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A Positive School Environment for Girls

Perhaps a more delicate and tactful approach is needed. Rather than being a weekly volunteer in the classroom, for example, you may have to find alternate (that is, behind-the-scenes) ways to stay involved and in the know, such as working at the book fair, editing the school newsletter, attending parent-teacher organization meetings, volunteering backstage, or serving on the school board.

By keeping you in touch with teachers and other parents, these activities will add to your reservoir of information. To avoid upsetting your daughter, ask her in advance how she would feel if you sold tickets to an upcoming dance or acted as a chaperone. You might reassure her--"Don't worry, I won't look all over for you or hang out with your friends!"--and agree beforehand on the nature of any contact you will have with her during such events.

It is still hard for parents to assess how a daughter's school culture influences her sense of self and ability to relate to others. It is a challenge to sift through a teen's complaints, problems, and hurt feelings to ferret out signs of potentially serious or pervasive discomfort. But the bottom line is, does your daughter believe she is in a caring place where teachers and administrators listen to students, take their concerns seriously, and are emotionally available to them?

Pay close attention to what she reports during the school day, as well as what details she omits. Be especially alert to stories of striking inequality, incidents that make her feel stupid or insignificant, or her capitulation to policies or values to which she is usually opposed. One surefire sign of an uncomfortable, if not harmful, situation is your daughter suddenly turning negative about school.

This was brought home to me many years ago when my own daughter was in fifth grade. Initially, I didn't take too seriously her complaints about her first male teacher. But eventually my ears perked up. Some of his remarks did seem odd and even inappropriate. He did seem blatantly biased toward boys. Then my daughter began to report that her male gym teacher made the boys into game captains because "they know the rules better" and penalized girls--but not boys--who forgot their sneakers.

Finally, I realized something had to be done. With my coaching, my daughter decided to speak to her principal, a gentle man who nodded sympathetically but did nothing. Then she and a group of girls began to commiserate with each other. This prompted them to band together, get up their nerve, and knock on the door of the guidance counselor, a passionate and opinionated woman who was outraged by what they told her. Whether or not real changes occurred at school, what made all the difference to these girls was knowing that their parents and at least one authority figure at their school would listen to them, validate their concerns, and support them.

There are times when it is necessary for parents to intervene. If your daughter's attempts to rectify problems with school personnel are unsatisfying--or, worse, if she feels dismissed or diminished--you may have to step in.

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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.

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