Supporting Girls in Early Adolescence. ERIC Digest.
by Rothenberg, Dianne
Results of national studies suggest that for girls, the middle grades
can be a time of significant decline in self-esteem and academic achievement
(AAUW, 1991; Backes, 1994). The analysis of the Harvard Project on Women's
Psychology and Girls' Development supports the finding that many girls
seem to think well of themselves in the primary grades but suffer a severe
decline in self-confidence and acceptance of body image by the age of 12
SELF-CONCEPT AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
The development of a positive self-image is critical in the middle grades.
Many educators report a general decline in school performance among girls
as they enter adolescence (Orenstein, 1994). As a group, for example, girls
exhibit a general decline in science achievement not observed for boys,
and this gender gap may be increasing (Backes, 1994). The National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicate that for 9- and 13-year-olds,
gender differences in science achievement increased between 1978 and 1986,
with females' academic performance declining (Mullis & Jenkins, 1988).
The relationship between a decline in self-concept and a decline in achievement
indicates that identifying the special needs of female students at school
and at home should be a high priority for parents and teachers.
Reasons for the decline in self-esteem and the accompanying decline
in academic achievement are not clearly indicated by research, but it is
likely that multiple factors are involved. The AAUW study found evidence
that boys receive preferential treatment in school from teachers. The researchers
found that boys ask more questions, are given more detailed and constructive
criticism of their work, and are treated more tolerantly than girls during
outbursts of temper or resistance (AAUW, 1991; Orenstein, 1994). Out-of-school
factors probably also play a role: some observers suggest that, as they
grow older, girls' observations of women's roles in society contribute
to their changing opinions about what is expected of girls. If girls observe
that women hold positions of less status than men in society, it may lead
girls to infer that their role is less important than that of boys or that
they are inferior to boys (Debold, 1995).
A third factor relates to cultural differences in sex role socialization,
which are greater in some cultures than others. Parents' actions play a
central role in girls' sex role socialization, and parents' choices and
attitudes about toys, clothing, activities, and playmates can shape a girl's
sense of herself.
It appears that ethnicity, race, and class are differentiating factors
in girls' interpretation of in-school and out-of-school experiences (Brown
& Gilligan, 1993). For example, the AAUW (1991) study suggests that
many African American and Latina girls demonstrate evidence of a decline
of self-esteem in early adolescence by becoming disaffected with schooling
in general. The study by Orenstein (1994) found that in 1991, Latinas left
school at a greater rate than any other group.
SELF-IMAGE AND BODY IMAGE
Researchers have observed other consequences associated with a general
loss of self-esteem in preadolescent girls in addition to a decline in
actual academic achievement. They have found, for example, that, "compared
to boys, adolescent girls experience greater stress, are twice as likely
to be depressed, and attempt suicide four or five times as often (although
boys are more likely to be successful)" (Debold, 1995, p. 23). Girls' depression
has been found to be linked to negative feelings about their bodies and
appearance. Poor body image and disordered eating including obesity is
much more prevalent in adolescent girls than boys (Orenstein, 1994). While
it is difficult to find specific causes for these difficulties, gender
stereotypes in television, movies, books, and the toy and fashion industries
pose obvious challenges to girls' healthy psychological development (Smutny,
Researchers (Brown & Gilligan, 1993; McDonald and Rogers, 1995)
attribute self-image problems to the "perfect girl" or "nice girl" syndrome.
According to these researchers, around the age of 10, many middle-class
girls have internalized the messages and expectations they have received
into the ideal of the "perfect girl" who is pretty, kind, and obedient,
and never has bad thoughts or feelings. They speculate that in trying to
keep up with the impossible demands of this unrealistic view of perfect
feminine behavior, girls may suppress some of their ability to express
anger or to assert themselves, and they may begin to judge themselves through
others' eyes and to question their own worth. In preadolescence, girls
are also struggling to reconcile their conflicting knowledge of equality
and justice, and the demands for compliance placed on them at home and
in school (Debold, 1995).
