Middle School Is Too Young To Start Suffering For Your Art

There is a lot of conversation about the importance of advocating for the funding and inclusion of arts in K-12 education but according to a recent study, some attention needs to be paid to the social aspects experienced by students interested in the arts.

According to a recent piece in Pacific Standard (h/t Createquity), students taking music and theatre classes are more likely to be bullied than other students. The study the article cites (subscription required) did not include visual arts students.

The study involving 26,420 middle and high school students found that bullying peaks in middle school.

…female music and theater students faced a 41 percent greater risk of being bullied, and male music and theater students faced a 69 percent greater risk of being bullied than their peers.”

Looking specifically at middle school — a period when bullying typically peaks — the researchers found theater and music students had a 39 percent chance of being bullied, compared to a 30 percent chance for their peers who did not participate in such activities.

Not surprisingly, the bullying was more likely to involve physical aggression for boys, and relational aggression for girls — hurtful behavior such as spreading rumors or exclusion from desirable social activities. Female music and theater students had nearly a one-in-three chance of experiencing this sort of victimization, compared to a one-in-four chance for female athletes.

The researchers suggest that perhaps arts educators should receive additional training making them aware of these potential factors in their students’ lives to help prepare the teachers to be better mentors and resources for the students. In addition, they encourage zero tolerance for bullying of any sort and opening arts related rooms as safe spaces where students can gather for some respite.

In something of a “physician heal thy self” approach, the authors of the research paper propose use of arts to combat bullying in general.

Teachers can use discussions of the social-emotional import of art to reduce bullying by drawing parallels from what may seem to students as distant abstractions of composer’s or playwright’s artistic intent into the students’ own lived experiences. Drawing connections from art to daily lives in a framework intended to support students social-emotional competencies can actually reduce bullying and victimization, which seems like a worthwhile investment of time given the results of the present study.


…a drama-based bullying unit was developed by teachers in a middle school and used in social studies classes to supplement a larger, schoolwide anti-bullying initiative. In the program Burton (2010) described, students assumed the roles of bully, victim, and bystander in theatrical improvisations. The improvisations among girls especially brought the covert nature of relational aggression into the open and allowed victims of bullies a chance at “role reversal, choosing to portray bullies carrying out bullying they had actually experienced” (p. 264). The improvisations were then used to develop devised theatre pieces that were presented to younger students as part of a successful bullying reduction and prevention program.

I don’t know about you, but when I read about improv among girls bringing the “the covert nature of relational aggression into the open and allowed victims of bullies a chance at “role reversal…” I immediately thought of this scene from the movie Mean Girls.

I had worked for an organization that ran a residential arts summer camp and it was always clear that the kids reveled in an environment that didn’t pressure them to conform as they did in school the rest of the year. It didn’t necessarily strike me at the time that they were subject to more bullying than their peers. This was over a decade ago, before social media really took off, so the bullying may not have been as magnified. The data runs from 2005-2011, but the researchers don’t indicate if it has gotten worse across that time period.

Regardless, this is a factor in arts education to which to pay attention. Declaring success in preserving funding for the arts in your school district is worthless if kids are being intimidated for participating in the classes and activities.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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