A new study performed by researchers at Syracuse and New York Universities takes a closer look at bullying within the school system, finding that students at the top of a grade span, more commonly referred to as “top dogs,” have a better experience than those on the bottom.
The report, “Do Top Dogs Rule in Middle School? Evidence on Bullying, Safety, and Belonging,” found that schools with larger grade spans typically have less instances of bullying. The authors state that as students move through grade levels, they take on more of a leadership role and are less likely to be bullied by other students within the school.
After studying reports from more than 90,000 students in over 500 city schools broken up into grade ranges of K-8, K-6, 6-8, 5-8, and 6-12, results were found matching those from a 2011 study performed by some of the same lead researchers, which found traditional elementary and middle school age ranges were worse for student test scores.
Students that remained in the same school were tracked across grade levels, as were those that transferred to different schools in an effort to show any variance between being the new student and simply entering a new grade level. In addition, physical characteristics such as height, weight and age were taken into consideration in order to determine if physical development had any influence over student experience in school.
Researchers discuss the students used in their study as “top dogs” and “bottom dogs,” or those who are the most and least powerful within their schools.
According to the report, separating students into the shortened 6-8 grade middle school setting is actually harmful as it causes more bullying of lower-grade students, resulting in these students feeling less connected with their school.
Findings show 6th grade students in both K-8 and 6-12 schools report less instances of bullying, fighting, and gang activity, and were more likely to say they felt safe and welcome, in addition to being more likely to participate in school activities than 6th grade students in 6-8 schools, writes Sarah Sparks for EdWeek.
Previous studies have shown that moving to middle school can be a harder transition for students than moving to high school. Students moving from 5th grade to 6th grade show higher rates of bullying, a decrease in math and reading achievement, higher instances of absenteeism, and feeling less connected with their school.
“We find moving from elementary to middle school hurts bottom dogs because they lose the top dog status they previously held in their old school,” they conclude.
The study suggests that students remain within the same school building for longer periods of time so that children obtain the “top dog” status and do not drop to “bottom dog” until they are more developmentally capable of handling being the youngest in the school, writes Philissa Cramer for Chalkbeat.
“While wholesale school reorganization nationwide would be costly, there may be more opportunity to make such changes in urban areas,” the researchers write, “especially if such school districts are growing or declining and K–8 schools provide more efficient building use.”