When “mean girl” behaviour is minimized, according to new research, the whole class benefits — not just the girls for whom the new program was developed.

The Friend to Friend (F2F) program is aimed at reducing relational aggression among at-risk urban girls, a problem that has received increasing attention in several different countries.

Relational aggression, known as “mean girl” behaviour, presents as nonphysical, gossip-centered, and social exclusion used to manipulate social status or reputations. The program was developed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

What shows up among boys is most often physical aggression, but relational aggression is most common among female students:

“This new study builds on our work over the past decade in developing evidence-based programs to curb relationally aggressive and bullying behaviors to create a healthier social environment in schools,” said study leader Stephen S. Leff, Ph.D., co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

The scientists say the findings suggest that this intervention program, F2F, has an impact that goes beyond the original focus. Leff and co-authors Tracy Evian Waasdorp and Brooke S. Paskewich published their study online in the journal Behavior Modification.

The team tested the F2F program against a control group using the education-based intervention program Homework, Study Skills, and Organization (HSO).

F2F is 10-weeks long with 20-sessions of small group intervention created for urban African-American third- to fifth-grade females. The curriculum includes problem-solving, anger management techniques, and leadership skills.

Midway through the program, the girls, along with facilitators, co-lead ten sessions of the F2F lessons in their classroom so that they can reinforce the skills they had been taught and build up their leadership and reputation changes.

In 2015, a study found that F2F was the first and only relational aggression intervention to show a lessening in relationally aggressive behaviours among urban minority female students who finished the program.

When the program was completed, the participants’ classmates were asked to rate the students who completed F2F on such behaviours as being nice and spreading rumors. Teachers were also asked to rate their relationships with the F2F students.

The girls who took the classes, explained the research team, showed an improvement in their behaviours. But the totally unexpected result they observed was that the boys in the classrooms with the mean girls experienced the same improvements. The boys had the same results in their relationships with their teachers, says Donald Acosta, reporting for the Australian Network News.

Leff said:

“A program focused on improving behaviors among urban aggressive girl students also had positive effects on non-targeted students and served to improve the classroom climate. We hope our future studies will determine why the program has such strong effects for non-targeted youth. Regardless, we are excited about the initial impact, and feel that the program has great potential for helping aggressive girls and their classmates.”

According to UPI, this program is the only such tactic to yield results for as long as a full year after the students had taken the classes.

Even other girls in the classroom who did not fit the “mean girl” classification received positive effects from the girls who took the classes and the improved classroom climate.