A new scheme focused on helping girls navigate the choppy waters of friendship problems in adolescence and pre-adolescence. The scheme gives girls the language, concepts and skills to assist them in providing their own solutions to friendship problems.
In 22 years of being a teacher and then Headteacher, girls’ friendship problems have been my greatest conundrum. I have seen between 5% and 10% of the girl cohort aged 11 to 14 leave my school each year because their friendship problems were making them so unhappy - until I wrote and applied this scheme.
The problem manifests itself as ‘relational aggression’. Girls will present with a range of symptoms including depression, self-harming, and crying themselves to sleep every night. Girls will lie, they will make up stories, whisper falsehoods, manipulate parents, peers and teachers, break trust, create false social media accounts like ‘Who hates …’, play the victim, vow to behave and then… it all starts again. (If you haven’t yet seen Mean Girls, then now is the time.)
And this is not exclusive to any part of the world, demographic, social strata or culture.
I have tried mediation chats, being harsh, being kind, getting very involved, not getting very involved - but I was powerless and girls kept leaving my school!
Knowing that this was a problem I had to solve drove me to seek out and try new solutions. I recognised that maintaining the status quo was not an option and that an innovative solution would be required. I turned to research from educationalists and sociologist and began the process of designing a solution.
I was particularly inspired by the work of Rosalind Wiseman and her book Queen Bees and Wannabees. She writes, the classic girl clique is like a life raft for adolescent girls. Imagine you and your daughter on a cruise ship. Then girls start telling each other that the ship is stupid and boring and it's time to get off. As you watch helplessly, she leaves behind everything that is safe and secure, gets into a life raft with people who have little in common with her except their age, and drifts away.
Once she's on the raft, she's too far away from you and realises her survival depends on bonding with the other girls in the raft. She's desperately afraid of being cast out. We can see now how girls feel forced to act a certain way to be accepted by their peers.
At the heart of the 'Girls on Board' scheme lies the simple but devastating universal truth: girls must not be alone. It is an existential imperative so powerful that, for girls, it overrides every moral code. It is where the scheme starts both for the girls themselves and their parents. Once a girl realises that she shares, with all her peers, her gut-wrenching fear of being excluded, an ironic and healing bond starts to form.
My scheme, available as a download at the bottom of this page, goes on to describe in more detail the kinds of groups that exist within girl cohorts, the types of girls, types of parent behaviour, and seeks to equip girls with the language and concepts to be able to solve their problems for themselves.
So… does the scheme work?
In a word, yes! Not one girl has left my school since the scheme started four years ago.
The scheme is delivered to the girls from ages 8 to 15 at least once a year (and whenever fresh problems arise). A culture has been established in which girls now approach and inform staff when there is conflict in their group, and request more sessions. The sessions offer our students the chance to relate the 'Girls on Board' principles to the problems they face. For instance, we find might ourselves asking, why is this girl being so mean? The answer being that she is feeling really insecure and this is how she is seeking to protect herself. Sometimes the session will remain conceptual and no names or situations will be addressed, at other times, after discussion, we will address the issue at hand e.g.why is Girl A ‘in-the-water’ and not on a 'friendship raft' right now.
When leading a 'Girls on Board' session, my role is primarily recessive, acting more as a facilitator. I like to joke with the girls if they ask me for a direct solution, ‘Hey, I’m a 57-year old man, what do I know?’
Where to now?
Through the RSA, I would like to strengthen the scheme and develop its wider application, as well gain a deeper understanding of how it would work in different schools. The reward of improving girls’ focus and happiness at school is well worth pursuing.
I am about to embark on the process of creating a similar scheme for boys and initial discussions have revealed fascinating similarities and differences between the genders. What do you think? Why not comment or better still get in touch and become part of this project.
Andrew Hampton is a head teacher and a member of the RSA's Innovative Education Network; a community of school leaders, governors and trustees committed to putting innovation at the heart of educational practice.
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