Interview: Helping Girls Thrive

post logo 200A MiddleWeb Interview



Helping girls identify their strengths and build on them is central to Lisa Hinkelman’s career. She is the Founder and Director of Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc., a non-profit with thousands of participants in urban, suburban, rural, and parochial schools. ROX is a regional organization focused on equipping girls with the information and skills necessary to live healthy, independent, and violence-free lives.

Dr. Hinkelman, who earned a PhD in Counselor Education from The Ohio State University, teaches Counseling Children and Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling and conducts research into girls’ experiences at the university. In addition, she consults regularly for schools, organizations, and agencies on the critical issues impacting girls. This year she published Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Healthy Relationships, Academic Success, and Interpersonal Strength.

We asked Lisa Hinkelman to share her findings about girls and her recommendations for helping girls realize their potential.

Hinkelman 200w1. Why girls? Please tell us what about your experiences and education has led you to seven years of research and writing about girls’ lives and possibilities.

My interest in working with girls and women started when I was in undergraduate school. I attended Chatham College, a women’s college in Pittsburgh, PA where I had the opportunity to work with some fantastic professors who really helped me explore my options and identify my passions. Dr. Peggy Stubbs was my professor for a Psychology of Women course, and for me, that was one of the first times that things ‘clicked’ for me – that I realized how differently men and women move through the world and the unique challenges that face girls and women.

Dr. Stubbs connected me with opportunities to engage in very meaningful ways with girls and women. From coaching middle school girls’ basketball to volunteering for a rape crisis center, I was learning so much about the developmental, social, and interpersonal issues that were impacting girls and women. These early experiences proved to be the impetus for me to go to graduate school for counseling, and then begin a career of working with and researching the experiences of diverse girls and women.

During graduate school and my early years as a faculty member, I was working as a counselor in a charter school for girls who were involved in the juvenile justice system and was also working with adult women in outpatient counseling. I quickly realized that the issues that the girls were facing were markedly similar to the issues that adult women were facing. Girls were experiencing low self-esteem and self-concept, difficulty in relationships with other girls, and challenges in dating relationships with boys. The adult women that I was working with were experiencing the same sorts of challenges!

I began in earnest to try to deconstruct the variables that impact girls’ self-esteem and confidence. I wanted to understand how girls develop strength and confidence. How do the experiences that they have shape their sense of self? And, ultimately, how can we expose girls to the information and experiences that will have a positive and lasting impact on their lives?

2. What are your sources? What research by others did you consider, and how did you go about reaching out to girls?

There are so many scholars, authors, and researchers who have immersed themselves in understanding the lives of girls: Carol Gilligan, Lyn Mikel Brown, Rachel Simmons, Rosalind Wiseman, Peggy Orenstein. My educational years have been spent reading the works of these great authors, and incorporating their philosophies and approaches in my own work with girls.

Hinkelman Girls Without Limits 200I did not start working with and researching girls with a book in mind. I wanted to develop programming and interventions that would help girls navigate their challenging adolescent years and develop a strong sense of themselves and their options. I started a research study in 2006 when I was a full-time faculty member in Counselor Education at The Ohio State University. With the assistance of many talented professionals and graduate students, I developed a program for adolescent girls called ROX – which stands for Ruling Our eXperiences.

ROX was developed to address the critical issues that impact girls during adolescence – body image, self-esteem, healthy communication, girl bullying/relational aggression, safety and sexual violence prevention, academic and career development and leadership. It is a 20-week evidence-based curriculum that is delivered in schools by trained and licensed facilitators.

More than 3,000 girls have participated in the ROX program over the past seven years and the thousands of data sets from urban, suburban, and rural girls who attend public, private, and parochial schools have informed Girls Without Limits.

In the book, I was able to combine the academic framework of an extensive multi-year quantitative and qualitative data collection with the relevant, compelling, and heartfelt contributions of girls in elementary, middle, and high school. I took the time to listen to what girls actually have to say, and I allowed them to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without judging them or telling them what to do.

In addition, I conducted interviews and focus groups with over 100 teachers, parents, and counselors about the challenges that they face in raising, educating, and supporting girls.  Then I worked to provide a context for adults to increase their awareness, inventory their behaviors, and implement new strategies to be more communicative, empowering, and effective in their interactions with girls.

3. Beyond the cultural and regional differences you documented across the country, what challenges did you find that girls – particularly young adolescents – share?

I had the opportunity to talk with girls who are incarcerated, who are homeless, who live in middle-class homes, and who live in mansions. I learned from girls who are in two-parent families, foster care, single-parent families, divorced families, and who live with their grandparents. I spent time listening to girls in very poor urban schools, middle-class suburban schools, elite independent schools, and low-income rural schools. Girls in public, parochial, private, and charter schools participated in my research and shared their thoughts, feelings, and opinions with me.

I learned that there are vast differences among girls in regards to their experiences, their thoughts, and their opinions. Girls’ knowledge of various topics is based upon the environment where they are raised. Depending upon what they have been exposed to, girls’ perceptions of the opportunities available to them can vary greatly.