SUPPORT STRATEGIES FOR PREADOLESCENT GIRLS
Parents, teachers, and administrators can provide support and encouragement
to preadolescent girls in several ways. According to Smutny (1995), parents
* Begin early to nurture freedom from stereotyped expectations. Provide
toys that reflect the full range of children's play and allow girls to
watch TV programs and movies that provide a balanced mix of stories with
men and women characters in positive traditional and nontraditional roles;
* Encourage boys' development of nurturing and caring attributes;
* Take daughters into the workplace in their field of interest, and
explain how the work contributes to the good of the community;
* Inquire regularly about their daughters' participation in school and
confer with teachers about their strengths;
* Listen to their daughters' questions, complaints, and comments about
peers, siblings, and adults, and make an effort to read between the lines
to discover where real problems, if any, may lie;
* Be aware that girls receive conflicting messages about their worth
and place in our culture from schools, television, and the movies. Counter
these messages by engaging in critical discussions of these ideas and by
reading and viewing age-appropriate stories and biographies with strong
Debold (1995) and Backes (1994) suggest teachers can:
* Find ways to develop gender-fair curricula for middle schools. Consider
separate inservice time for male and female teachers to consider questions
such as: How can I look from a girl's perspective at what and how I teach?
What do I show girls through my actions in the classroom?
* Encourage girls to enroll and participate in all academic courses,
especially science and math, and see that their contributions are valued
in classroom discourse.
* Deal directly and age-appropriately with issues of power, gender,
race, and politics, taking care to include critical perspectives on these
issues in the school curriculum. They also suggest that administrators
* Develop, support, and enforce policies against gender-related harassment
toward girls by students and teachers.
* Take the lead in being sure that teachers and school programs offer
equal opportunities to boys and girls in classrooms and extracurricular
* As part of school improvement efforts, acknowledge the need to include
a focus on the improvement of self-concept and achievement of girls.
At home and in school, adults can shape the lessons taught to girls
about themselves, their place in school, and their future in society. Debold
(1995) states, "Girls need the support of adults to resist pressures to
conform to outdated stereotypes that can limit their expectations and achievement."
By assuring that girls' contributions are valued in and out of the classroom,
and by creating an environment in which girls can express their opinions,
make mistakes, and demonstrate their interest in learning without fear
of harassment or of being ignored, parents, teachers, and administrators
can make a positive contribution to the development of adolescent and preadolescent
FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Association of University Women (AAUW). (1991). SHORTCHANGING
GIRLS, SHORTCHANGING AMERICA. A NATIONWIDE POLL TO ASSESS SELF-ESTEEM,
EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES, INTEREST IN MATH AND
SCIENCE, AND CAREER ASPIRATIONS OF GIRLS AND BOYS AGES 9-15.
Washington, DC: Author. ED 340 657.
Backes, John S. (1994). Bridging the Gender Gap: Self-Concept in the
Middle Grades. SCHOOLS IN THE MIDDLE 3(3, February): 19-23. EJ 483 319.
Brown, Lyn Mikel, and Carol Gilligan. (1993). MEETING AT THE CROSSROADS:
WOMEN'S PSYCHOLOGY AND GIRLS' DEVELOPMENT. New York: Ballantine.
Debold, Elizabeth. (1995). Helping Girls Survive the Middle Grades.
PRINCIPAL 74(3, January):22-24. EJ 496 198.
Elium, Jeanne, and Don Elium. (1994). RAISING A DAUGHTER: PARENTS AND
THE AWAKENING OF A HEALTHY WOMAN. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
McDonald, Linda, and Linda Rogers. 1995. WHO WAITS FOR THE WHITE KNIGHT?
TRAINING IN NICE. Paper presented at the American Educational Research
Association. ED 385 380.
Mullis, Ina V.S., and Lynn B. Jenkins. (1988). THE SCIENCE REPORT CARD:
ELEMENTS OF RISK AND RECOVERY. Princeton, NJ: The Educational Testing Service.
ED 300 265.
Orenstein, Peggy. (1994). SCHOOLGIRLS: YOUNG WOMEN, SELF-ESTEEM, AND
THE CONFIDENCE GAP. New York: Doubleday.
Sadker, Myra, and David Sadker. (1994). FAILING AT FAIRNESS: HOW AMERICA'S
SCHOOLS CHEAT GIRLS. New York: Scribner's.
Smutny, Joan F. (1995). Mixed Messages: What Are We Telling our Gifted
Girls? PTA TODAY 20(4, March/April):30-31.