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Making Best Use of Girls' Coping Skills

September 18, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some girls in middle school get along by openly challenging authority. Some quietly follow the rules and make good grades. Others adopt culturally diverse behaviors valued by both their peers and by school adults.

Each strategy--"speaking out," "doing school" and "crossing borders"--has its benefits and drawbacks depending on adults' interpretations, according to a study released today by the American Assn. of University Women.

"What this study shows us is that the way we as adults respond to girls' behaviors can determine whether they succeed or fail in school," said Jackie DeFazio, president of the association, which represents 150,000 college graduates and promotes education and equity for women.

Girls who use the "speaking out" strategy, for instance, may be viewed as troublemakers or maverick leaders. Girls who "do school" may be achieving comfortably or covering up a hidden struggle for identity. Those engaged in "crossing borders" may become proficient translators between diverse perspectives, but they may also be pressured by school adults to use their talents to serve the school.

The report, "Girls in the Middle," recommends that schools recognize girls' strategies and try to match them with positive programs and outlets. Confrontational girls could become peer mediators. Passive schoolgirls could tutor younger children or be encouraged to take on more responsibility. Border crossers could obtain support for their balancing act through dialogue journals or more adult mentors.

"Girls in the Middle" is the group's third report since 1991 exploring how school climates affect the drastic drop in self-esteem experienced by early adolescent girls. The qualitative study, conducted by the Philadelphia-based Research for Action Inc., involved parents, school adults, and a variety of students in six middle schools across the country.

In recent years, schools have become more aware of gender equity, particularly in classroom relationships, DeFazio said. While the gap between girls and boys has narrowed in math and science scores, she said girls continue to face contradictory demands at a time when they are making crucial life choices.

DeFazio said schools must broaden their reforms to include gender equity at all levels. "What's encouraging to us is that what works for girls also works for boys," she said.

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