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Middle Matters:
Guiding Gifted Girls Through the Middle School Maze

by Susan R. Rakow, Ph.D.

"What in the world has happened to my daughter?" wonder many parents of early adolescent girls. They are puzzled by the rapid and confusing changes in the personality, academic achievement, friendships, school attitudes, and appearance of their female children. Especially dramatic in gifted girls, these changes may be a part of running away from intellectual and artistic pursuits into an identity as "cute," "popular," and "cool."
From a competitive, smart, accomplished, self-assured, "Supergirl"-like fourth grader, the sixth- or seventh-grade preteen girl is often moody and dissatisfied with herself. Conforming and passive at school, middle school girls may relinquish their prowess on the athletic field and in the classroom for membership in the right clique of girls, acceptance by the boys, and quiet mediocrity.
As the parent of a gifted daughter (now 21 years old), as a middle-school teacher for more than 20 years, and after working with gifted students for the last 14, I have realized that the gifted girl's painful transition through middle school may have a terrible cost, both for her personally and for all of us as a society if the potential contributions of these talented young women are lost.

ROOTS OF THE PROBLEMS

There are many reasons why these changes may occur. Gender stereotypes in the electronic and print media offer challenges to the healthy psychological development of gifted girls. We often see 11- and 12-year-olds switch from Ranger Rick and Discover to teen magazines where girls ogle over the few acceptable bodies and fashions the mainstream culture suggests are the feminine ideal. Rarely do articles in these magazines encourage academic excellence and achievement, dedicated artistic pursuits, or athletic determination (unless it's related to diet and weight loss).
Early adolescence seems to be a particularly critical time for gifted girls when the pressures to conform to this societal standard of "beauty" seem to be particularly intense. Some girls may choose to rebel in the opposite direction with body piercing, tattoos, shaved heads, and "grunge" or outlandish clothing.
Girls get mixed messages from our culture and our schools. On the one hand, we encourage them to achieve in programs that emphasize performance, mastery, test scores, and reaching specific academic and vocational goals. On the other hand, female psychological development tends to emphasize the value of relationships, nurturance, collaboration, and caring. Role conflict about being a "Superwoman" results, and girls (as well as women) aren't sure how to establish a healthy and productive balance between achievement and relationships, between collaboration and competition.

SHEILA

When Sheila was 13 she was an outstanding violinist, a talented writer, and a sensitive and perceptive young woman. Because she was also tall, thin, beautiful, and wore high-fashion clothes and make-up, she faced tremendous pressure to date (especially older boys), to look into a modeling career, and to be popular. If schoolwork was difficult or took a lot of time, she frequently remarked of herself that she's "not smart." When she succeeded, Sheila claimed the project was "easy" or that she made "lucky guesses." Between her appearance and her articulate and insightful conversation, many adults commented that she was "a 21-year-old woman in disguise." But she wasn't. She developed intense and problematic stomachaches. Sheila struggled to find what she wanted to do and be on her own. How could she strike a balance between her beauty, her talent, and her brains?

When they are successful, many adolescent girls attribute their accomplishments to outside forces (luck, "the teacher likes me," "it was easy") rather than to their own exceptional abilities or hard work. Girls are often likely to say they are not smart enough for their dream careers, deliberately underestimating their abilities in order to avoid being seen as physically unattractive or lacking in social competence.
A number of recent research studies on adolescent girls seem to agree that home and school experiences affect gifted females differently than gifted males. These studies have generated introspection and controversy in schools, work places, and families. In 1990, an American Association of University Women (AAUW) study described a self-esteem gap between young girls and adolescents. It showed how girls lower their expectations for themselves and have less self-confidence as they move from elementary school and through adolescence.
Sex differences in underachievement also first seem to emerge in middle school, grades 6-8. Many girls may lose interest, achievement, and participation in math and science, areas that are critical to many fast-growing occupational fields and high-prestige careers like engineering, technology, and medicine.

