Educating Girls

12 September 2019

Resilient girls in a stressful world

Resilient girls in a stressful world

Chapter 14 of Madonna King’s book Being 14, is titled Little Miss Anxious with the quote ‘I’m scared that I won’t succeed or be happy.’ Molly. Madonna starts the chapter with … ‘Molly, this chapter is for you.’ And while it is for every girl out there who feels like Molly, they will only reap the rewards if this chapter is understood and acted upon by educators and parents working together.

Madonna King is one of a number of researchers whose work shows that Molly is not aloneAcross Australia, our girls want to talk about anxiety, but just not publicly. Through her research, King became increasingly aware of the manner in which our girls often harbour anxiety as their secret, sometimes even from friends and family, and they don’t feel normal. When King asked girls to write about what they would value their parents to understand, the word ‘anxiety’ showed up time and time again along with thoughtful responses such as: ‘Please don’t forget that mental health is important. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Please look into insecurities and mental health issues. Sometimes I feel so sad I don’t know if it is normal.’
It is so easy to believe things are okay as we see our teenage girls engage in a range of activities, achieve academically and maintain good friendships. But some of these girls who appear to be fine may be feeling that they are falling apart. Leonard Sax wrote ‘On the surface, she is the golden girl, inside, she is falling apart.’ King cites studies that show 54% of girls suffer an episode of depression or anxiety during their teens; almost double the percentage of boys and notes it is often the girls we see as highly accomplished who are suffering.
In his book The Triple Bind, Dr Stephen Hinshaw refers to girls being good at all the traditional girl activities, being good and competitive at traditional male activities, and conforming to a narrow, unrealistic set of standards that allow for no alternative. There is now this need to be everything. He cites it as the greatest current threat to our daughters’ health and wellbeing, an enormous obstacle to them becoming happy and successful adults.

‘The schooling of children has, for more than a century, been about accomplishment, the boulevard into the world of adult work … but imagine if schools could, without compromising either, teach both the skills of wellbeing and the skills of achievement.’   Martin Seligman 2009

In this world where a competitive approach to education is the norm, nearly two years ago, Ruyton commenced its Anxiety to Empowerment research and action plan. We have collected quantitative baseline line and student voice data related to academic worry, alongside the consistent use of a Data-Driven Dialogue protocol to make sense of the collected data with student, teacher and parent groups during 2018. The student voice data, in combination with the protocol, helped our staff to collaboratively work towards an informed understanding of the assessment and reporting processes and structures that were contributing to our students’ academic worry.
Our central purpose in commencing this work was to better understand the motivation and engagement of our girls at Ruyton. As we became immersed in the data and student voice, our purpose quickly moved to gaining a clearer understanding of what causes them anxiety, in particular, academic worry. The focus of our School-wide approach is to empower the girls to best navigate this world they occupy. We do this not only through the review of our systems and processes at Ruyton, but also through the way we empower them; how our wellbeing programme and interventions support them in their learning and living. We have a specific focus on the cultural force of language and messaging around stress, anxiety and worry.
Our Ruyton parent community will join together in Term 4 2019, at our Powerful Parenting seminar where research and findings to date will be shared with a focus on how, as educators and parents, we best support our girls to navigate the teenage years. 

Linda Douglas

Ruyton Girls' School

September 2019