The one thing that continued to amaze me as I talked to more and more girls was that the fundamental issues that are facing girls are much more universal than they are different.”

But the one thing that continued to amaze me as I talked to more and more girls was that the fundamental issues that are facing girls are much more universal than they are different. While girls can have extremely different experiences based upon their socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, family composition, or mental health and ability, I have found that the experience of girlhood, while unique for every girl, looks amazingly similar for girls across the country.

Despite the vast differences between and among girls, the commonalities and shared experiences strongly outweigh the differences. Negotiating friendships and fitting in, experiencing insecurity about one’s body, managing dating relationships and sexual pressure, and dealing with the social, emotional, and cognitive changes of adolescence seem to be universal issues for many American teen girls. Girls are under pressure and are at-risk for negative outcomes simply because they are female. Girls are more likely than boys to: dislike their body, be on a diet, feel pressure to look sexy, experience sexual violence, have low self-esteem, experience depression, and attempt suicide.

Despite these challenges, we know that girls are strong and resilient. They consistently exceed the limited expectations that are placed upon them by society and the media, and they continue to amaze and inspire us. We also know that girls are better able to fully realize their potential when they have caring adults in their lives who nurture, challenge, encourage, and support them.

4. For the parent/teacher/counselor who picks up your book, what will they find that will help them work more effectively with girls?

hinkelman2My goal in writing this book is to give a voice to girls who often feel that their thoughts and opinions are unheard and devalued. There are so many professionals, psychologists, teachers, and authors who have been telling us what girls want, what girls need, and what we should do with the girls in our lives, but few have taken the time to survey and talk to thousands of girls from many backgrounds.

I wanted to know: What’s going through girls’ minds? What do they dream about? What fills them with insecurity? What do they think are the big things going on their lives that adults don’t understand? And ultimately, what can we do to help them? I want to provide adults with a glimpse into the lives of girls, as described by the girls themselves, and offer concrete strategies for how adults can better understand, communicate with, and motivate the girls in their lives.

Girls Without Limits helps parents and other influential adults in their lives “get it” by developing a real understanding of what girls think and feel about their daily challenges. I wrote this book to give girls a voice because they often feel no one is paying attention to their thoughts and opinions.

Along with what girls say about their own lives, the book provides useful action strategies to help parents, educators, counselors and other adults in their lives listen to, communicate with and motivate them. The book provides activities, case studies, reflections, and current research on various topics impacting girls and each chapter ends with a section entitled “What Can We Do?” that provides concrete strategies that can be immediately implemented with the girls in your life.

5. How can adults – especially educators in the upper elementary and middle grades – help girls realize their potential?

I think there are so many different ways that adults can be positive forces in the lives of girls, and many of these suggestions and tips are found throughout the book. But the final chapter, ‘What Girls Need,’ provides an overview of ways that we can provide girls with a safe, supportive, and limitless life.  Here is a bullet-list of the topics that are discussed in greater detail:

  • Girls need to be the expert on their own lives.
  • Girls need adults to communicate openly.
  • Girls need opportunities to improve their confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.
  • Girls need exposure to realistic and positive female role models.
  • Girls need specific praise and constructive reinforcement.
  • Girls need us to believe them when they tell us things that we may not want to believe.
  • Girls need us to take their concerns seriously and not minimize their experiences.
  • Girls need help in learning how to establish healthy boundaries.
  • Girls need hope for the future.

Four girlsWe want to help girls see beyond their current circumstances or situations, no matter how difficult, and envision a rich and fulfilling life for themselves. We know that girls’ experiences can be very different, and their lives can be full of difficulty and chaos, but girls are very resilient and possess the internal fortitude to rise above the situations where they find themselves to ultimately construct a life that they love.

Girls need to know that they can be anything that they want to be, but we have to support them to achieve these goals and prepare them for what they might face in their journey to realize their aspirations. We want girls to have access to the widest range of possibilities and options for their lives.

We want girls to love being girls, not because they can wear dresses and get their hair done but rather because being a girl means that they can be anything they want to be, do anything they want to do, and go anywhere they want to go. We want them to understand that being a girl does not mean that you’re limited in any way but rather that you are full of possibilities. Our role is to help girls see their own potential and to help them see the strength in themselves that they have difficulty identifying. We want girls to find value in themselves, so they can add value to the world.

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

2 Responses

  1. An interesting, thought-provoking piece- middle school is so complicated and any nugget of insight is valuable!

  2. I am writing a middle grade novel with a female lead character and I really appreciated Lisa Hinkelman’s post on Helping Girls Thrive. She may enjoy knowing about something I read sometime ago. The news item mentioned a senior in high school who was named a semifinalist for her research titled “The Social Cost of School Restructuring: The Impact of Middle School Reform on Young Adolescent Girls’ Body Image.” What she found was that tweens, those in the fifth grade who are enrolled in middle schools, report significantly higher levels of body dissatisfaction than those who attend school with younger children.

    It’s a delicate balance to champion tween girls’ independence while protecting their innocence as long as possible. I think it can be done, though. Thanks for this great post. It’s wonderful knowing the work going on.

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