Why Bullying Is Too Narrow a Lens for Addressing Conflict in Middle School

Everyday conflict can get in the way of academics in the middle grades. Kids need to learn the essential social competencies that will allow them to get back to productive learning.

When she speaks to young teens and their parents about middle school, Phyllis Fagell likes to share a few data points—and reactions are generally gasps of recognition from the adults and audible sighs of relief from kids.

Research shows that in sixth grade, only a third of friendships endure through the school year. If you ask middle school students to name a best friend, only half of the kids named will reciprocate and identify them as friends in return; by 12th grade, just 1 percent of middle school friendships remain intact.

“Every single student is going to get rejected at some point during the middle school years,” says Fagell, a middle school counselor and author of the book Middle School Matters. “These are the years when students are figuring out who they are and how they want to show up in the world.” Along with that process comes a lot of fragility and instability, which can lead to conflict among peers and influence kids’ general well-being and academics.

Meanwhile, the experiences kids have in middle school aren’t objectively worse than at any other time in their lives, Fagell argues. Though they can be challenging formative years—marked at times by impulsive decisions made by still-maturing brains and intense emotions amplified by hormonal changes—they can be markedly tougher without a tool kit of interpersonal and social skills.

These competencies are essential to navigating everyday setbacks—failing a test, making mistakes on social media, misinterpreting social cues—and without them, situations can escalate, making it difficult for kids to enter the classroom ready to learn.

I sat down with Fagell, who visits 50 schools and organizations each year to present on topics like social sensitivity, bullying, and friendship, to discuss how schools can create healthy, positive cultures, why the middle grades are the perfect time for students to develop key social competencies, and how educators can play a role in this work.

PAIGE TUTT: You caught my attention with a tweet about schools mistaking some of the typical social conflict experiences of middle school with bullying. Can you explain what you meant?

PHYLLIS FAGELL: I’ve found that people often misunderstand what bullying is. Lots of mean behavior doesn’t rise to the level of bullying, which can be identified by the three Ps: purpose, pattern, and power. With bullying, there is an intent to wound. It’s not just a one-off comment; there’s a pattern of interactions and a power imbalance.

If you have two kids on the same footing who are simply having a disagreement or saying mean things to one another, that’s not bullying—that’s meanness. No child’s going to go through the K–12 years without experiencing some meanness and probably dishing it out as well.

TUTT: So in the middle grades, you’re saying that social conflict is a very normal thing for students to experience?

FAGELL: It’s not only normal, it’s imperative. Through conflict, kids learn how to take responsibility for their actions and how to pick “right-fit” friends.

It’s how they acquire social skills such as generosity, reciprocity, and active listening. It’s how they learn to pick their battles, set good boundaries, apologize, and figure out when to forgive and let things go. These aren’t just skills we need to thrive at school—they’re skills we need to successfully navigate work, relationships, and every other aspect of our lives.

TUTT: Is there typically one major source of social conflict for middle schoolers?

FAGELL: Essentially anything that strips a student of their sense of belonging.

If they’re struggling with body image and something happens that makes them feel uncomfortable about their body; if they have a crush on someone and somebody shares that secret; if they have a learning challenge and someone makes fun of how long it takes them to answer a question—any of these things might be the source of a conflict.

If you’re vulnerable, insecure, or worrying you’re not good enough, assuming someone didn’t intentionally want to hurt your feelings will be harder.

TUTT: How can adults help in these types of situations?

FAGELL: As the adult, you’re not trying to talk them out of their feelings; you’re helping them develop the cognitive flexibility to avoid jumping to conclusions.

They will have a gentler middle school experience if they don’t constantly go to the worst-case scenario. But even if they do accurately interpret that somebody was trying to hurt them, it’s still important to work with them to focus less on catastrophizing and more on taking action.

TUTT: I remember the idea of perception started to crystallize for me in middle school: Feeling like an outsider, excluded from the pack—it’s terrifying. How can educators demystify popularity for middle schoolers when they covet it so deeply?

FAGELL: Everyone knows who has social power, which is real power. Popular kids will dictate what is considered cool and drive the behaviors of the kids in their orbit.

You can’t talk a kid out of wanting to be popular. The drive to fit in simultaneously wanting to disappear, be noticed and admired, and blend in—that tension is so acute in middle school.

Adults can help by helping kids think more expansively about who they’re with and how it makes them feel. Rather than tell kids who they should or shouldn’t be friends with, ask questions or make observations:

“I noticed you laugh a lot when you’re with Julie—you seem relaxed—but when you’re with Claire and the other girls, you seem tongue-tied. What do you think is different about your friendship with Julie?”

