You always knew middle school was hell. A recent study shows being “top dog” can help ease the pain.

By Liz Loerke
Updated September 26, 2016
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Middle school. It’s often remembered with a slight shudder, and painful memories of puberty, braces, awkwardness, and social hierarchies. Add the modern-day landscape of social media, which makes it even easier to bully, and sixth through eighth grade can feel like a war zone. But, according to a recent study published in the American Education Research Journal, there might be a way to make things a little better for pre- and young teens: Get rid of the traditional 6-8 middle school.

No, that doesn’t mean kids get to skip the infamous rite of passage altogether. Instead, the researchers from New York University and Syracuse University found that students do better when they attend only one school from kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8).

The researchers studied 90,000 students across more than 500 New York City public schools and compared students at K-8, 6-8, and 6-12 schools. Students at K-8 schools were happier, struggled less with bullying, and performed better than kids who attended 6-8 or 6-12 schools. They also reported feeling safer and like they belong more in K-8 schools, which the investigators attributed to their “top dog” status (i.e., they were the older students who felt more comfortable and familiar with the school).

The “top dog/bottom dog” hypothesis dates back to a 1978 study that found the students who were at the top end of their school’s grade range felt more confident and less anonymous than the students who were in the bottom grades at junior high schools. It makes sense: Being older and more established in the school gives you a sense of belonging.

Thanks to the enormous sample size, this study further proved the validity of the “top dog/bottom dog” hypothesis by ruling out other factors. For example, the researchers found that even students who transferred into a K-8 school mid-year still had better experiences than those who started at a 6-8 school, ruling out that being “new” caused unhappiness. The researchers also had access to the students’ height and weight over the three-year study, so they were able to demonstrate that being tall enough to blend in with the older kids did not positively affect the student’s experience as a “bottom dog.”

“We, in fact, are the first to find that your position in the school affects your experiences, as opposed to some other explanation,” study author Michah W. Rothbart at Syracuse University told NPR Ed.

So what does this mean for ninth graders, who almost always find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole? “Someone has to be the bottom at some point,” Rothbart added. “That is the nature of the system.” However, by age 14 or 15, kids are more equipped to handle the lower status. Hey, no one ever said being a teenager was easy.