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How I Handled...

Bickering Between Two Girls
That Threatened to
Turn Explosive

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Bickering between two girls over a boy (who often couldn't care less about either of them) is a common phenomenon in middle schools. The situation must be dealt with quickly, before it escalates into something much more explosive.

The Problem:

The problem started with bickering between two seventh-grade girls I'll call Rachel and Jill. The dispute centered on a boy and which of them the boy liked best. Because the girls' parents would not allow them to date, both girls had a phone-calling, note-writing, and between-classes relationships with the boy. Unfortunately, the boy seemed to like being the center of attention and -- knowingly or not -- was fanning the flames. Before long, the girls' dispute went public and other girls, and even some boys, began to take sides. Faculty got wind of what was going on and became concerned that the situation might escalate into a physical altercation between the two girls -- and maybe their friends as well.

The Solution:

At the middle school level, these kinds of situations arise often. Interestingly, more often than not, it is the girls who get into the kind of bickering and backbiting that can lead to escalating aggression between them (and involve others). Perhaps that is because girls generally mature a little more quickly than boys. Almost always, the disputes involve boys. If another girl is seen talking with a boy one girl likes, watch the powder keg! The name calling, threats, and even physical intimidation can be something to behold. In many cases, the boys aren't even aware that they are at the center of the controversies.

As soon as a staff member sees or hears of that kind of behavior, we call in all parties, including the parents, who often seem to be the last to know. (Sometimes, if the situation deems it, we also bring in their friends -- individually, and as a group.) Sometimes, it is clear that that initial conference will settle things down and no further action will be needed. Usually, we follow up anyway to be sure. If a peaceful settlement is not immediately achieved, we establish a behavior contract. The contract holds serious consequences for continuing the dispute.

In the case of Jill and Rachel, we -- the girls' guidance counselor, the assistant principal, and myself -- immediately called them into our guidance office and counseled them about what they were doing and what consequences could be levied if tensions continued to escalate. We talked to the girls individually, and then we talked to them together.

The next day, the parents sat down with the assistant principal, the guidance counselor, the girls, and myself. (We would have included the school's security officer if the situation involved a legal issue or a potential arrest, but that was not the case here.) Both girls' parents were shocked by what was transpiring between their daughters. Now that the parents had been brought into the circle and knew what was going on, they started communicating between themselves to ensure that the situation would not escalate. As a result of the meetings and of getting the parents involved, the girls admitted that they saw the foolishness of "fighting" over a boy who didn't care about either one of them.

The Reflection:

This case worked out well, even better than most. The dispute and the follow-up meetings actually brought the two girls closer together. I'm sure, if the friendship endures, they will someday enjoy a good laugh about the situation.

Even though he said/she said problems appear insignificant, they easily can explode into something much bigger. You need to "nip in the bud" these situations as quickly as you can. It is better to stop a small problem than to try to blanket a larger one.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.

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