How to help girls bloom? Fix toxic school environments

When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower. Alexander Den Heijer

Working with girls for over 30 years has taught me that they are not messed up, hormonally driven creatures with poor self-esteem; they are fine. It’s the toxic environments where they spend their time that is the real problem. Put a girl into a safe, nurturing, nonjudgmental environment like my camps and she blossoms. Observe that same girl in the judgmental hallways at school and you might see a different kid altogether.

The sad part is that schools are NOT taking this issue seriously, nor are they willing to spend class time working on the classroom community. Oh, they may plaster some character education posters on the walls and force-feed some platitudes and rules at the beginning of the year, all adult driven and derived. But these have little effect or staying power because it doesn’t come from the girls.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs in schools have been well researched, and the results are incredible. Social and emotional learning is the process through which children acquire the knowledge and skills to handle interpersonal situations effectively, create and maintain healthy relationships, express care and concern for others, make responsible decisions, understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others, recognize and manage their emotions, and establish and work towards achieving positive goals.

The following are just a few of the many outcomes when these programs are instituted in schools: better sense of community, more positive attitudes towards school and learning, higher academic achievement and test scores, better problem solving skills, reductions in aggression and disruptions, higher classroom engagement, improved coping with school stressors, and decreased alcohol and drug usage. Teachers thus have more time to actually teach vs. put out fires, and students are more focused and engaged. So I never buy a school’s argument that there isn’t enough time to implement SEL programs.girl groups-2

I love sitting with circles of girls on the floor doing this kind of work with my Strong Girls Strong World program. Girls in grade school through high school are all over it too; they LOVE working on their relationships and taking responsibility for their learning environment. When they see my wife and I walking into their class for a session, they become excited and get right down to business. Teachers are amazed at how quickly they get real and vulnerable, and that is a testament to the fact that girls are ready and able to do this work.

Their class quickly becomes safer, less judgmental, and closer. The best deterrent for mean girl behaviors is how much they come to know, understand, and care about each other. Girls become more sensitive to each other’s needs, their sensitivities, and what makes them tick. Conflicts are handled and they move on from them. They set intentions for what THEY want their class to look and feel like, and how they are going to treat each other. This creates more autonomy, responsibility, and ownership.

If you want girls to bloom, stop focusing on labels and diagnoses and drama and instead guide them in fixing the environments in which they live. Improve and fertilize the garden and watch the flowers blossom.


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