Note: This is Part 1 of a longer article Dr. Norris is pleased to provide through CRG’s newsletter. Here she describes factors that can contribute to the drop in self-confidence and academic success in adolescent girls. We look forward to publishing the second part, in which Dr. Norris proposes solutions, in a future newsletter.
For girls, puberty and the transition from elementary to middle school often occur at the same time. A drop in self-esteem and declining academic achievement often accompany this important life stage. Girls are changing schools and shuffling peer groups while their bodies are undergoing a remarkable transformation (Lerner, 2007). Due to the number of changes in their lives and physical appearance, adolescent girls often feel a great deal of stress and their motivation to succeed in school suffers. Research (2006) by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., director of the Eating Disorders Education and Prevention at McClean Hospital, finds that girls’ self-confidence declines as they move from childhood into adolescence. Achievement motivation suffers as greater emphasis is placed on the way they look. Self-concept scores for both gifted and average ability girls have been found to drop between 3rd and 8th grades, with gifted girls showing worse self-esteem related to their intellectual abilities and popularity than their average peers. It appears that gifted girls try to modify their academic aspirations to fit in and downplay their intelligence and avoid competition, especially against boys, to gain peer acceptance. In a landmark report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW, 1991), Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, girls’ confidence in their academic abilities often plummets from elementary school to high school, especially in their belief in their math and science abilities.
In addition, the onset of adolescence triggers a shift in expectations regarding a student’s functioning in the school environment. Usually students are no longer under the control of a main teacher but, instead, are taught by a number of teachers with different personalities and expectations. Blending students from different elementary schools disrupts natural peer groups, so middle school students may end up in class knowing no one. Frequent redistricting of students also impairs the development of strong emotional bonds with peers. Also, in middle school, a significant amount of student work must be completed outside of the classroom such as reading, studying for tests, and completing projects. The difficulty of academic work assigned to middle or junior high schools usually increases, too (Wigfield, Eccles, & Pintrich, 1996). Girls with undetected attention difficulties or learning problems find that they cannot keep up even with substantial effort although they may have previously done well in elementary school. Girls with unidentified ADHD are at risk of chronic low self-esteem, underachievement, anxiety, depression, teen pregnancy, and smoking during middle school and high school (Quinn & Nadeau. 2002). Girls at this age also have a more realistic awareness of how their skills compare with peers. Parents who were very conscious of their child’s projects and curriculum during the elementary years find that they are left out as it becomes more difficult to access their child’s teachers for information and their children become less communicative. Often parents are not contacted until significant problems with disruptive behavior or declining academics occur.
Physical maturation with an emphasis on appearances becomes very important for girls at this age. Early and late maturing girls each have their own risk factors. Late maturing girls have the best chance of having the tall, thin physique valued by our culture but suffer low self-esteem initially. Early maturing girls often endure teasing and are more likely to be depressed, lack self-confidence and show behavior problems. They are more likely to drink and smoke. Their physical appearance may make them attractive to older boys, who may push them into early sexual encounters before they are emotionally ready and result in risk factors such as STDs, unplanned pregnancies and conflict with parents (Kail, R.V. & Cavanaugh, J.C., 2010). Weight issues (too fat, too thin) can put girls at risk for eating disorders. With such an emphasis on physical appearance, girls have a difficult time maintaining their focus on academics.
In addition, hormonal changes of puberty affect the way girls respond to stimuli. Changing estrogen levels in their bodies increases the desire for social bonding. The amygdala, a part of the brain that handles emotional stimuli, matures much earlier in girls than in boys. This causes girls to react more strongly to stress and attach emotional memories to negative events. Adolescent egocentrism contributes to the feeling that the whole world is watching them. Social media is a constant distraction, giving them immediate feedback as to whether they were included in social events or liked by others. Cyberbullying can have longstanding effects on confidence and well being that can persist even after the bullying stops.
All of the above factors contribute to girls showing a decline in their academic skills and self-esteem during the middle school years.