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Primary School Years: Don't Give Up!

Help Her Down the STEM pathway

Look at what’s happening in middle school and it’s easy to see why so many girls lose interest in STEM—or even school in general—during these turbulent years:

Girls may begin to pay particular attention to their physical appearance. Body image, hair and makeup, and clothes become increasingly important.

They may begin to show an interest in dating and may wonder what others find attractive in a girl.

They may begin to more actively consider and inhabit traditional gender norms as a way of “growing up.”

They may pull back from their parents and begin to look to peers for acceptance, identity, and influence.

They may experience sadness or depression.

They experience puberty—bodies develop, menstruation starts, and hormonal changes cause moodiness.

They may turn a critical eye on themselves for the first time.

They may fail to meet their own high or unrealistic expectations across many realms from academic to social, and may struggle with self-esteem.

Higher expectations, increased academic difficulty, and greater emphasis on executive functioning and personal responsibility may lead girls to have higher levels of stress and lower confidence at school.

They are starting to understand that people might view the world differently than they do. But they’re not quite there yet.

While some girls will glide through these years with relative ease, others will struggle to find acceptance and validation. Some use all their time and energy to focus on social challenges. I’ve talked to Grade 6 girls who have been frozen out by their friends, girls of all ages who have been shamed and bullied on social media. Others struggle in school for the first time and begin to internalize the idea that they are not as talented or accomplished as their peers. Some are hesitant to move ahead with interests that they fear will differentiate them. In particular, they fear that interest in STEM labels them as unfeminine. In extreme cases, some girls are in distress and need love and support to handle large and complex issues.

In early and middle childhood, parents face very little resistance when they want to spend time with their children. You work and play with them, take them on excursions, bring them outdoors, and help them with school homework. They more or less enjoy your company. Encouraging them in STEM was likely easier in those days than it will ever be again. It figures that this period is followed by what may be the most difficult and trying time. How should you approach these years?

More intermediate and senior school boys than girls participate in STEM extracurricular activities today. Those participation rates could be improved by modifying the programs so that they appeal to all children in a way that more accurately reflects the many paths in today’s STEM world. But just attracting more girls to STEM activities and classes misses the big, complex picture. What about the girls who have no interest in taking such classes? For those girls, you will likely need to adjust course. You may even need to tread water for a while. But just giving up and saying, “Oh well, STEM just isn’t for her” is a sure-fire way to lose your girl’s participation for good.

So don’t give up! There are steps you can take to hold the STEM door open for your primary school daughter as she makes her way through the serious business of figuring out exactly who she is:

Build her self-esteem by enforcing that failure and mistakes are OK, and celebrate her uniqueness.

Continue to challenge the gender stereotypes that constrain and limit her.

Introduce her to role models she can relate to while continuing to talk to her about a variety of engaging STEM careers.

Provide her with a private space where she can let down her facade and be herself. Support her academic needs.

Ensure that STEM opportunities in her school are exciting and welcoming to all students.

Most important, just be there for her. Nothing can take the place of making your daughter feel that she has a fully supportive home she can retreat to and where she can be herself.

Self-Esteem Is the Cornerstone

When a successful South African self-taught coder Baratang Miya was asked what advice she would give to young women, she said she wished she had better understood the subtle difference between self-confidence and self-esteem when she was younger. “Since I remember, I’ve always been confident. I knew if I was willing to work hard and put enough time in, I could achieve anything. I was also one of the kids with the highest grades and so I never thought that there was something else called self-esteem that was not self-confidence,” she says. She had to figure out the difference for herself once she was an adult—and she’d like to change this for younger women.

So, what is the difference, and why is it important that girls understand it from a young age? Your self-confidence may be rooted in your ability to succeed in certain areas—to win awards, complete projects successfully, earn good grades, make friends, put together nice outfits and hairstyles, speak before audiences, or succeed at a sport. Confidence is compartmentalized—high confidence in one area does not guarantee confidence in others.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, is your measure of yourself—your happiness with who you are beneath the surface. In a world void of awards, compliments, trophies, and grades, are you still content with who you have become?

