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Bigger Schools, Fewer Bullies? Examining the Relationship

Remember what it was like to enter a new school?

Think about the transition from elementary to middle school or from junior high to high school. With unfamiliar hallways to navigate, new teachers to understand, and new, older students to get to know (and try to impress), such transitions are tough on a lot of kids.

For many, the change is made even tougher because of bullying. As we put a bookend on National Bullying Prevention and Awareness Month this October, educators across the country have pledged to stay vigilant and make the kinds of changes necessary to ensure students feel safe in school.

Part of that process includes looking internally to identify trends and other factors that contribute to student abuse. As reported recently by Education Week, new research out of Syracuse University suggests that the number of grade levels served in a school could contribute to the number of bullying instances.

When students enter a new school, they’re automatically placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, which naturally makes them targets, the story says. As students get older and move into higher grade levels, they also gain social power and ascend to leadership roles, which makes them less likely to be bullied.

The research points out the need for educators to redesign the social constructs within schools while working to make the transition from one grade to the next easier for students.

More grades, less bullying

Previous research illustrated that the transition from elementary to middle school is more difficult for students than the transition from middle school to high school. Students who move into sixth grade from elementary school, for example, are bullied more often and are more prone to slips in academic performance than those who move from the eighth grade into high school.

It’d be easy to assume that this disparity has a lot to do with students entering adolescence. But that assumption is wrong, says Amy Ellen Schwartz and other researchers at Syracuse.

Instead, Schwartz and her team members say the answer may lie in how many grade levels the school services.

In a study of more than 90,000 students in schools throughout New York City, Schwartz and her team found that the wider the grade span (think K-6 or K-8), the more students reported feeling safer and less bullied. In smaller schools, with less grades (think 6-8), students reported more instances of bullying.

“It matters where you stand in the grade span,” Schwarz told Education Week. “And part of the reason grade span matters is you are grouping kids together in ways that create a top and a bottom.”

The study found that the fewer number of grade levels between the “top” students in the school and the “bottom,” the wider the gap, especially when it came to how students perceived bullying and harassment in their schools.

Rethinking school structure

Does this research ring true in your schools?

If your district has multiple schools with smaller grade ranges, have you given any thought to combining grades?

If a restructure isn’t in the cards and bullying is a problem, brainstorm ways to streamline new school transitions for students and families, and try to create an inclusive environment from grade to grade.

What steps do you take to ensure a positive, healthy transition for students? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for new ways to battle bullying in your schools? The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention outlines important steps you can take to make bullying rare in your classrooms.