TUTT: How can adults help kids be kinder and not give in to the desire or pressure to be mean?

FAGELL: When you teach a kid how to parallel park, you might say, “Turn the wheel to the left. Keep going. Now cut hard to the right.” You’re giving very specific instructions.

But when it comes to being kind, we often say things like, “Treat other people the way you want to be treated” or “Be a good person.” We assume that kids know what that looks like and what that means.

But being kind involves a very specific set of social skills that kids need to be taught.

At the same time, it’s incumbent on adults to call out the meanness in real time. Start by having a nonjudgmental conversation with that child away from peers.

Kids need those bumper lanes in the bowling alley.

TUTT: Like parallel parking, do kids need time to practice this?

FAGELL: Definitely. To help that process, I have students do a Compliment Circle. They each put their name on the top of a piece of paper and then wrote down an authentic compliment for everybody in the class.

Of course, because they’re middle schoolers, I add the caveat, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. And if you feel like you need to be silly, say nothing.”

Part of that lesson is to operationalize kindness, but part of it is also to help them connect with one another. By operationalizing it, I mean equipping students with pro-social skills that help them be good friends and lift other people’s spirits. And that’s likely to benefit them as well because it changes the school’s culture.

TUTT: In class, say kids aren’t raising their hands because peers make fun of them, for example. What should happen after you call out the negative behavior?

FAGELL: If an issue keeps coming up, or you’re dealing with a biting culture in the classroom, discuss it. If you can, try to get kids who have social capital involved in leading that conversation because the research shows that kids who have social capital will drive that behavior and can help air it out.

When I do this, I split kids into small groups and have them talk about the problem. Often there’s a bunch of kids who are upset about something but don’t really know what to say or how to handle it. So, they do nothing, but during these small conversations, they can talk about the issue, potential solutions, what they need, and their expectations.

Next, I have them in those small groups write all of their ideas on sticky notes, then walk around and put the sticky notes up on the classroom walls. Then I have the kids walk around, choose their favorite potential solution, and share it with the class. It’s a way to strip away the social risk of saying what they personally need.

TUTT: How can schools get started doing this type of work?

FAGELL: You can use the foundation of whatever social-emotional or anti-bullying program you’re already using, but incorporate actual scenarios from your own school setting. Use the problematic things kids in your school are saying that you want to target as examples.

And most importantly: Focus on teaching social skills rather than framing conversations around what not to do.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t like typical anti-bullying programs: All those programs do is focus on identifying bullying and what not to do.

You’re better off bolstering all of those other skills; then, you’ll have less bullying in the first place.

TUTT: So then schools are addressing root causes around different negative behaviors, not just focusing on bullying.

FAGELL: Yes. Social conflict doesn’t start with bullying, which is really an external expression of anger.

So social conflict prevention needs to start from a place of internal peace: the ability to sit with discomfort, the ability to enter a conversation, the ability to say something that is funny but isn’t mean, and the ability to compliment somebody.

All of those things play into whether or not there will be a conflict in the first place. If we want a more harmonious school environment where middle schoolers feel that sense of belonging we know they so badly need; then we need to give them the skills to interact with one another in healthy ways and not wait and target the stuff that leaks out at the end.

TUTT: Where do you see this work fitting into the school day?

FAGELL: Everywhere. In a math class. A history class. It doesn’t matter. Relational needs are everything to this age group.

Have them turn and talk, have them teach the class, and have them give feedback on whether an assignment is working for them. Make time to develop those social skills and focus on things that are important to the kids other than the content of your class.

Have students come up with question prompts—for example, “If you could be principal for a day, what would you do?” At the beginning of class, take five minutes to pull one of those prompts out and let five kids answer. You’re taking time to create a scenario where two students may have to make eye contact and talk about something. Model and reflect: “I love how you gave her a chance to share her opinion and didn’t interrupt.”

TUTT: This is potentially a lot of work for busy teachers. Why is it so important during the middle school years?

FAGELL: The payoff is that kids will actually be in the right headspace to learn the content.

When a child feels like an outcast, or like they’ve been slighted—whether real or perceived—they’re not learning. They’re stuck.

I will say that this does not work that every single teacher will feel comfortable doing. That’s OK. Everybody should play to their strengths. Instead, you might be somebody who decides, “I’m going to pay closer attention to what my students tell me and write it down, so I can circle back and let them know they have me as a trusted person.” Or “I’m going to pay attention to student dynamics. I’m uncomfortable jumping in, but I can mention it to the counselor.”

This is not one-size-fits-all work. However, it’s not work that can be left just to a counselor or to a single social-emotional lesson.