Jenny started the year desperate to make friends. She was new, immature for her age and starting seventh grade. Because of a learning disability, Jenny was reading and writing at a second-grade level. She tried to hide that from friends. But in the cover-up effort, she often badmouthed her classmates and created drama.
Initially, some of the other girls were drawn to Jenny’s intense energy. However, a few weeks into the school year, Jenny called another girl a “slut” for talking to a boy. The other girls began to distance themselves from Jenny. This move did not sit well. Jenny created even more drama to distract people away from the true issue—she was drowning socially.
A small group of girls came to me for help. According to them, Jenny had been calling them names, insulting boys and fabricating stories. We often tell kids to go to an adult when they need help with these kinds of things, but often, teens don’t want to invite adult “interference.” I was honored. My first impulse was to pull Jenny aside and talk to her about how her behavior was impacting others. Instead, I gave the girls some options. If they wanted, I would talk to Jenny. I offered to mediate a conversation between them and Jenny. Or I would arrange a girls’ lunch and coach them ahead of time on what to say. They chose the latter.
The next day I found a quiet place for them to meet with Jenny. I had encouraged the girls to use “I” statements and tell Jenny they wanted to be her friends, but they needed her to be more kind. I advised them to make sure Jenny had a chance to speak and explain her position. I stayed close in case I was needed and checked in with one of the girls afterwards. She reported that the conversation had been really “weird” and awkward, but she felt that they had been clear and respectful with their concerns.
Jenny’s dramatics subsided soon after the conversation but she became quiet and introverted. And then, slowly, she began to rebuild the bridges she had burned. By the end of the year, she was regularly socializing with the other girls, even spending time with them outside of school. I’d been in regular contact with Jenny’s mother to resolve some behavioral issues. And she told me that this had been Jenny’s most successful year in school.
Trusting my students to solve their own problems—while providing clear support and guidance—led to powerful growth. This was true for both Jenny and for all of the girls who now know that they possess the tools to help struggling classmates and create the community they want.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.