How can we help girls to be more confident?
Our bright, talented, good looking, hardworking girls should be proud of themselves but all too often they lack confidence. Why is this? As parents we may praise, reassure and encourage our daughters but somehow this can fail to penetrate their fragile egos. Once adolescent hormones kick in many girls become self-conscious about their looks, their bodies and their talents. They compare themselves, unfavourably of course, with their peers, with the images they see in the media and their internal picture of what they “should” be like. Teachers see it in the classroom – girls can be so frightened of making a mistake, of “failing”, that they hold back. The self-belief that seems to be inbred in boys is sadly uncommon in teenage girls.
There is plenty of research to show that in a co-ed classroom girls are super-sensitive about how they are perceived by boys. They experience a conflict between being the best they can be and being attractive to boys. This is especially true in the subjects which are seen to be “masculine” such as maths and science. Consequently girls can lack confidence and will not take the risks which are essential for true learning.
The most recent research confirms this. An experiment in schools in Essex and Suffolk found that when girls were taught separately they were more likely to be competitive and prepared to take risks. These findings led to a research project at Essex University. Students were randomly split into three groups: male only, female only and mixed. At the end of the academic year the marks of the girls-only class were 8% higher than either of the other groups. The split had no effect on the boys-only or the mixed group. (The Independent, Tues 27th December Girls do better at university when classes are single sex)
Students who took part weren’t told details of the research project but afterwards were asked how they had found the experience. “I think it was the best class I had last year” said one of the girls in the classes without boys. “Boys are more competitive; they like to answer questions. Girls are more shy. Maybe they are afraid of being judged. Maybe that’s why we don’t answer” said another in the same group. A summary of the project concluded: “This finding is relevant to the policy debate on whether or not single-sex classes… could be the way forward”.
It’s no surprise that the environment in which students learn affects their outcomes and their experiences. There is plenty of other evidence that girls do better academically in a girls-only environment. They also become more confident and dare to take risks which is a key element for future success.
Knowing this what should you do? Continue to praise your daughter when she tries her best or does well and especially when she fails but picks herself up again. Try to help her realise that the sort of boys whose good opinions are worth having will be impressed by her academic abilities as well as her appearance. If she is at a co-ed school ask the Head if they have any plans to teach some subjects in separate classes for girls and boys. Consider whether an all girls’ school would be an option.
When I was Head of a girls’ school one of my Year 11s seriously considered moving to a co-ed school for her sixth form years. After much agonising she bounded into my office one day to say “I’ve decided to stay… and to keep boys as a hobby.” Not a bad idea!