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Report: Students Better at Recognizing Relationally Aggressive Classmates

February 15, 2022

teacher talking to students in the classroom
Classroom management can be difficult, with students socializing in both positive and negative ways. Veteran teachers will tell you that students are very perceptive about peers who are causing problems. Giving weight to this educational adage is recent research from the Psychological and Brain Sciences department in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University and the Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) that suggests nuanced observations about relational aggression across teachers and students.

Relational aggression – or attempts to damage someone else’s relationships or social status by means such as exclusion or spreading rumors — can negatively impact socialization of students. When kids experience relational aggression, they are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, physical complaints and conduct problems. 

Many school-based programs aimed at reducing relationally aggressive behaviors require the identification of those who display problematic levels of the behavior. Unfortunately, perpetrators of relational aggression are often difficult to detect at school, in part because teachers and students can have differing perceptions of students and their behaviors.

In their recently published study in School Mental Health, the researchers investigated various factors that may contribute to identification of relationally aggressive students, including their academic competence, prosocial behavior, popularity and gender. Their efforts are intended to help improve identification of these students in order to provide intervention services.

The research team analyzed data from 11 third through fifth grade classrooms in the Philadelphia area. Students and teachers participated in several rating procedures to identify relationally aggressive students.

“We found that 10% of students were identified as relationally aggressive by their peers but not their teacher,” said Chandler Puhy, lead author of the study and doctoral student in the College.

Researchers analyzed the data to determine the contribution of each variable to the likelihood of a student being identified as relationally aggressive by teacher and/or peers, or not identified as relationally aggressive by either group.

They also found that students with higher levels of academic competence are more likely to be identified as relationally aggressive by their peers, but not their teacher, and female students were more likely to be identified as relationally aggressive by both their teacher and peers.

“Relational aggression can be difficult to detect in the school context, particularly because this is often a covert behavior – meaning teachers often don’t see the relationally aggressive behaviors,” said Brian Daly, PhD, a co-author of the study and associate professor in the College. “Our findings suggest that students who are identified as relationally aggressive by their peers, but not their teacher, appear to have higher academic competence including participation and motivation.”

The researchers added that academic competence is thought to be related to greater executive functioning – like planning and insight – which could contribute to these aggressive behaviors occurring in a more covert manner. Or, alternatively, these students may receive less monitoring from teachers given their on-task behavior, resulting in fewer opportunities for teachers to observe relational aggression.

“Relationally aggressive youth often have a strong social influence and can create a toxic environment both socially and academically. Yet, teachers are more likely to notice overtly disruptive behaviors in their classrooms,” said Tracy E. Waasdorp, PhD, MEd, a co-author of the study and director of Research for School-Based Bullying and Social Emotional Learning at CHOP’s Center for Violence Prevention. “While this study suggests that gathering multiple informants of this covert behavior is necessary, it also highlights that a certain percentage of relationally aggressive behaviors are not being noticed by teachers. This suggests an area of need for prevention and intervention programming.” 

“We hope these findings spur additional research into the precursors of relational aggression, including greater executive functioning skills,” said Puhy. “We want these findings to lead to better identification of relationally aggressive students and the development of more effective interventions to improve the health and well-being of perpetrators, victims and bystanders.”

Puhy, Daly and Waasdorp co-authored the study with Stephen Leff, PhD, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.