Moving Up! Meeting the Needs of Middle School Girls

By Evangelia Biddy

Growing up girl is definitely not what it was even a few years ago! Today’s girls receive so many confusing messages via popular music and media that focuses on sexualized images of girlhood, consumerism, violence and the unattainable body images presented in teen and young adult magazines. A time that was once reserved for dolls, playhouses and easy-bake ovens has been replaced with cyber-bullying, girl fighting and over exposure to adult material. Now more than ever girls need a supportive environment to help them cope with peer culture and shelter them from the encroaching images in popular culture. Now in its fifth year, Moving Up!, a program available to young women in suburban Philadelphia helps to prepare girls for the culture shock of the middle-school environment.

“Childhood is evaporating! Our program seeks to inoculate girls against the culture of middle school.”

Paula Singer, MSS, LSW

Program director and founder Paula Singer, LSW has been a leading voice in the education of girls. She has been featured in various national media addressing such topics as the impact of technology on the lives of young people, the rise in bullying among girls and media images of tweens and teens. Has middle-school become a dangerous minefield for girls? Singer shares it’s more complicated than you might think.


Why Moving Up? Is middle-school really so different?

Middle-school can be a difficult transition for adolescent girls. Their bodies and brains are changing at a time when they have more academic responsibilities, peer pressure and connecting with a social group becomes paramount. When girls enter middle-school their external self becomes important to them. Girls who in elementary school were very confident, outgoing and smart can change and begin to focus on fitting in and being popular. Some girls loose their sense of individuality. The closeness girls had with their parents can disappear. Personality changes in some girls can catch parents by surprise.

In this group we see girls suffering from poor self-esteem, distorted body images, depression and eating disorders. Girls begin to get into fashion and all the magazines that target them. Many begin trying to live up to an image that is impossible to achieve. We give girls the tools to dissect what they see in the media. We bring parents up-to-date with topics that we cover in daily sections so that they can stay connected with the new shorthand their girls maybe using. This shared information help parents better understand what their daughters are going through and see the world through their eyes.

Our program is designed to give girls the tools and practice at navigating typical, but challenging, social situations with peers in middle-school. Our goal is to teach girls how to build healthy relationships, despite a youth culture filled with inappropriate and harmful messages.


Describe the curriculum of the program?

We feature discussions and activities about body image, nutrition, stress, assertiveness, cooperation, demystifying media messages and Internet etiquette through the use of art projects, team-building games, videos and role-playing. We practice self-confidence and self-defense skills with a martial arts coach so that girls know how to stand up for themselves. We brainstorm about how to cope with the stress of a busier schedule, a bigger school and friendship problems. The girls role-play solutions to typical “mean girl” situations when girls exclude others. A favorite art project is the internal self-portrait doll that the girls create to represent their inner beauty and talents. The art is very liberating.

What we don’t do is lecture to the girls. We don’t want to create a classroom environment. We want girls learning by doing and interacting with others. The girls are led by high-school mentors in small groups. The mentors are wonderful role models, who are able to share their strategies on how they got through middle-school, and even enjoyed it.


Explain the role of the female guests you introduce your students to over the course of the five- day program?

We have experts from various fields come in to address our girls. We have artists, nutritionists, professionals; real women from the community who model what real beauty and womanhood is. These guests are all wonderful accomplished women in their own right. They show our girls diverse career options and inspire them to dream.


What can parents and educators do to help girls transition to middle-school successfully?

The most important thing families can do during the middle-school years is to listen to their girls. Listen and not try to fix their problems. Parents should never minimize the feelings of young people.

To them what they are going through is very real and very important. Help them find their voice. Parents should become coaches to help their daughters come up with their own solutions. Girls need to be encouraged to continue pursuing their talents and developing their skills, cultivating their internal strengths.

Parents should also lobby schools to ensure they have well-publicized rules and consequences about bullying, which peaks in middle-school and fight for zero-tolerance initiatives. At this age it is most important to limit technology usage. Middle-schoolers are not mature enough to manage the anonymity of the medium. Technology has opened a whole new world where young people can be really mean to each other without realizing the long term consequences. We have found that most of the really mean things happen in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Cell phones and text messaging should be delayed until thirteen or fourteen.

One of the real problems with young people is that they have access to too much technology at an earlier and earlier age. This kind of unsupervised access is not good for them. Social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook give them the tools to create a private world that parents can be unaware of. These tools allow young people to build a wall between them and their parents at a time when they need them so much.




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