Monday, May 11, 2015

Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school

Young gifted girls embrace learning with a burning drive and passion. For the most part, they delve into elementary school with confidence, excitement and energy. They tend to love school...

Until they don't.

Something happens between elementary and high school that dampens the spirit for far too many gifted girls. Middle school is difficult for most children, and certainly creates challenges for gifted students. But gifted girls face social, academic and developmental hurdles that can reduce their burning drive to smoldering ashes.

Here's what we know:

1. They lose confidence 

Numerous studies of middle school girls have found a gradual drop in self-esteem that develops over time. For example:
  • Measures of academic self-concept and motivation were lower for 6th grade girls than for boys, but the differences were even greater in comparisons of gifted girls and gifted boys (i.e., the gifted girls felt much worse about themselves than the gifted boys). 
  • Self-concept scores for both gifted and average ability girls dropped between 3rd and 8th grade, but the gifted girls had worse self-esteem related to their intellectual abilities and popularity.
  • decrease in self-esteem and confidence among gifted girls developed between 1st and 12th grades, along with an increase in perfectionism, hopelessness, discouragement and emotional vulnerability.
  • Loss of self-esteem continues throughout high school and beyond. One study found that 3/4 of girls who graduated from a school for the gifted did not think they were smart. And Reis cited findings that female valedictorians lost confidence when they were in college, despite achieving good grades.

2. They lose interest in STEM subjects

Although gifted girls enjoy math and science as much as boys during elementary school, many believe that boys are intrinsically better at math. By 8th grade, boys are twice as interested in math and science as girls. According to Jensen & Nutt, 74% of girls show interest in STEM fields up until middle school. But by high school, only .3% consider computer science as a major. Another study found that 2.5% of girls thought of pursuing engineering or computer science, compared to 15% of boys.

3. The neuroscience makes it harder

We certainly know that the hormonal changes of puberty create a roller coaster of emotions. But there are other biochemical and neurological differences that set girls apart:
  • First, estrogen increases the desire for bonding and connection and discourages risk-taking, while testosterone (10 times higher in men) fuels risks. 
  • Secondly, the amygdala develops 18 months sooner in girls during early adolescence. Women's amygdalae are activated more easily in reaction to stressful situations, contributing to a tendency toward worry and forming strong emotional memories in response to negative events. 
  • In addition, the anterior cingulate cortex is larger in women. This relates to weighing choices and options, scanning the environment for threats, and noticing errors. 
All of these factors contribute to a tendency toward caution, worry and emotional reactivity that increases during puberty.

4. Girls are relational and this complicates matters

Girls are more relational and define themselves within the context of relationships. Even in infancy, girls are more interactive and smile at an earlier age on average than boys. Theorists from the Stone Center at Wellesley College defined the concept of "self-in-relation," where women develop within and through their relationships with others. Carol Gilligan first noted how women are rewarded for their caretaking abilities and pride themselves on their capacity to nurture others. This identity may create conflict, though, when assertiveness, competiton and placing personal interests above others are required for success.

5. Middle school girls face difficult choices

They modify their behaviors to fit in and conform to societal views of femininity, sexuality and beauty. Appearances become critical, both in terms of physical attractiveness and peer expectations. Often forced to choose between popularity and remaining true to themselves, many gifted girls downplay their intelligence, avoid competition, and "dumb themselves down" to gain acceptance. At the very least, they don't want to alienate other girls or intimidate the boys. And some school environments are so hostile that masking their abilities may seem the only option to prevent bullying and isolation.

6. Stereotypes, assumptions and expectations hold them back

Some research has shown that stereotypes about girls' abilities still persist. Teachers may underestimate girls' potential, assuming boys have more innate ability and girls just work harder. Parents also may underestimate their daughters' abilities, particularly in math, and are more likely to expect their sons to work in STEM fields. And gifted middle school girls receive conflicting messages. They know they are capable and talented, yet are quite aware of these muted expectations and the social drawbacks associated with achievement.

What can you do to help?

  • Challenge any bias, misconceptions and stereotypes among educators, parents, or the community. This may require ongoing continuing education for teachers and administrators, personal introspection and behavior change among parents, and advocacy in the schools. But false beliefs about gifted girls' abilities or giftedness in general need to be acknowledged and eradicated.
  • Help gifted girls appreciate their innate abilities. Gifted girls need to be reminded that they are smart. This contradicts recent claims from "growth mindset," advocates, who imply that informing gifted children of their abilities will somehow destroy their drive to achieve. Yet, most research related to gifted girls has shown that they lack confidence, doubt their innate talents, and already attribute their accomplishments to hard work. They need to recognize their abilities, and also receive encouragement to challenge themselves, work up to their potential, and take risks.
  • Introduce them to female role models.  Girls benefit from meeting women who have achieved success in non-traditional fields, who represent STEM fields in particular, and who have managed to balance work and family commitments. And role models not only include successful CEOs or aerospace engineers. Engaging, dynamic female teachers and moms may be the best role models of all.
  • Encourage risk-taking. At an age when caution and worry increase, gifted girls need encouragement to take as many academic risks as possible. This might involve exploring new areas of study; trying something difficult even if they risk failure; allowing themselves to compete, despite possibly upsetting their friends; challenging perfectionistic behaviors; and putting themselves first when appropriate. The more risk-taking and "failure" experiences they have, the more likely they will build the confidence they need to succeed in later careers.
  • Offer ability grouping. Gifted girls benefit from ability grouping where they no longer have to hide their talents and may feel less conflict about competition. Their intelligence is respected rather than ridiculed, and they can engage in challenging interaction with peers. This is not only beneficial from an educational standpoint, but serves to increase their self-esteem and belief that that it is OK to be smart.
  • Get them involved in competitive activities. Some studies have shown that girls who participate in team sports in high school are more likely to graduate from college, earn a higher salary and work in male-dominated fields. But if sports just don't grab their interest, competition can be found in music, chess, robotics, hack-a-thons, reading olympics and many other venues. Helping girls learn to compete without guilt is useful preparation for later academic and career challenges.
  • Address insecurities and fears. Help these talented girls overcome any lurking fears and self-doubt. Middle school is a time when anxiety, depression, body image concerns, and social anxiety may develop. Address any tendencies toward perfectionism, procrastination, test anxiety, underachievement and low self-esteem. They may need help with social skills, particularly if there is asynchronous development, if they have accelerated a grade or two, or if their values and sensibilities are quite different from those of other students. Help them find like-minded peers, even if this means seeking out extra-curricular activities or summer programs. If they need counseling, find a licensed mental health professional who can help them.
  • Engage their giftedness. Recognize their heightened sensitivity, concern with fairness and justice, and need for creative and intellectual stimulation. Help them find outlets for their passions, an opportunity for creative expression, and volunteer activities where they can extend their caring and compassion for others. Challenge them to excel, but avoid pressure or coercion. Even if they are bored or unhappy at school, help them recognize that they can always find some interests that will enliven and entertain them.

Gifted middle school girls deserve every opportunity to reach their potential. As teachers or parents, you can guide them to through this difficult transition and provide the foundation for their future development.

In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

Key relationship dilemmas for gifted women
Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths
What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?


  1. Thanks.. This is so similar to what my daughter is going through.

  2. I wish my parents read this article when I was in middle school!

    1. Yeah. Same, but my parents were not concerned about how traumatic middle school was for me. And being obese-- and a minority-- made it so much harder...