CONCORD — Jealousy, cattiness and vicious verbal back-stabbing can start as early as fifth grade for some girls, some educators say.

At times, the drama and emotional stress created when girls have trouble getting along interferes with their ability to stay focused at school.

"It will carry over from recess, because they're bothered about what so-and-so said about them on the playground," said Christina Boman, principal of El Monte Elementary School. "I've had moms calling me."

When fifth-grade teacher Linn Kissinger noticed continual problems cropping up between girls at the school, she spoke to Boman about how to diffuse the tension. The women began a lunchtime Girls Club on campus, inviting 10- and 11-year-old "tweens" (between children and teens) to talk openly about their concerns, share secrets and strengthen their bonds of friendship.

The club became so popular that it has expanded to two lunchtime groups of about 20 girls each, giving informal support to the students on a campus that offers minimal formal counseling. Building on this success, a male teacher recently started a lunchtime Boys Club.

Kissinger, who remembers the difficulties she had communicating with girls when she was a fifth-grader, said female students are very different from boys.

"Boys forgive and forget the next day," she said. "Girls carry it forever."

Girls in the club said the group has helped them to reach out to others, instead of alienating them.

"I love it because I had a lot of enemies," said 10-year-old Ally Ramey. "I like to know that I'm not alone and that I have friends to talk to."

One of their biggest problems, girls in the club said, is figuring out how to get along with two friends who don't like each other. Kissinger and Boman helped the girls talk about ways to bring friends together. But sometimes, they said, it might be a good idea to take a break from a friendship that is causing anger or sadness.

Shania Matthewson, 11, shared her advice: "Let go of the grudge and try to make new friends."

Or, said 11-year-old Caitlin Tonna, you could tell both girls that if they can't get along, you won't hang out with either of them.

"That takes a lot of strength," Boman said.

Angelina Santana said rumors sometimes upset club members.

"Some girls talk about you," the 10-year-old said. "They say mean things you start hearing."

Kissinger nodded knowingly.

"The back-stabbing piece," she said.

The mother of an adult son, Kissinger speaks softly to the girls, in a respectful, nonjudgmental way. She is one of the Mt. Diablo school district's teachers of the year, nominated in part because of her work with the Girls Club, where she is a mentor and confidante.

"We can come to her and she helps us solve everything," Shania said, looking at Kissinger. "She's like a mom."

Kissinger compliments the girls for their insights and asks questions, prompting club members to come up with their own solutions.

"Sometimes," Kissinger said, "they don't feel they have that one-on-one time with someone who will just listen."

Boman said Kissinger's relationship with the girls is deeper than that of most teachers and students. The girls' friendships are also more mature than those of most girls their ages, Boman said.

"Girls can be vicious," Boman said, adding that she sometimes uses the movie "Mean Girls" to help the girls analyze their behavior. "To be able to look at yourself is really hard. Sometimes, girls have to look outside, and then they can look at themselves."

Theresa Harrington covers the Mt. Diablo school district. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or tharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com.