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Supporting Girls in Early Adolescence

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

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 (Orenstein, 1994).

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.

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