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A Positive School Environment for Girls

School Characteristics
It may surprise you that school type--whether your daughter attends a public, private, or parochial school--has been found to have no effect on the connectedness of students. Neither does class size. Even the level of teachers' educational experience has no impact. But the size of the school matters. When schools are smaller (ideally, fewer than six hundred students), kids feel more connected because there is more personal contact among students, faculty, and administration. Theoretically, the better girls and their teachers get to know one another and feel comfortable with one another, the more likely they are to develop personal relationships.

Classroom Management
How classrooms are managed is also vital. Students feel more connected when they are treated as valued members of the school community. Teachers make this happen when they consistently acknowledge every student--not just the highly achieving ones or personal favorites. Teens also feel respected when they are allowed to manage themselves rather than being micromanaged. For example, they appreciate having input on curricula, classroom rules, and grading criteria. They also feel more connected to schools with moderate--rather than strict, harsh, or zero-tolerance--disciplinary policies.

Social Inclusion
The University of Minnesota study also found that connectedness is associated with social inclusion. Students who feel most integrated with their schools have friends in class, across race and gender, and in overlapping cliques. Connected teens are also involved in extracurricular activities. These factors go hand in hand. The safer and more accepted teen girls feel in school, the more apt they are to join in; and the more they participate in school-related activities, the more connected they feel to their peers, teachers, and administrators.

A Tolerant School Culture
In my experience, what enables this kind of involvement is a tolerant school culture in which girls feel less pressure to .t in and conform. The road to social success is not a tightrope, but a wider, less precarious path. In relatively open-minded middle schools and high schools, for example, girls believe that social inclusion and popularity are determined by more than superficial or elusive qualities. They think it is okay, perhaps even cool, to be smart. Roles in the school play, math prizes, and creative writing publications are valued along with softball trophies. Social acceptance isn't determined by a certain brand of jeans, a boyfriend from the popular crowd, or being seen at a particular party.

Addie describes her high school as inclusive: "There's not a vicious popularity thing going on here. This group of guys and girls has been friends since elementary school. It's not about money or clothes. You don't have to have blond hair or blue eyes. It's how long you've known them and if you mesh well together."

There is a similarly nonjudgmental attitude about body type that is liberating to these teenage girls. "Skinny isn't a requirement," announces Suzanne, a senior in one of my focus groups. "Just be toned, not enormous, and wear something flattering for you." She adds, "A lot of people are trying to see what's healthy and better for people." This outlook encourages girls to reach out and make friends.

Ella, on the other hand, portrays a harsh high school climate that discourages girls from feeling socially included: "The type of girls who some call nerds, the ones who always eat alone and in others' point of view hit their heads on lockers and snort, my guess is the pressure for them is fitting in. Every popular girl in school makes fun of them in different ways, like for their clothes."

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More on: Teen Stress

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From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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