Those with high self-esteem are resilient because external factors such as a social slight or a failure at work or school do not define them. A girl with high confidence may feel secure that she will score well on a physics exam, for example, and a good grade may bolster her self-confidence, but without adequate self-esteem, that feeling is ephemeral. Quite quickly, she may feel undeserving. She may say, “Well, this test was super easy,” “Everyone did well this time,” or even, “I bet most of the other kids got perfect scores.” She may feel that those around her are smarter, better, and in possession of attributes—beauty, brains, social graces—that she is not. Or she may already be looking ahead to the next award, the next external validation of her worth, in order to keep the feeling alive.

As a parent, it can seem that if a child is doing well in school and athletics, if she has a group of friends and a social life, then everything is good, but that’s not always the case. Even high achievers can draw their self-worth not from their talents but from external, subjective factors such as looks, grades, popularity, and, perhaps most of all, the approval of others, be they peers, teachers, or parents. They may not be skilled at standing up for themselves, and they can be unwilling to remove themselves from negative or even toxic relationships in their personal lives.

It was a male friend who first pointed out the difference to Miya: “He couldn’t give me all these examples that I can give now as a woman—but when he pointed out that there was a difference, there was a curiosity for me. I know I’m self-confident, but do I have high self-esteem? And then I realized—why do I put up with a person who thinks that I know less because I am a woman? Why do I have to be with that person? Do I need that person? Do I have to deal with that person in my professional life or not? In most cases, no—so why do I do that?”

Good educators and influencers place great value on building self-esteem along with STEM skills. Low self-esteem can lead girls away from their true interests as they seek external validation. A girl with an interest in STEM in middle school can find herself locked in an internal struggle between popularity and following her passion, and male and female middle schoolers are still well aware that girls are perceived to be “not as naturally good” at math and science. Luckily, self-esteem has high plasticity, which means it can change no matter one’s age. Change begins with understanding and valuing who you are, and parents have enormous influence over a daughter’s ability to do this. Start talking to your daughter now about self-esteem—here’s what middle school girls need to know:

I Deserve This

Healthy self-esteem isn’t about doling out participation trophies. It’s about encouraging girls to take credit for their hard-earned accomplishments. In fact, it’s the opposite of the everyone-wins-a-trophy mentality. Kids deserve accolades and compliments precisely because they worked hard for them! Tell your daughter: Own it. No humblebragging, no hiding in the back—sit in the front row where everyone can see you; then be gracious and accept that honour. You earned it.

That’s the easy part. Parents also need to teach girls to go for what they deserve—which means turning away from what, and whom, they don’t. Poor self-esteem often plays out in relationships through a girl’s questionable choices of friends and partners. Teach your girl that she deserves better than to remain in situations where your whole being is not being appreciated.

I Am a Nice Person, but I Don’t Have to Be Nice at This Moment

Accommodating, nice, kind, and gentle—these are wonderful attributes. But sometimes a girl’s got to roar and stand up for herself or others. Let your daughter know that it’s OK to flex her muscles, to live with the mantra that “I am as important as you are.”

People love an accommodating person. Why wouldn’t they! And that can make a person feel good—to be liked in that way. But tell your daughter, “Too much accommodation at your expense is not healthy. You shouldn’t always be the person taking one for the team.” In primary school this behaviour might manifest as a young girl who completes a group project entirely on her own because her partners tell her she’s “so smart, and thank you so much, and you’re the best!” She might think she’s gaining friendships by letting others, male or female, use her to cut in line or to have access to something she has that they want. Let her know when she gives away her negotiating power too often, it can become a habit.

I have Legs and Code and Do Math

It’s time to change the conversation regarding feminity and STEM. It sets girls up for a logical fallacy, a great either-or. There is nothing wrong with a young woman wanting to dress in a way that makes her feel good inside. There is nothing wrong with girlfriends who like to shop together, get their nails done, or get dressed up for a nice night on the town. These things don’t set feminism back.

Many young women studying STEM in college have confided that they “dress down” so as to not draw attention to themselves. They want to blend in. But in doing so, they’re suppressing who they really are—and this can be destructive in the long run. Just because I have good grades, I don’t deserve to look like an attractive woman?

