Responding to the Mean Girl

Expert Outlines Strategies That Work

Marcia McEvoy plays ‘mean girl’ with parent Sophia Gork

Parent Sophia Gork played the “mean girl” to Marcia McEvoy during a Kelloggsville Public Schools workshop on helping students get along at school.

“Loser,” Gork snarled.

“Thanks, I didn’t know you cared,” responded McEvoy in a light-hearted tone of voice.

Targets of mean behavior need strategies to respond, said McEvoy, a psychologist and longtime school consultant. Depending on the situation, they could use a humorous or neutral response such as, “Thanks for sharing!” or a “Who cares?” comeback such as “Your point is…?” They could even kill them with kindness, saying, “Why would someone so nice say something so mean?”

Horseplay can quickly escalate to real aggression
Horseplay can quickly escalate to real aggression

Bottom line: children can keep their own power and not give over control to peers who aim to belittle them through cruel behavior. Crying, yelling back or “acting like a doormat” are responses perpetrators are seeking, McEvoy said. Also, being a good bystander means standing up for others, supporting the target privately or ushering the student being mistreated away from the situation.

McEvoy led the workshop, titled “Helping Students Get Along at School: Reducing Student Cruelty and Enhancing Connectedness, Caring and Positive Relationships.” Along with parents, she worked with Kelloggsville staff and students during multiple visits last semester. She also is training bus drivers.

Her aim is to improve student interactions, provide teachers with consistent and proactive approaches to discipline and help parents model techniques at home. Schools that have implemented her 17 core components have seen a 50 to 80 percent reduction in mean or aggressive behaviors within two years, said McEvoy, who owns a Grand Rapids-based consulting business.

McEvoy also is co-author or “Preventing Youth Suicide: A Handbook for Educators and Human Services Professionals.”

Director of Instruction Tammy Savage said the “bully” word is bandied around a lot, and staff members wanted to give students and teachers strategies to help students get along better. “We thought we should be proactive and bring (McEvoy) in to work with everyone,” Savage said.

Harm Not Just Done By Bullies

During the 20 years McEvoy has worked in schools, she’s seen an extreme swing in parents’ attitude toward mean behavior, from viewing it as a normal part of childhood to the perception that “everything is bullying.”

“Let’s stop calling everything bullying and stop kids from being mean instead,” she said.

Only a small percentage of students habitually engage in a bullying pattern, where they seem to get joy out of inflicting pain on others, McEvoy said. Most students can be occasionally mean, often to show off to friends, get attention or get a laugh. Others have impulse control problems and are mean when they get angry or frustrated. The majority of students’ behaviors can be modified fairly easily with consistent consequences and serious discussions with adults who care about them, she said.

True bullies, whose behavior is harder to stop, will have negative impacts throughout their childhood and adult life on their schools, workplace, neighborhoods and communities.

Southeast Kelloggsville fifth-grader Makayla Thocher said she’s practiced being a good bystander since McEvoy worked with students. “If you see someone bullying someone else, you should find an excuse to get them away. It helps you know what to do when someone is being bullied our you are being bullied.”

McEvoy stressed letting students work out minor conflicts on their own unless it escalates to mean behavior. The playground and lunchroom is one of the most important places to watch for it, she said, where student meanness is often veiled in statements that end in “just kidding” or begin with “No offense, but…”

Marcia McEvoy, psychologist and consultant
Marcia McEvoy, psychologist and consultant

Child-rearing Patterns

McEvoy pointed to two different parenting styles that lead to mean behavior in children: “Too little love and too much freedom,” and more commonly, “too much indulgence and too much freedom.”

“These kids are treated at home like little princes or little princesses,” she said. “Nobody ever says no. They always get their way. They always think they’re right. They always think their needs come before everyone else. They have a sense of entitlement when they come to school, and these kids use their sense of entitlement to be mean to other kids.”

“We have a lot of kids who are developing what I call narcissistic personality disorder, where they think the whole world revolves around them and that their needs are way more important than anybody else’s, and that’s problematic.”

Children also imitate adults’ behavior, McEvoy pointed out, cautioning parents to curtail “mean girl” gossip instead of ignoring or contributing to it.

Rules Planned and Enforced Evenly

A consistent rubric of set consequences for behaviors is essential, she said, so everyone is treated equally when consequences are doled out. “Preplanned consequences take considerably less time, and time is your most precious resource in school… The school staff can stay so calm while they talk to the perpetrator about their bad choice.”

It also preserves relationships, she said, because “the consequences don’t come from adults, they come from the rubric.”

Mom Sophia Gork said she plans to share what she learned with others. She remembers students being mean to her. “This would be beneficial,” she said

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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