“Teacher, is this lesson really necessary?” asks an eleven-year-old girl with tears in her eyes. The girl, sitting in a circle with thirteen other girls, turns her back to the group and scratches the table with a pencil in frustration. In front of the class, trainer Tamara de Goey, behavioral specialist and pedagogue, takes a piece of paper and makes a ball of it. She unfolds it again and makes small tears in it. “This is what happens when you bully someone,” she says. “What does something like that feel like?” The girl raises her finger and says: “Not nice.”
Today, groups 7 and 8 at De Zevensprong primary school in Amsterdam are being taught about bullying behavior among girls. This type of anti-bullying lessons is also available for boys and girls together, but this one focuses exclusively on girls. The reason: where boys usually bully in a direct and physical way, girls often do so in a very subtle and sneaky way. Since this form of bullying is often more difficult for a school to identify and tackle, a specific lesson package has been developed for this: ‘Girl venom’. De Zevensprong also decided to make use of it: there was a lot of bullying last year, especially among the girls. Bullying was less common among boys and problems could be solved with the help of teachers.
Confident and cheerful
During class, a girl storms into the classroom. She is cheerful, looks confident and it seems like the other girls are happy to see her too. But, De Goey will say afterwards: “It may not be visible from the outside, but that girl is sometimes excluded.” “She gets involved in things that don’t concern her,” some had said during a one-on-one conversation in preparation for classes. “This girl is less able to read what the girls want from her, so they quickly become irritated by her.”
Bullying behavior by girls often has a different origin than among boys, says De Goey. At the beginning of the school year, groups are formed in the classroom. “Boys quickly see who is the strongest and toughest and who remains that way for the rest of the year.” But with girls the leader often changes. “In each group they choose among themselves who is the most popular girl in the class and during the year this position can be taken over by someone else,” she explains. “This is done by gossiping about her, by excluding and isolating, ignoring or rejecting her.” Just as girls who are not popular in the first place can be systematically bullied. According to De Goey, this behavior, which is often invisible to outsiders, can continue for years. “At a certain point, such a girl no longer dares to go to school.”
Bullying also often continues after school, especially on social media. For example, in secondary schools in particular, bullies distribute edited photos and videos of the victim on TikTok. In one of ‘her’ classes a photo of a girl was printed out; her face photoshopped onto a naked body. “The photos were pasted throughout the school,” says De Goey. “I think that’s really terrible.” In primary school, girls are mainly active on WhatsApp, where they send nasty messages to the victim. Or they are the only ones who don’t invite her to a birthday party. “At that age it can make such a girl intensely sad and insecure.”
45 years old and still suffering
In class, De Goey explains that this type of bullying behavior can cause irreparable damage to victims even at a later age. She gives an example of a 45-year-old woman: “She was bullied in grade 8 and in the first two years of high school and she still finds it exciting to meet others.” The girls look at each other in surprise. “Who wouldn’t want to do this nasty behavior to someone else?” asks De Goey. All hands go up.
The girls have to take the assignment booklet: “Write down the last time you felt happy, angry, sad and scared.” The girl who had tears in her eyes seems to have calmed down and is writing down her thoughts with concentration. The assignment is part of lesson three of a four-part series of lessons, in which the feelings and thoughts of both bully and victim are discussed using the ‘5G model’, known from cognitive behavioral therapy: event, thought, feeling, behavior and consequence. The two previous lessons discussed the meaning of friendship and role-plays were played to recognize bullying behavior. And in the last lesson, in a few weeks, a plan will be drawn up to prevent ‘girl venom’ in the classroom – which includes the boys. Afterwards, teachers and parents are informed about the action plan.
High school more difficult
Not all adolescent girls enjoy the exercises equally, De Goey says afterwards. Particularly in secondary school, girls often adopt an “arrogant attitude” towards the lessons or the trainer himself. Or they simply don’t see the point in it. In order to reach as many girls as possible, the program is tailored to the level of the students.
De Goey talks about a girl who was excluded by the rest of the group in a third class. During the break she was not allowed to sit at anyone’s table; If she sat down on her own, all the girls got up and walked away. Every day the girl sat alone in a corner of the canteen. “In class the girls did not want to admit that there was a problem. Until they did the exercise of systematically arranging figures.” The girls divided the (wooden) dolls into groups on the table. It was quiet in the classroom for a moment – “and suddenly the locked-out girl started crying,” says De Goey. Her doll stood all alone on the corner of the table.
That image and that reaction made two girls realize that it was “not okay” to exclude her, she says. Now that girl is chosen first when making groups in gym class and she can sit with them during lunch. “They didn’t become great friends, but they now interact with her in a normal way.”
Yawning on purpose
The last assignment of this lesson is a play based on a self-made speech. There is a girl in the hallway who doesn’t know what is going to happen. De Goey to the group: “You have to pretend that you find the speech super boring and stupid.” The girl is then allowed to enter the room. She starts to say: “My speech is about erasers. Such things are super handy.” The girls roll their eyes, yawn, laugh at her and someone puts on a cynical voice: “Oh, wow. Interesting.” Then De Goey speaks again. “How does that make you feel?” she asks the girl. “I don’t like it and it makes me nervous,” she answers. “Fortunately, it’s just pretend,” De Goey emphasizes. With such role plays, the girls learn what the emotional impact can be of the attitude you adopt.
During the break, four girls from the group gather in the classroom. Or still there juicy be gossip? “I still have an argument to resolve,” says a girl in a black bear sweater. “Yes, there was a lot of gossip about her at camp and she became one fucking bitch mentioned,” her best friend, in a green tracksuit, agrees. The two other girls find the bullying girl „sneaky”. But they already know how they are going to solve it, they say: they will talk to her together. They learned that last year, when the girl in the green tracksuit was bullied by other girls. “I was her only friend then,” says the girl in the black sweater. As soon as she stood up for her, the bullying stopped.