This is something that primary school girls need to hear. As they start caring more about their appearance, they need to believe in this message: “I am the first one who is benefiting from this.” Girls would like to say that they don’t care what other people think, but of course we know that’s not true. We do care what other people think of us—primary and high school girls more than most. So the task becomes teaching your daughter to be concerned with how she projects herself to the world, never what a particular person will think of her. When she does this, she remains in control of the narrative. She’ll dress for herself.

Give Your Daughter Space

As primary school kids become more aware of who “fits in” and who doesn’t, it takes work and patience to raise a daughter who stays true to herself and her own interests. Giving your child the physical and mental space to be herself will help her maintain her authenticity so that she can continue to develop her natural talents at a time when peer pressure is high and girls especially are encouraged to turn away from math and science.

Much more is at stake here than an interest in science and math; a girl may question her whole self-identity and may wonder if the activities she loved in preadolescence—playing with dolls, dressing in sweats and kicking soccer balls, or keeping up with any boy when it came to questions about robots or machines or math—are still acceptable. Parents can start by reinforcing how much they enjoy watching their daughter develop her own interests and talents. They can express admiration for the friends in her life, young and old, who are secure and self-aware enough to follow their own paths. They can gently guide their daughter if she ridicules those around her for being different.

At the end of the day, though, as much as you may want your daughter not to care what her friends think of her, she will. It’s not enjoyable to be made fun of, no matter what age you are, and primary schoolers love to tease. These tips will help you and your daughter navigate:

Help her out by giving her a space of her own. Here she can keep all the toys and projects that mean something to her without feeling pressure to explain or defend them in front of friends or even family who may think they are too childish, too nerdy, too boyish, or too weird.

If she wants to drop out of a once-loved activity, such as violin or karate, you have the challenge of figuring out why. Have her interests changed? Is she embarrassed? Is it no longer fun? Does she want to focus on something else, or does she want to join an activity where she’ll be with her friends? Then you have the added challenge of figuring out if quitting is the right decision. Years of violin lessons don’t necessarily need to be tossed aside, but you may decide it’s time for fewer lessons or a new teacher. Michelle Obama encouraged her daughters to play tennis because it’s a lifelong sport that she knew would teach her girls hard work, discipline, and teamwork. If you decide not to let your child quit, be clear and consistent in explaining your reasons.

Reflect on your own reaction to societal pressures. Do you have interests that you pursue because they make you happy? Do you worry about what other people will think of you? Are you accepting of people in your community who are different?

A Media Conversation

Once they reach middle school, girls will begin to turn to peers and the (social)media for validation and identity. And while today’s teens may be watching less television than prior generations, they are spending much more of their time-consuming media online, often through YouTube videos and social media sites. While this can make it more difficult to see what kids are watching and reading, parents are still needed to help young girls successfully deflect all the messages that objectify women and box them into feminine stereotypes.

This means that your daughter is now at an age where you should have more in-depth discussions about (social)media, especially the idea that all media is a construction. Individuals with YouTube channels and social media influencers make a living off peddling products online, often in ways that are meant to seem personal and authentic. Help your daughter understand the financial motivation behind such methods.

Harnessing the Power of Media Digital literacy isn’t all about patrolling and looking for danger. Teach your middle schooler how social media can be used for social change and she will be more than critical of the media she consumes—she’ll be thoughtful and responsible about the media that she creates. Social media especially has given citizens so much power. As with all power, it is up to us how we use it. Social media has brought about remarkable changes in the areas of disaster response, citizen journalism, and public awareness campaigns.

Primary School Math

If there is one subject that gets a lot of scrutiny in middle school, it’s math. As one primary school principal remarked, parents are intense about math. They tend to see it as a gatekeeper of sorts—those who excel at this age will be placed in advanced courses and will therefore be on the path to taking calculus in high school, which they see as necessary for getting into a good college. Beyond that, and arguably the bigger issue, math concepts build on each other, so a bad experience one-year can cause pain that lasts long into the future.

