MONTANA AVENUE — The alliances, bullying and teasing — it’s not just a plot straight out of the teen hit “Mean Girls,” but a normal occurrence in elementary schools.
That’s what a group of parents learned on Tuesday night at Franklin Elementary School where Dr. Dorli Burge, a clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA, gave a talk about social interaction between girls in the later elementary school years, speaking about the power of cliques.
The event was sponsored by the Learning Differences and Parent Education Group, a subcommittee of the Franklin Elementary PTA that brings to light topics related to parenting, previously hosting talks by experts who covered issues such as sibling rivalry and ADHD.
“We feel as though girls social awareness are changing, particularly in the fourth and fifth grade, and we wanted to provide a forum for parents to hear about the different issues that might arise on the playground between girls,” Sheila Spencer, who serves as co-chair of the subcommittee, said.
The event was not held in response to any sort of incident at the elementary schools, but a number of parents who attended mentioned their own children’s experiences, speaking of queen bees and gossiping and group exiles. Some talked of how their children have been bullied, while others spoke of whose friendships have ended because of cliques.
While such social dynamics are often associated with middle and high schools, the group mentality does form in the latter elementary school years when children begin to connect with each other differently and start gaining more independence from their parents, relying on their friends more for support.
It’s the age when the notion of popularity enters the picture.
“All of us are in a group and all of us have to figure out how to get along in groups,” Burge said. “Groups have the power to be good, but they could also be quite cruel.”
She adds that the social situations are also applicable to boys.
There are several rules that dictate the functionality of a group — its members must be like their peers, find a place in the social hierarchy, play a role and be in, or be out, she said.
Burge quoted research that showed approximately 15 percent of students are classified as being popular, while another 45 percent are considered to be accepted. There’s another large group of students whose status is ambiguous, followed by students who are classified as neglected, rejected, submissive, and rejected and aggressive.
She said that bullying can typically go down the social ladder, perpetuated by a bullied student against a peer lower in the hierarchy. Which student is teased can depend on the chemistry of the clique at the time.
Children who are going through difficult times with their friends, whether it’s through gossiping, teasing or feelings of exclusion, have a better time coping with their problems if they have a trusting relationship with their parents and other adults. Those who engage in other activities outside of school, will also be more likely to recover quickly.
When approached by their children about such an issue, parents should listen as much as possible without providing much input. The best thing for parents to do is to provide a safe environment at home and not feel as though they need to be the knight in shining armor, Burge said.
Parents should not approach the child who is teasing their daughter themselves, but should rather contact a teacher. Establishing a relationship with the other children’s parents can also be helpful.
Gretchen Jacott, a parent at Grant Elementary School, said she was surprised to learn about cliques forming in elementary schools, something she expected would take place in middle school.
“I’m more concerned about junior high,” she said.
Spencer, said that she feels it’s important for parents to coach and guide their children and talk openly about such issues.
“I think it’s about being proactive in trying to understand some of the challenges facing girls today as they change and their relationships change with their peers,” she said.