Ten tips to help girls succeed at school

Three happy girls.

At a glance

  • Be interested in your daughter's school work; it shows you value what they do.
  • Don't underestimate the power of encouragement; it's a great way of helping with schoolwork.
  • School attendance is critical to a girl's success at school.
  • As parents, especially mums, it's important to model self-assertiveness, confidence, independence and self-assurance.
  • The best antidote to any anxieties your daughter may have about schoolwork is common sense.

School principal Jenni Wilkins and experts in learning and resilience, Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli and Professor Andrew Martin, give their best ideas on helping girls to excel at school.

1. Ensure your daughter goes to school every day

A lot of girls think they can stay at home and study, Birrong Girls High School principal Jenni Wilkins says. Children who miss out on eight days of school a term will miss on about a year of education by the time they finish primary school and not much less for high school.

"The best way to learn is to come to school," Jenni says.

"Evidence from the School Certificate and the HSC demonstrates that our highest performers are also those students who have the best attendance rates."

2. Be involved in your daughter's learning

Teachers ensure girls are engaged in learning, however parents/caregivers also need to be engaged in their daughter's education, Jenni says.

"Ask your daughter what they're up to, what they're learning and why it's important to them to learn because this shows you're interested in their school life."

Also find out when their next assignment is due or when their trials begin.

"This allows parents to know when their daughters are under pressure," she says.

3. Lend a helping hand

Help sort out problems your daughter may be experiencing with schoolwork and support them to produce good work.

"It's amazing what parents can bring to their daughter's schoolwork," Jenni says.

"A lot of parents sell themselves a bit short – but if they can understand what's being produced then the teacher will understand it as well."

However, if you find this a challenge for any reason, remain in close contact with the school or have a chat with the principal to get some support. Also, don't underestimate the power of encouragement; it's a great way of helping with schoolwork.

4. Set up a place for learning

It's important to give your daughter a place to work at home – a table where she can work in a quiet area away from brothers and sisters and away from distractions such as the television, Jenni says. This allows girls to concentrate on what they're doing and also shows that the family values her schoolwork.

5. Know what's going on in their life

Girls' concern over their self-image and their vulnerability to being bullied or cyberbullied often gets in the way of learning, Jenni says.

"It's important you monitor it closely."

Talk to your daughter about what's going on in her life, and go along to the parent-teacher nights and P&C meetings to find out how schools manage these issues.

You can also ask teachers what they're noticing, she says.

Girls need lots of encouragement and reinforcement that they in themselves are beautiful and they're intelligent. Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli Deakin University

6. Reduce their concerns about self-image

Girls' abilities to succeed at school are strongly influenced by the social culture around them, says Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, lecturer at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University. Many girls struggle between traditional ideas of femininity versus being more independent and assertive. Instead of these attitudes helping girls to learn and achieve, they begin modelling themselves on traditional boys' behaviour – binge-drinking, being anti-authoritarian, anti-learning and being sexually aggressive as they try to throw off the ‘goodie goodie' image. Back in the classroom, this behaviour can also cause problems, Maria says.

"Girls need lots of encouragement and reinforcement that they in themselves are beautiful and they're intelligent. As parents, especially mums, it's important we model self-assertiveness, confidence, independence and self-assurance," she says.

7. Check your expectations

If girls are put under excessive pressure from parents about their school performance or the career they should pursue, they can sometimes withdraw, experience anxiety issues or switch off from learning, Maria says.

"Parents have to put aside what happened to them, how they feel and what their ambitions were for themselves and are for their girls and ask, ‘What does my daughter want, what is my daughter capable of and how do I encourage her as an individual to do the best she can to carve her space out in the world?'" she says.

"Parents need to come across as cheerleaders and critical friends from the sidelines and someone who doesn't expect them to be perfect."

8. Reinforce your daughter's self-confidence

Girls are often motivated about learning but are also anxious about it and can doubt their abilities, says Professor Andrew Martin, a research fellow at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Education and Social Work.

"They often worry about failing tests or assignments and not meeting the mark."

The best antidote to their anxiety is common sense, he says. If they're worried about failing a test, suggest they talk to a teacher about how best to prepare. If they are worried about the wrong questions coming up in the exam, suggest they revise for an additional topic and ask for help. Also, encouraging your daughter to take up sport or relaxation strategies to burn off a bit of anxious energy can also be valuable.

Girls don't take enough credit for the good things they do and focus too much on the things that don't go so well. Professor Andrew Martin University of Sydney

9. Support your daughter to take control of her learning

Girls tend not to have a strong sense of control over their academic life, Andrew says.

"We find they don't always feel they're in the driver's seat and they are uncertain about their ability to avoid poor performance and failure."

Parents can remind their daughters of three things where they have control over their learning:

  • Effort – how hard they try
  • Strategy – the way they try and the way they do their work
  • Attitude – what they're thinking about themselves and the tasks they have to do.

"The more they can focus on these three things, the more in control they'll feel," Andrew says.

10. Help your daughter to believe in her success

"Girls don't take enough credit for the good things they do and focus too much on the things that don't go so well," Andrew says.

This kind of attitude over a continued period of time can wear a girl's self-esteem down. It can also play out beyond school.

"Later in the workplace they can take on the ‘impostor syndrome' where they don't feel they deserve the promotion they get or they're an executive and feel like a bit of a fraud. It all comes back to the importance in the early days of learning to internalise and take credit for success and knowing you deserve the good stuff that's going on," Andrew says.

A note for young girls

All of these principles can be used for girls as early as preschool, Andrew adds.

Talking to them about their problems, modelling assertiveness, reinforcing their confidence about themselves and taking an interest in their learning and social lives are ideas that work well for younger and older girls.

"If you're building up these principles in those infant and primary years, it then doesn't need to be such an explicit exercise in high school," he says.


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