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Pointers from the Program: How Girls Learn to Stand Up for Themselves & Others

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 09/04/2014 | Featured Columns & Series

Sometimes standing up for ourselves is hard. This is particularly true for young girls as they develop their identity and learn to negotiate their way in the world; a world that often teaches them that putting others’ needs first is what is expected of girls and women, and standing up for yourself is selfish or pushy.

One of the six core values of Girls on the Run is “Stand up for ourselves and others.” But how do we equip our girls to activate that value in their own lives? Confidence is part of the formula.

Recently, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of the books The Confidence Code and New York Times best-seller womenomics, wrote on their blog, “Confidence, our research shows, comes from taking action and risks and going outside your comfort zone. And it just doesn’t seem to come as easily to our girls as it does to our boys… What we need to do is encourage our girls to take risks, do hard things and be strong, mentally and physically. That’s why Girls on the Run is so important.”

“Confidence, our research shows, comes from taking action and risks and going outside your comfort zone. And it just doesn’t seem to come as easily to our girls as it does to our boys.”

If you’ve ever attended a Girls on the Run 5k event, you know what confidence looks like on the faces of the girls as they cross the finish line. It looks like, “Yes! I did something I never thought I could do!”

Crossing a finish line is a very physical representation of increased confidence and mastery. But it’s not the only example. Imagine the school cafeteria. A new girl sits alone at a table, teased by the neighboring table of kids. A little girl goes over to her, sits down and begins to eat and talk with her. This is also an example of a GOTR girl doing something she may never have thought she could do. She’s taking a risk. She’s standing up for others. And the more practice she has taking these risks, taking action, the more likely she will be to stand up for herself as well.

In one lesson from the Girls on the Run curriculum called, “Being a Stand-Byer” (as opposed to being a bystander), the girls role play how to respond to bullying situations. They practice some of the skills they’ve already learned in the program. They also practice new skills, such as telling a trusted adult, setting a good example or being a good friend. All of this is done with physical activity creatively woven in so that the girls are having fun, taking risks, trying new things, moving and learning new skills! The increased confidence that results can have a lot of great side effects, including the ability to take a stand when needed.

If confidence is key to standing up for ourselves and others, then we have to create ways to help our girls build it. None of us learn to be confident overnight. Look for supportive ways to encourage the girls in your world to do hard things, to take meaningful risks and to challenge themselves physically and mentally. Talk with your girl about the kinds of situations she might encounter and what responses she might have when it’s time to stand up. Best of all, share with her your experiences of confidence (or lack thereof) so she can see how someone she admires has learned and grown.

As a mother of an almost two year old, I repeat this mantra often, “Just let her do it. She’ll be okay. And if she falls, I’ll be there to pick her up.”


Pointers from the Program is a column from the team at Girls on the Run International who develop our curriculum and oversee our program and pedagogy. These columns share perspective from the curriculum and our experience in the field with the many thousands of 3rd- through 8th-grade girls our the program.

Heather Pressley, PhD

Author

As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley now brings her experience in education to Girls on the Run, ensuring programs are relevant, engaging and girl-centered. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather is navigating the world being a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her daughter. 

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