A Positive School Environment for Girls

Learn what distinguishes a positive school experience from one that worsens stress in teen girls.

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When psychologist and author Daniel Goleman discusses the sort of school culture that encourages students to develop people skills or emotional literacy, he suggests building "a place where students feel respected, cared about, and bonded to classmates and teachers." Essentially, he is describing a supportive community.

The teenage girls I speak with wholeheartedly agree. When it comes to their feelings about school, there seems to be no middle ground: Either they feel safe and cared for, or they are unhappy. Danielle, a Girls' Life reader who is a freshman, vividly describes what it feels like for girls in less than ideal school settings:

I have had to adjust to two new teachers so far this year, which I think adds to the stress. My homeroom teacher was moved across town because he was accused of sexual harassment. My German teacher retired unexpectedly, and now we have this teacher who can't speak English and no one is learning anything. Today, two students were kicked out for "being bad," and neither of those two students deserved to be moved. Our principal is recording our class now. It is rather depressing to start your school day off with total and utter chaos. So, for me, learning isn't fun anymore, which is unfortunate.

Not surprisingly, when I ask teens about the one thing they would change to make their school experiences better, girls (but not boys) want to strengthen their ties with the people they see daily and improve the social climates of their schools. For example, girls in middle school and high school say they would like

  • "Nicer friends and teachers."
  • "More empathic friends."
  • "Friendlier people."
  • "Fewer cliques."
  • "Closer relationships with faculty and staff."
  • "More caring and helpful teachers."
These findings dovetail with data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the most comprehensive study ever conducted of American adolescents and their parents. Psychologists at the University of Minnesota found that schools with positive climates--characterized by factors such as well-managed classrooms and moderate disciplinary policies--may reduce teens' emotional distress along with their risk of substance use, deviant behavior, violence, and pregnancy.

The key factor is students' sense of attachment to their schools. Although most students in most schools reported feeling connected, a staggering one third of teens feel disenfranchised. As you wonder whether your daughter's school environment facilitates connectedness, consider the following findings:

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