HEIDI

Heidi was such an outstanding math student that in eighth grade, she took both Honors Algebra and Honors Geometry so that she could accelerate when she went from middle school to high school. She was also a talented writer and a gifted artist. She even starred on the softball team. Was there anything Heidi couldn't do? Unfortunately, none of her accomplishments earned her acceptance by the popular crowd of boys and girls. Although respected, she was left out most of the time. She had a flair for the unusual in clothing and preferred thrift shops to the mall. Many other students seemed to be afraid of her intellect, her keen perceptions, her unusual tastes, and her high standards for herself and others. Her eyes sparkled and her ready wit was a delight to anyone who took the time to listen. Most of her admirers, however, were adults. Not by her own choice, she spent a great deal of time lonely and an outsider.

Girls like Heidi also face the challenge of being "nice girls" and "good girls," of trying to be the "perfect girl." This girl is polite, passive, "feminine," and undemanding. These pressures often clash with a strong need to assert themselves and their ideas, to express anger, or to insist on justice — qualities typical of gifted children and accomplished adults.
In their book Failing at Fairness (1994), Myra and David Sadker, described females' social and emotional development through adolescence and in schools. "Sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations." They point out that girls are often taught to value neatness over innovation and appearance over intelligence. In schools, they are typically called on less frequently in classes, are taught to wait their turn and speak quietly, and learn to defer to boys.
Other studies suggest that girls tend to get less hands-on time when using computers (especially during situations in which students must share machines) and in science labs in which boys often step in and take over as soon as there's a problem.
Many gifted girls drop out of gifted programs in middle school to avoid pressure and role conflict. In high schools, girls are often underrepresented in Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors classes. School counselors often track girls away from courses of study that could lead to high-skilled, high-paying, high-technology careers.
School and appearance are not the only areas of struggle. High rates of depression among teenage girls are often related to negative feelings about their bodies and appearance and conflicts about high achievement. Eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) that stem from pressure and perfectionism in both competitive educational and artistic settings are rampant among gifted girls. Some girls are particularly vulnerable in athletic activities like ballet, gymnastics, and swimming or diving where body shape and size contribute to a competitive edge. Academic perfectionists are also vulnerable.
Many gifted girls, especially those in upper socioeconomic classes where the demand to achieve is particularly intense, feel both internal and external pressure to always be #1. They are driven to gain total control in one of the few areas where they can — food. As a result, girls may develop unhealthy and self-destructive eating habits.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

1. Encourage girls to recognize their options and be assertive in their decisions.
Parents and teachers can play a very significant role in guiding gifted girls through the challenges they begin to face in middle school. Open dialogue is essential. Parents and teachers can help adolescent girls see choices where none may be apparent: choice of clothes, athletics, friends and a peer group, family and career options. When girls make decisions, help them cope with the consequences of those decisions.
Parents should encourage their daughters to voice their opinions. Public speaking and the clear expression of ideas and viewpoints are prerequisites for success. Help them learn to do this assertively, yet respectfully. Learning to be assertive will help girls claim their share of teacher and classroom time during the school day.
However, parents should not provide too much assistance as girls attempt to perform new activities or work on unfamiliar equipment. Girls must learn to feel confident and successful when confronted with a challenging new situation, challenges they cannot do if they are constantly helped by well-meaning parents, teachers, or peers.
Bright girls often become too dependent on others because independence is often seen as somehow unfeminine or unladylike. Girls need to learn to make decisions independently and to be more self-reliant. Many gifted girls need encouragement and support during their middle-school years to accept the power to make these positive choices for themselves.

HEIDI

With help from her parents, Heidi sought opportunities for leadership and friendship through her church youth organization. The confidence earned there carried back to school where she continued to excel academically and in the arts. As she has claimed her own identity, she has made many friends both in and out of school who accept her for who she is.

