Celebrating Difference Starts with US

Jan 14, 2021

We have all been in the position of urging our girls to feel proud of who they are. It’s a common refrain that’s repeated everywhere from pop songs to academia. However, I believe that this pressure we often put on girls to feel proud of who they are can sometimes be a reflection of our desire to avoid responsibility. 

Young girls are their own greatest critics and judge themselves against a very curated perception. Their idealized self-image is unattainable, but this doesn’t stop girls from doing everything possible to achieve it anyway.  

For girls with learning differences, this gap of fitting into the expectation of the ‘norm’ intensifies because their learning challenges set them apart at school, and in social situations. These girls spend much of their time overcompensating for their differences, rather than addressing them directly. This is largely due to shame that they carry about the differences that make them who they are.

They spend so much energy trying to fit in that anything that sets them apart from the ‘crowd’ becomes an embarrassment and a source of shame. Our girls will never be proud of their unique characteristics until they can create this belief from within.

Today, let’s consider where this shame and embarrassment comes from, and how we as parents can make a difference.

Where Might Our Girls’ Shame Come From?

How can girls be expected to be proud of who they are if we as a society do not make a greater effort to celebrate differences? We spend more time curing or covering up our children’s differences, rather than speaking about them openly. Even a small effort to speak about these differences plainly would create more opportunities for growth and understanding.  

If every person (not just parents!) stopped trying to blend in, and showed more compassion to others, perhaps this feeling would trickle down to our children. Think about the last time you saw a child having a breakdown in a public place like an airport or movie theatre. Did you smile and show compassion? Or did you look over sternly, or even make a judgmental comment?

This type of criticism towards parents who are just trying to cope with a difficult situation informs our behaviours and beliefs surrounding social acceptance. Over time, parents learn that people in public places are not compassionate to their child’s differences. It’s not long before the child has sadly learned that their behaviours or differences are shameful.

Low Self-Esteem

Inevitably, these types of situations result in the child developing low self-esteem. In preadolescence, a period in development that is so confusing as it is, having low self-esteem can lead girls to a place of great worry and angst.

The vicious cycle of poor self-esteem and negative thought processes leads to high anxiety and stress, which correlates to poor performance and results both in and out of school. These poor results make the child feel like a failure, re-affirming their low self-worth.

My Experience Working with Girls with a Difference

Historically, we have always isolated and alienated girls with differences. Consider how schools addressed children with unique learning profiles only a generation ago. They were grouped together, and asked to sit on a special table designed for them to work at their level.

It is easy to be charitable, and assume the theory behind this strategy came from a good place. The teachers would never name children with different learning styles as something negative, so they called these groups by a more generic name.

The ‘Star’ Table

I worked with one teacher who used shapes for her group names. The table of girls with learning differences was called the ‘stars’. I’m sure this ironic naming of the girls with the weakest reading and spelling in the class was not intentional. However, assuming that our children do not notice things like this is a huge error in our understanding of our children’s intelligence and astuteness. They knew exactly why they were there, and so did every other girl in the class.

This attitude spilled over into other subject areas and social activities. When the girls were asked to work in pairs or groups, the girls from the ‘star’ table were the last to be chosen. The children’s perception of their skills and abilities was a direct result of the teacher’s actions.

Another tactic often used in schools, which I myself have used as a learning support teacher, is taking kids out of lessons to a special classroom to receive their extra support. This typically involves the girl being called out by name in front of the whole class. This seems perfectly acceptable to the adult, since they see the extra lesson as something positive.

However, to the girl who is desperately trying to fit in with her peers, being singled out for ‘extra help’ implies that she is not good enough or smart enough as she is. This heightens her self-doubt, as well as her belief that being different makes her inferior.

To avoid this, language around the classrooms and schools should make extra support sessions feel special – in a positive way – for everyone. They should be as normalized as a piano lesson. If we do this enough, in time the shame around needing extra help should naturally diminish.

Time for a Change

One way to encourage this change in perspective is to actively model the different ways that students view or learn new concepts. Demonstrating the positive value added by diversity is key to ensuring children learn that differences should be celebrated, not shamed.

For example, by actively illustrating how a pupil might approach a sum, or think about writing a story with their own special spin. Doing this celebrates different thinking techniques and reinforces the crucial message that there is more than one solution to every problem. 

Once the benefits of being different are highlighted in an inclusive and celebratory way, and we allow ourselves to talk openly about accepting differences, a significant change in our girls’ mindset is possible. Ultimately, this can have a huge effect on their self-esteem, as well as their long-term success and growth.

The Onus Is on Us

Understanding that children with differences may require extra help or support to address their specific needs is important and vital to their learning. How we deliver this support, and the language we use to address their challenges plays a huge role in how our girls perceive their differences.

Each child is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Taking the time to listen, understand their personalities, and find out what works for them before establishing a routine for extra support can make a major difference in how they embrace their unique challenges. Ultimately, it can help them feel empowered, not embarrassed, by their learning differences.

When we’re compassionate and celebrate differences, we create a more vibrant, supportive place for children to grow, where their uniqueness adds flair and new value to the learning and social environment. It becomes their superpower, enabling them to hold their head up high and truly feel proud of who they are.

The change and ownership of this shift needs to start with us, not our girls. If we want young girls to feel proud of who they are, and not compare themselves to anyone else then we need to normalize our language and behaviour around differences. Not just in schools, but in parks, playgrounds, airports, and all other public spaces.

It is our responsibility to model acceptance, and celebrate difference in any way that we can. Preconceived notions of what developmental or learning challenges bring must be altered. We must act as pioneers, relaying what great value neurodiversity can bring to our classrooms, board rooms, sports pitches, and beyond.