Your daughter may be worried enough about math class without thinking about the future, though. It is very likely that over the course of her primary school years, your daughter will, at times, not understand her homework, perform poorly on an test, or complain that math is stupid, difficult, or useless. She may cry over her homework, or she may decide she doesn’t care to do it.

Stay grounded through any ups and downs in math class. Your daughter needs to focus on the here and now, not spend time worrying that something she did yesterday has doomed her entire future.

Math Struggles

Peggy Orenstein writes in Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap that “a loss of confidence in math usually precedes a drop in achievement, rather than vice versa.” If so, our first step as parents is to continue to build mathematical confidence—and one way to do that is by defining perfection as unattainable and reassuring girls that failures (wrong answers, poor test scores) are momentary setbacks that do not indicate overall achievement. Such setbacks are a signal that we may need to work harder in a particular area.

Continue to emphasize this need to dig in and increase effort, as opposed to confirming a girl’s suspicion that math is too difficult by (possibly to her great relief) lowering expectations. Unfortunately, we tend to give up on girls easier, perhaps unsure ourselves whether they are actually capable. With confidence must come grit.

Luckily for all of us, grit is just one more part of our makeup that is changeable, and a failed math test presents an opportunity to assess our child’s grit and coach her in perseverance. Most kids—especially those who have, for the most part, sailed through with good grades—have never had to learn this, and although it may not seem so at the time, it is a gift to learn how to deal with this issue before high school and varsity.

Besides memorization, many middle schoolers haven’t really studied before, especially for a subject like math. Effort means putting in the work— studying. Praising effort over talent gives girls a growth mind-set (develops grit) and keeps the praise internal as opposed to external (develops self-esteem). For a child who is struggling, remind her that she’s in it for the long haul, that grades are short-term indicators of progress at a particular spot in time and that their primary purpose is to serve as a warning sign and mark of progress. Put grades aside as you work together on establishing these three skills:

A student must be able to recognize (and perhaps admit) when she doesn’t understand something. This may seem straightforward, but it represents an ability to self-reflect on her own learning so that she can then take meaningful action. If this is the first-time math class has challenged your daughter, this may be a new skill. (“Let’s look at your notes from class. Walk me through what your teacher explained to you and let’s see if we can pinpoint where you got lost.”)

In addition, a student must have a clear understanding of the material that will be on a test. Teachers often communicate this information, but a student who hasn’t had to study before may not have learned how to use this information and will leave it sitting in her locker. As your daughter becomes increasingly responsible for material that may not have been covered extensively in class, this starts to matter more.

She should begin to develop the skills of a proactive and resourceful learner. She should know that there are many methods to obtaining information, and she should not always rely on parents and teachers to explain concepts.

Clear away all the noise and instruct your daughter to play the long game by focusing on the above skills. These will turn her into an active learner in charge of her own education.

Of course, there remains one important question: What does your child do once she realizes she doesn’t understand something? Some children, afraid to ask for help, will spin their wheels and end up even more frustrated.

In class it can be hard for kids to speak up when they don’t understand something. Teaching your daughter to be comfortable asking questions is admittedly easier said than done. Even if you had a precocious question asker in elementary school, she may have morphed into a more silent type. Besides, we’ve all been told that there is no such thing as a dumb question, but that adage is not always helpful. Technology helps with this. Some schools use apps that allow students to ask questions anonymously in class. Others use apps to ask students questions in real time so that teachers can gauge how many students actually understand the material, no matter how many say that they do.

Practical pointers to assist your daughters:

Don’t compare your child to another sibling or peer. “Why can’t you do it? Sarah can do it, and you’re just as smart as she is. You must not be trying hard enough.”

The “careless mistakes” comment is hurtful. A child who adds incorrectly on tests might not be careless—she could be stressed about the test conditions and time limits.

Preteens and teens can react fairly dramatically, so their initial reaction to a poor score will likely be strong and negative. That’s OK.

It becomes increasingly necessary to study. Make sure your child knows how.

Questions are a large part of the learning process.

Teach your daughter a backup plan for when she doesn’t want to raise a hand in class.

Don’t assume you know what’s going on inside her head.

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