2. Try to make both home and school gender fair.
Are compliments equally given out to sons and daughters — and for the same kinds of behaviors? Are girls praised as much for their athletics and academics as for their outfits and their hair? (Fathers especially need to be sure to compliment their daughters for perceptive comments and intellectual or academic activities, not just for looking pretty.)
Are computers and video games equally available to sons and daughters? Do parents attend the sporting events, open houses, and music performances equally? Or does Dad always go to the basketball games and Mom to the ballet recitals? Are there separate boy/girl toys? chores? books? Even when we think we are being "liberated" or egalitarian, it is sometimes surprising to notice how our own backgrounds and experiences influence the way we treat our children. Girls need to be taught to do things for themselves — operate the VCR, change tires, bake cookies, adjust the computer.
Increasing our own awareness of our behavior is a first step. Be particularly aware of sexist or harassing remarks, at home and at school. Boys must not be allowed to demean their sisters with gender-related put-downs, and teachers cannot allow this in the classroom either.
Parents may need to unite to be sure that school athletic budgets and honors class enrollments are equitable.
When parents visit their child's school, they should look at the numbers of boys and girls called on during class, the length of time and type of response to boys vs. girls following questions, and how boys and girls are assigned for leadership and helping roles. What is the seating arrangement? How are teams selected for sports and in-class games?
Gifted girls need particular support in science, math, and technology, both at home and at school. Some schools are piloting all-girl math and science classes taught by women and are achieving success at increasing girls' achievement and confidence in these critical areas. Mentors, preferably successful older girls and women, can also be extremely influential and helpful. Young girls must be encouraged to take courses that will lead to calculus and physics in high school, courses central to any future career in science.
Some middle schools have started special groups or clubs for girls only. One such group called "WOW" (Women on Wednesdays, named for the meeting date), was started when a small group of girls wanted to talk about issues and concerns at school without boys present. This discussion group covered topics such as sexual harassment, siblings, peer pressure, clothes, health issues, and careers. Women speakers from local businesses, universities, and the health professions added expertise to the support of the teacher who advised the group. The group placed an emphasis on building self-esteem and leadership abilities as the girls structured their own meetings and agendas.
Another middle school program called "The Glass Slippers" focused on math and science as well as service activities, and was designed to challenge "the glass ceiling" that contributes to underachievement by gifted girls and women. There are also special schools and summer programs around the country that emphasize the special needs of gifted girls.

3. Help girls find a balance.
One characteristic of gifted girls that seems especially unnerving to parents is that many girls need, want, and like to work alone and be alone. As a society, we find this disturbing and, especially for girls, unnatural. Girls seem to be under particular pressure to be in a clique (preferably THE clique) and have a large group of friends so they can be pointed to as popular. And yet, outstanding accomplishment is often the result of intense time spent in solitary pursuit.
Parents can help by both encouraging contact with others so that girls do not feel isolated and lonely while simultaneously allowing them the freedom to choose time by themselves. Sometimes encouraging girls to join single-sex organizations and special- interest groups can help them balance group and solitary time.

4. Expose girls to role models.
Girls benefit from exposure to materials that show successful, achieving women in a variety of areas and that reflect on the contributions women have made to history, literature, the arts, sports, and science. Parents and teachers should make an effort to counteract stereotyped images of women in the print and electronic media with alternative books, magazines, movies, and more positive TV shows.

5. Encourage leadership and future thinking.
Gifted girls with leadership potential should be encouraged to play team sports, either co-ed or all women. This training has been cited by many women as critical to their success in business and organizational administration. Bright young girls should also be encouraged to plan for their futures in realistic ways. They need to be aware of the economic reality that most women will have to work to support themselves and their families.
As they learn to plan, they need to address the issues of juggling school, marriage, career, and family in ways that are both personally and professionally satisfying. Mothers especially need to discuss with their daughters the impact of choices they have made and, when appropriate, the logic behind those choices.
A girl's future need not be predetermined by gender or outside definitions of who she is and what she must do. We must help our daughters find this freedom and help them to choose from a wide range of alternatives that allows each girl to develop her individual talents to their fullest extent.

SHEILA

Sheila has decided to continue violin lessons while also investigating modeling. She has chosen to remain in the honors science classes. Her parents are helping her by setting clear limits about her dating behavior that are appropriate to her age, not her appearance. She continues to be well-liked by boys and is learning how to keep strong friendships with girls. Her grades are excellent and she is learning good study skills with the support of her teachers and parents.

As gifted girls enter early adolescence and progress through middle school, they need the support of their parents and teachers to resist peer and societal pressures. Without this guidance, girls may choose not to use their full potential to achieve. They, and all society, cannot afford to lose this valuable resource.

Susan R. Rakow, Ph.D., is the Gifted Education Specialist and a language-arts teacher at Beechwood (OH) Middle School. She is also an adjunct assistant professor at the Kent State University College of Education in Kent, Ohio. She has published several articles on meeting the needs of gifted adolescents and middle schoolers and is a frequent presenter at education conferences around the country.