Five Steps to End School Bullying: Age-Mixing (Essay 1 of 6)

A 2013 CDC Study found that 19.6% of youths had been bullied on school property in the previous 12 months, and 14.8% had been electronically bullied.[1] In a 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey, close to 1.2 million students reported that someone was hurtful to them at school once a week or more. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and bully victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. And while many parents focus on the violent bullying that is more often associated with boys, bullied girls are at an even higher risk of suicide.

When we launched Abrome, we believed that our model of emancipated learning would most strongly appeal to families that wanted their children to gain entry into the world’s top colleges and universities, without having to sacrifice their health and happiness.[2] However, it quickly became apparent that school bullying was the primary driver for the plurality of families that looked into Abrome. This subset of families wanted to end the misery associated with schooling. They were desperate for an alternative to schooling.

Bullying does not have to be a rite of passage for young people. There are a variety of factors that drive bullying, and educators and parents are able to influence, mitigate, and alter those factors to limit or eliminate bullying. This is the first of six essays that will lay out how we can end school bullying.

The first step to eliminate school bullying is to eliminate age segregation in schools. Unfortunately, by their very nature, schools segregate children from society. From the ages of 5 to 18, the expectation is that children disappear from society for the bulk of the day so that they can be schooled. While the motivations behind segregating children from society to school them were a mixture of noble and nefarious, the practical reality of segregation was an unnatural extension of childhood; an infantilization of young people.[3] While educators and parents cannot easily change the way young people are segregated from society, they can substantially change the segregation that exists within schools.

There has been ample research that shows that age-mixed classrooms produce substantial academic benefits to students.[4] However, less publicized is the benefit of age-mixing as an antidote to bullying. Age-mixing is powerful for what it brings into a classroom, and what it leaves out.

By mixing older children with younger children there is an injection of empathy into the classroom. Older children are drawn to serve as mentors and protectors of younger children, and they quickly hone in on the well-being of the younger children. This empathy also brings a level of calm into a classroom, no matter how visually and audibly chaotic it may seem. As Peter Gray points out, “the presence of little kids has a pacifying effect on big kids. Even when they’re not interacting.”

What age-mixing leaves out of the classroom is the social pressure to assert dominance over peers. Without younger and older children in a classroom, there is a natural tendency for young people to introduce new forms of hierarchy. This often results in unhealthy and abusive relationships among peers wherein family wealth, familial connections, athleticism, attractiveness, and brute force (among other factors) becomes the basis for social hierarchy. And the way these hierarchies are often validated is through mechanisms of bullying, which quickly and clearly highlight who is at the bottom of the hierarchy.   

It is worth noting, however, that age-mixed classrooms are not sufficient to stop bullying. First, there are other factors that will be addressed in the following essays. Second, age-mixing in two to four year bands is not nearly as beneficial as age-mixing between very young children and older adolescents. Because children mature emotionally, mentally, and physically at different rates, multi-year groupings of children may at times mimic what single-year groupings look and act like. A wider range of age-mixing is necessary to fully extract the empathy and concern that older children will have for younger children. Schools in our society are generally bound by the 5- to 18-year-old age range, and that should be considered the minimum range of age-mixing for a school. Ideally, our children would be able to interact with people outside of the 5- to 18-year-old range, on a daily basis, with the opportunity to regularly interact with infants and retirees, alike.[5] 

Age-mixing is a necessary step to effectively end school bullying. The greater the range of age-mixing, the better. 

1.   This study covered only high school students. The incidence of bullying is higher among middle school students.

2.   Anecdotally, we have observed that the families most focused on elite college placement seem to be believe that sacrificing the happiness and health of their children is a necessary trade-off for admission success.

3.   For example, one of the drivers behind compulsory schooling laws was an effort to protect children from child labor, which I would argue was a noble effort. Unfortunately, a nearly universal driver behind compulsory schooling was the attempt to condition or indoctrinate young people to become good citizens and loyal servants of the church or state.

4.   One of the most appealing features of the growing micro-school movement is its eagerness to embrace mix-aged classrooms. For micro-schools, this is often a necessity as they do not have the scale to have break out students by year group.

5.   In fact, despite the large anti-bullying industry that has popped up to help insulate schools from the liability associated with their bully-infested environments, the only intervention that has had a substantial impact on bullying is one that brings babies into the classroom.