In middle schools girls struggle to define themselves in relationship to a new and larger school environment and a more diverse group of peers. This is particularly challenging for girls of color: their devaluation in society due to being female is compounded by their devaluation due to being a person of color. In middle school students often find themselves separated from familiar childhood friends, and simultaneously exposed to new peer groups in multiple classes. Increased academic demands mean little time to connect with teachers who can offer support and guidance. Additionally, girls in particular must cope with receiving minimal recognition and support for academic achievement, and girls of color face a lack of diverse racial and ethnic role models.
In such an environment, what coping skills do girls of color use to make their way through middle school? In a recent issue of the journal Children & Schools, Joan Letendre, PhD, and Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, PhD, published their observations from four focus groups featuring mostly middle school girls of color. Participants openly discussed how they were affected by and coped with the stereotypical language and attitudes within their school.
The researchers discussed with the focus group members the challenges of developing a solid sense of who they were within the context of middle school, especially when faced with situations in which teachers and peers use language or behaviors that were marginalizing. From these discussions several themes emerged:
- the role of family and peer group in the development of racial and ethnic identity
- the impact of societal messages, often racist and stereotypical, that the girls perceived within the middle school environment
- the coping skills that they developed to manage their environment
Peer group affiliation was seen as especially important, and deviation from peer norms, such as in clothing style, could lead to conflict. For instance, clothes and behaviors not seen as “acting black” could lead to aggression, including fighting. Girls frankly noted that one way to promote self-esteem and social status in the peer group was to fight. The girls understood that in a school with a zero-tolerance for fighting, defending herself disadvantaged the girl at school. However, not defending herself disadvantaged the girl in her neighborhood and community. Middle school environments that focus on control and discipline undermine the girls’ social-emotional development.
To deal with this issue, the authors call for several changes in middle schools:
- creation of school environments that bolster the identity of the girls
- recruitment and retention of teachers and staff of color
- policies that deal with derogatory racial language from peers, which include consequences for using racist language
The authors call for further study of middle school environments for girls of color, and an examination of stressors, devaluing messages, and the coping mechanisms these girls develop to handle these situations.