Grade 5 and 6 girls write Christmas cards to each other during the Dove Girls program at Evans elementary.

Dove Girls boosts self esteem in tweens

Evans elementary in Chilliwack has designed a year-long program to empower tween girls before they hit the image pressures of middle school.

Funding cuts weren’t enough to stop Gabe D’Archangelo from boosting his students’ self esteem.

When the Evans elementary principal was notified last spring that Big Brothers would be cutting funding for its eight-week Go Girls program, D’Archangelo didn’t follow suit.

Instead of shutting the program down, he expanded it.

It was too important not to continue, he said.

Go-Girls is a program designed to instill positive self image and healthy living into tween-aged girls before they hit middle school.

Research shows that 47 per cent of Canadian girls between the ages 10 and 14 avoid going to the beach, participating in physical activities, and voicing their opinions because they feel insecure about their looks; 55 per cent feel pressure to be beautiful by the time they’re 14.

For many girls, middle school is a cesspool of self esteem issues, negative image and peer pressure. Evans is trying to change that.

“We want to give our students a repertoire of skills they can fall back on when situations come up at middle school,” said D’Archangelo.

However, because Go Girls was only an eight-week program that completed in April, D’Archangelo felt it wasn’t fully meeting the needs of his Grade 6 students.

“April, May and June is when our students face the most challenges,” he said. “They’re excited to be leaving elementary, but they’re also hesitant about going as well. Those last six to eight weeks of school is when these girls have more questions than answers.”

D’Archangelo approached the school’s child youth care worker Tanya Harnett, who had been facilitating Go Girls, and asked if it was possible to develop a more in-depth year-long program. With Dove’s True You workbook as a guideline, the Evans elementary Dove Girls program was born.

Dove Girls operates for one hour, once a week after school for two small groups of Grade 5 and 6 girls, each with 11 and 12 students.

The focus is to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty beyond their looks. They discuss issues around image, self esteem, and feelings. They learn about how the beauty of women portrayed in media outlets such as magazines and TV is often Photoshopped or otherwise altered to perceived perfection. They discuss topics surrounding personal hygiene, physical changes, healthy living, bullying and peer pressure. And they build on relationships with trusted, out-of-school mentors, such as their mom, grandma, aunt, or sister to ensure they always have someone they can go to for advice.

The intimate size of the group is key.

“Some of the discussions are very uncomfortable for the girls … and by having a small enough group, they’re more likely to participate and speak up,” said D’Archangelo.

“When you look at this group, you have a range from girls who still sleep with a teddy bear at night, and who would still play with dolls if they could, and then you also have the other side of it where some are dating and talking about going on dates, and who they are in love with today. It’s a huge range of emotions.

“This program gives them a safe place to share, talk about their feelings, ask questions, and to start to understand not only themselves as they are changing, but the world around them too.”

At a recent Dove Girls meeting, the group was asked to write down their hopes and fears, which were put in a box to be opened later in the year. Some of the girls hid their papers behind their hands and quickly scribbled their responses before anyone had a chance to see, while others openly talked about theirs.

One girl, who came from a divorced family, feared what Christmas would be like as an adult having to split her time between houses. Another girl feared getting bad grades. One feared pimples.

People would think I’m ugly if I had zits,” she told the four other girls around her.

Harnett hopes the esteem and confidence in her Dove Girls will grow with the program.

“This program is meant to help build their confidence, and be accepting of who they are, and hopefully give them the tools not to be drawn into the crowds,” said Harnett.

“Hopefully they don’t fall into the trap of image being what they have to follow.”

kbartel@theprogress.com

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