an after-school activity or starting a relevant book club, there are umpteen ways to keep the conversation going.  I personally advocate for student-led initiatives. Therefore, if the older girls want to run a campaign as a preventative measure, make sure to hear them out and co-plan it with them. But of course, you don’t just want this to be a checkbox. Before running a school-wide initiative, it is important to ask ourselves what our goal is and if our action is truly impactful and sustainable. 

Chrissa Stands Strong movie

4. Include Administrators

One of the most important things we need to teach students, whether in class, in a small group, or individually is how to report bullying. As counselors, our responsibility is to support all students, ensure they are all seen and heard, and put in place suitable interventions that help them succeed at school and in life. However, when it comes to issues relating to discipline, it is important to have admin involved, and it is our responsibility to empower students to report cases of bullying to the right person, such that the right course of action might be taken. 

On that note, here’s wishing you patience to deal with the inescapable drama and success as you work towards promoting positive girl relationships!

About the author: Neeti Sarkar is a Primary School Counselor at an IB school in Bangalore, India. Over the span of almost 10 years, she’s worked with students aged 3-18, but enjoys working with the littles the most. Neeti’s also a seasoned journalist, so when she isn’t making behaviour plans, teaching guidance lessons, and supporting her school community in various other ways, she makes time for her other passion- writing.

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