Written by Doctor G

How to Give Courage to Girls in the Classroom

Dr. G, My almost 6 year old daughter is having some trouble in school. She is very outgoing socially, and very into learning at home. She is very smart and good at academics, but she does not raise her hand at school. The teachers have told us she “lacks initiative.” She says she doesn’t raise her hand because she doesn’t want to give the wrong answer. Even when we know she knows the answer, she says she “isn’t sure” so she doesn’t try. My wife and I really want to encourage her to speak up, and can’t understand this huge personality change in the classroom setting. We’re thinking of changing schools. What can we do?

Anonymous, in PA

The only person who knows for sure why she isn’t raising her hand is your daughter, and she may not be able to verbalize what she is feeling.

She may grow out of this phase, but you are right to notice and try to empower her.

It’s very likely that your daughter is worried about the consequences of being wrong with her answer. It’s also possible that she doesn’t want to be a “show off.” Most girls (and many women) have the inherent belief that it’s better to be thought of as nice than smart.  Since she is outgoing socially she may not just be feeling shy – but kids who are confident socially can still get stage fright when asked to speak in front of a group. The best would be if you and her mom can help her express what’s stopping her from speaking up.

Here are a few things you could try:

  1. Role play. Play school with your daughter with her as the teacher or as one of the other kids. If you have other children in the family, they could be in the class too. You or her mom should be a student who answers a lot of questions, and gets some wrong. See if she can play out what she thinks will happen. You can even stop the game and ask her “Oh! I got that wrong. What might happen now?”
  2. Read some books. Find a book in a series she likes (perhaps Berenstain Bears or Little Critter) and read some of the books about school. Even if you can’t find a story about speaking up in class (Berenstain Bears and the Spelling Bee, maybe?), use the characters to talk about “What happens next” as a way of exploring her feelings.
  3. Ask her advice. Tell her you know a little girl that is super-smart but is having trouble being brave in school. Ask what you or her teachers could do to make it easier for that fictional little girl to share her ideas. She may very well know that you are talking about her, but it will make her laugh (unlike when she is 11, then it will make her roll her eyes). It’s always easier to help a “friend” than to talk about oneself.

To help her explain this try to be as nonjudgmental as possible. If she is able to tell you how she feels don’t tell her she’s wrong! Show empathy and don’t try to fix her perception. End the conversation with gratitude and praise for expressing her feelings. Come back to it at least a day later with possible solutions.

Even if she isn’t able to explain the problem, you might come at it from a slightly different angle. Talk to your daughter about learning bravery. Explain that you want her to learn the skill of answering questions in class. You aren’t concerned with her being “right” with her answers. Prove this at home by valuing her contributions when she adds something to a conversation, even if what she says isn’t true. Play school again at home and let her practice.

Let me know how it goes.

To all my great women readers – did you ever struggle with this as a child? What might help?

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4 thoughts on “How to Give Courage to Girls in the Classroom”

  1. I also struggled with this when I was younger. My particular memories come from middle school, though. I think it was because I was afriad of being wrong. I was constantly told how smart I was by family, and I truly believe it disabled me tremendously from following through with my abililtes. Today I am still smart, and still told, but have major problems advancing in a given field due to being afraid of failing at something I want to do. Sorry.. I know that doesnt really offer advice, but I do relate, and appreciate the post. Mostly so I can help raise my daughter to be differrent than I am. I love how you say not to try and fix her perception.

    1. Lindsey, this is a really interesting perspective and I think you are not alone. Research tells us that praising kids often for what they are, as opposed to what they do, is strangely defeating. When kids hear “You’re smart” they feel proud but it doesn’t actually empower them at all, since they were born that way. Worse, they often feel that failure will show family what the child secretly worries about – that she is not smart after all. On the other hand, when we praise a child’s effort: “You worked hard on that paper – I can see the great effort you put in, and it’s well-written!” then she feels empowered. Her effort is hers, she can recreate it and count on it.

    1. This absolutely can permeate every aspect of a person’s life. I’m glad you’re succeeding and seeing what can happen. Good news for your daughter.

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