By Lilia Cabello
When Alison invited me to contribute an article to the Girl Justice Blog, I was excited. My enthusiasm quickly wavered as I realized my experience with girl programs has always been administrative: writing curriculum, setting up event logistics, and developing activities that other volunteers carry out, rather than working directly with girls.
While I was panicking, I was asked to facilitate a bully prevention program for 35 sixth to ninth grade girls. The idea was both exciting and terrifying. What if I did something wrong? What if they ate me alive? Middle school girls can smell fear.
To my relief and surprise, the day went by quickly. Between activities, discussions, breaks, and meals, I found myself challenged and encouraged by the brave young girls. It was an eye opening experience, and I’d like to share a few of the lessons I learned:
#1: Snack is essential to survival: Girls at this age are developing at an alarming rate. Their bodies are changing, undergoing the adolescent process. A snack shortage can make girls feel like adults don’t care about their physical needs. Healthy snacks create a safe and welcoming environment, and a sense that grown ups care equally about the program and girls’ needs.
#2: Well timed breaks are flour in the bread of your program: Girls use breaks to digest what they are learning and discuss it with each other. Short or rushed breaks distract them from relaxing and deny them the space to process their experiences. Middle school-aged girls face many challenges, and they need time to relax and replenish, or they won’t absorb the material. (Bonus: break time helps adult volunteers process what is happening and mentally or physically regroup.)
#3: “Please” and “thank you” make a difference: We’re taught as children to mind our pleases and thank yous. As adults, we can forget to be courteous while speaking to girls. When a girl shares an idea or thought, or puts herself out there to answer a question, thank her for taking that risk. She’ll feel validated and respected, and the adults and girls will interact on a more equal level. They may not say “please” back to you, but they will remember that you said it. Why? “Because people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And that’s a truth, direct from Maya Angelou.
#4: Attitude is standard: There will always be at least one girl who is queen of the simultaneous eye roll/sigh. Accept it. We are grown ups and we are not cool. Continue to recognize and engage the eye-rolling queen, and let her know you still want her to feel validated and secure (even if you want to roll your eyes and flip your hair right back at her). Adults sometimes expect girls to act like adults, but they have a body revolution raging inside them. They may look like adults, but they are grappling with difficult feelings. Remember that, embrace it, and even the eye roll/sigh girl will come to respect you.
#5: Details are nice but unnecessary: We like to think that girls will notice and appreciate the details we agonize over. The super cute notebook you created for the girls may suffer serious damage, along with your ego. Girls are wonderfully creative and recognize passion, but your superbly detailed schedule, program, and activities will be derailed by the whirlwind that is girl power. Accept that now. Plan for exciting, engaging activities, but don’t stress about the tiny details. Learn to harness girls’ energy, and strap in for the crazy ride that is girl programming.
Working with girls can be a challenge. They are young women, vibrant, full of life, and going through a turbulent time in their lives. We adults wonder “Was I like that?” and shake our heads in disbelief. The truth is we all were. If you reflect on that time in your life, and think of the adults you admired, it wasn’t the most put together, funniest, or coolest; it was the ones who listened to you.
I gave you 5 tips for working with middle school aged girls. I hope they are helpful. But in the end, all they want is your attention, your full attention, to everything.
Lilia is a girl justice advocate who focuses on curriculum creation and program management. She is passionate about understand the intersection of girls and race, and seeks to recognize and appreciate the differences in everyone she works with. She works as a volunteer with the Power Up Bullying Prevention Program with Girl Scouts of Western Washington, and serves on the board for Action for Media Education, a media literacy program that helps youth decipher the impact media makes in their world.