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Empowering Girls to Take Care of Themselves and Each Other

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 08/09/2016 | Heart & Sole

Let’s face it. Very few people view adolescence positively. It’s seen as something to just get through. Teens are depicted as turning away from adults and toward negative peer groups, making rash decisions and acting impulsively. Adolescence is negatively portrayed in the media, especially when it comes to girls. The mean girl persona permeates social media, music and movies.

As youth workers, we can view adolescence differently, and at Girls on the Run, we do. We choose to see adolescence as an opportunity—to help girls explore their budding interests, to use increased emotionality as a way to explore empathy and caring and to create interdependence with caring adults in the community. Girls create strong positive connections with peers, explore their strengths and consider who they are, who they want to be in the world and how they can make a positive impact. 

Heart & Sole, our middle school program for girls in grades 6-8, creates a safe and structured space for girls to develop life skills that they will use in adolescence and beyond, such as setting boundaries and overcoming obstacles. The 10-week program focuses on the social-emotional Girl Wheel while at the same time helping girls develop their physical competence to complete a 5k by the end of the season. Each practice centers on a Big Idea (“We all face challenges”, for example) followed by a group activity which exemplifies the Big Idea. Girls engage in strength and conditioning and a running activity to prepare them for the 5k and also further explore the Big Idea. At the end of the practice, the girls reflect in their journal and connect what they’ve been learning to their own lives.

As girls develop strengths in their individual Girl Wheels, the team bond strengthens. They recognize they are not alone and begin to problem solve about how they can help each other. They become each other’s best resource. One coach/parent remarked that Heart & Sole “Gives them a chance to not feel isolated and alone and as if they are the only one being misunderstood. Can you imagine the impact it would have on adolescent girls if each and every one of them could know that they are more than their facade, that there are people who care about what is going on beneath the surface?”

When adolescent girls are provided the time, space and structure to participate in activities that allow them to explore who they are individually, who they are as part of a team and as part of a community, they rise to the challenge. As one 8th grade participant said, “I learned to trust myself more, know who I am, stop and think and help someone else out, even if I don’t know her.” 

There are no mean girls. There are confidantes, collaborators and limitless potential.

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 four-year-old daughter. 

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