When thinking about what works for girls in schools, one thing to keep in mind is that girls are not simply students in a classroom. They are complex, multi-dimensional beings who bring with them multi-layered experiences connected to their racial/ethnic, gendered, socioeconomic, and sexual identities (just to name a few). Identity development is only one of the tasks that adolescent girls must negotiate in the classroom and beyond. With the goal of teaching girls well, here are some tips for how to support girls in successfully navigating the different areas of development in adolescence:
Slaying it in the school zone:
- Goal: Mastering various subject matter by approaching material with confidence, staying interested and engaged, and maintaining girls’ curiosity.
- What Educators and Parents can do: Ask girls how they think and learn best. What learning styles resonate with them? Also, encourage girls to push back against the gender stereotypes associated with different subjects by exposing them to organizations such as Black Girls Code, the National Girls Collaborative Project, or events like Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day.
Becoming relationship wizards:
- Goal: For girls to develop trusting and positive relationships with peers and adults.
- What Educators and Parents can do: Help girls to navigate the “push-pull” of maintaining their own voices in relationships by helping them to focus on displaying their authentic selves in their relationships with others. Guiding questions could be: What are you proud of? What do you like about yourself in being a friend to others? Additionally, teach and practice conflict resolution skills to help girls work through challenging experiences with their friends and adults in their lives. A great resource for educators about peer mediation is the IREX Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation Tool Kit.
Mastering who they are:
- Goal: For girls to develop a positive sense of connection to all of their identities.
- What Educators and Parents can do: Being proud of and comfortable with the multiple facets of one’s identity is connected to higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, and lower levels of anxiety and depression in girls. In order for girls to accomplish this task, they must be given the space to explore their various identities through joining different clubs and organizations, and interacting with people who are similar to, as well as different from, them. Girls should also be exposed to positive role models, media images, and school curricula that include girls and women who look like them and/or have similar backgrounds and experiences. Teaching Tolerance is a fantastic organization dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom and offers a variety of resources and lesson plans for educators.
Getting real with their feelings:
- Goal: For girls to be able to recognize their own emotions and the emotions of others.
- What Educators and Parents can do: Work with girls to own their feelings. Often girls are sent messages that they are only allowed to express certain feelings, like caring or being nice, while feelings of anger and frustration are off limits. Teach girls that all emotions are fair game, and that by communicating their emotions to others they are being open and honest about aspects of who they are, and what they need and expect from others. A great recent article about this topic is “What the world would look like if we taught girls to rage” by Mona Eltahawy.
Owning their power:
- Goal: For girls to develop and maintain a positive relationship with their body and own their physical power.
- What Educators and Parents can do: Starting almost at birth girls receive messages about what their bodies should look like, and which sports are and aren’t “for girls.” In her new book Enough as She Is, girls’ leadership expert Rachel Simmons, advocates for asking girls questions such as “What does your body need right now to be strong?” and “What do you love about your body?” instead of focusing on issues such as weight or appearance. Media campaigns such as Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign also offer a starting point for discussions that breakdown harmful stereotypes about girls and their bodies.
Knowing what they stand for:
- Goal: To develop a sense of what they stand for and what’s important to them and tune out the “noise” about who and what girls are supposed to be.
- What Educators and Parents can do: In our book, one of the teachers described a project called “This I Believe,” (based on the NPR “This I Believe” project) where girls were asked to reflect on, and write and speak about ideas and perspectives that were meaningful to them. Similarly, taking the time to have conversations with girls about their thoughts, feelings, and questions about various current events can go a long way in developing their confidence in their opinions. Fostering such conversations among themselves can be equally fruitful.