Strength vs. Stressors

Summer 2013

By Lisa Damour, Ann Klotz

At Laurel School (Ohio), evidence-based practice dictates the design and implementation of programming to educate and sustain girls. Today, when we talk about girls and the challenges they face, the word “stress” comes up often. Though we might wish to reduce stress in the lives of girls, we find it difficult to do so. Like our colleagues at independent schools around the nation, we cannot easily change the high expectations of the many parents and girls who select an independent school education with the explicit goal of ensuring achievement. Nor can we alter the college admissions process, which is more competitive than ever — especially for girls.

At The Center for Research on Girls (CRG) at Laurel School, we have moved away from trying to reduce stressors that are largely out of our control and toward helping girls develop resources to address the stresses they inevitably face. Our approach is grounded in an established tradition in stress research that finds stress to be a subjective experience: whether an event is stressful depends heavily upon the resources available to address the stress. For example, owing a hefty fine on a forgotten library book is not as stressful if you have the money to pay for it, just as having a dear friend move away is not nearly so stressful if you have other good friends to lean on.

As educators, we aim to foster resilience. Our work has been inspired, in part, by Angela Duckworth’s excellent research on “grit” and her findings that the ability to persist in the face of difficulty may be as essential to success as talent or intelligence. While everyone agrees that resilience is a good thing, it has not always been clear what resilience is and how schools can teach it. At CRG, we have come to see resilience as a construct with many components — some are internal resources that girls already possess and just need to hone, others are resources they can develop and take with them into adulthood.

Sadly, last year, the Laurel community faced a number of unexpected deaths. Even as the adults coped with the losses, we knew, as any school would, that our primary concern had to be for the care of the students in our charge. Even in the midst of their grief, our highly motivated upper school girls were conscious of the potential impact of their sorrow on their academic performance and standardized test scores. We found ourselves not only trying to offer comfort but also saying over and over, “We cannot make this better. And we cannot alter the college process. You are carrying more stress than anyone should. What can we do to increase your supports?”

What we could do is emphasize their ability to access resources that help girls cope in challenging situations: creativity, growth mindset, self-care, purpose, and relationships — components of resilience that give shape to girls’ need for increased support and which are grounded in established research. Because we have conducted or implemented this research in an all-girls’ environment, we can only describe the nuances of how these components of resilience benefit girls in particular. It is likely that these same practices could benefit boys as well, but we leave it to our smart colleagues at boys’ and coeducational schools to take our model and investigate how its components foster resilience in boys.

Creativity: A Source of Solutions

Creativity brings with it flexibility, the ability to find another path, to take a different approach, to come up with a plan B and — when necessary — plans C, D, E, and F. Girls who can shift their position and come at an assignment from an alternate perspective are less likely to get stuck. Creative girls are willing to try something new, to take an intellectual risk, not to wait for what the teacher says, but to step out on a metaphorical limb.

CRG has enjoyed a five-year research collaboration with Sandra Russ of Case Western Reserve University. One of the country’s leading researchers on play and creativity in children, Russ has taught us that girls who are more creative in their play — girls whose pretend play is dramatic, emotional, and characterized by intricate and organized plots — are better able to cope with real-life challenges than girls whose pretend play is boring, emotionally flat, or conceptually disorganized. The little girl who can spin a fantastically creative tale on the playground is the same older girl who can come up with several creative solutions about how best to help a friend or how to solve the problem of what to do when she is stranded with a dead cellphone. Creativity is a resource that helps her to problem solve.

Further, Russ’s work has demonstrated that girls can be taught to be more creative and that their increased creativity skills are maintained over time. This finding contradicts a widely held assumption that when it comes to creativity, you either have it or you don’t. Finally, Russ’s team found that not only can girls be taught to be more creative, but also that girls who learn to be creative do indeed expand their ability to generate multiple solutions to real-life problems.

It’s easy to cultivate creativity in little girls who enjoy make-believe, but given our research findings, we are working to integrate the cultivation of creativity through the curriculum in grades 5–12. Several new curricular endeavors reinforce this deliberate emphasis. An initiative in design thinking — a system that encourages innovation, experimentation, and refinement in answer to a need — is one strand of that curriculum in its earliest stages. MayTerm, a multi-day, interdisciplinary unit for learning beyond the classroom in the middle and upper schools, asks girls and faculty to collaborate in imaginative, nontraditional ways of learning. An E.E. Ford-funded seminar called Perspectives: Power, Poverty, and Privilege — a local, national, and global view — helps ninth- and tenth-graders to understand that complicated dilemmas require multiple solutions and that there is rarely a single right answer. Great curricula evolve; we are, of course, always looking at ways to embed creativity into every class at every grade level, but these new programs help adults and girls to think differently, to think more creatively.

Mindset: A Source of Motivation

CRG has embraced the game-changing research on growth and fixed mindsets conducted by Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Per Dweck, students with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can be expanded with effort while students with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are static and cannot be altered. When confronted with an academic challenge, fixed mindset students assume that their skills must be lacking and quickly give up. Even bright fixed mindset students avoid academic risk taking for fear that they will make mistakes that will prove they are not so “smart” after all.

In contrast, growth mindset students view academic challenges as welcome opportunities to exercise developing skills; they embrace mistakes as helpful feedback about areas where they need to work harder. Given that fixed mindset students are stressed by the same academic setbacks that motivate growth mindset students, it comes as no surprise that growth-mindset students outperform their fixed mindset peers.

We use programming throughout Laurel to help our girls become growth mindset students. Fifth-grade girls (and all students new to the school after fifth grade) are taught that brains, like muscles, only grow in response to effort. Posters detailing several commonalities between the brain and muscles adorn classrooms, (e.g., “Muscles & brains only develop when CHALLENGED by difficult tasks”). Teachers — especially those in mathematics where some research shows that girls are more likely than boys to develop a fixed mindset — are encouraged to take a growth mindset approach with their students. Pat reassurances such as, “It’s okay, not everyone is good at math” are discouraged. Instead, our teachers are more apt to say, “This test didn’t go your way; let’s go over it together and see where your understanding needs to deepen. I want you to be able to show me all you know next time.”

At Laurel, “yet” has become a powerful word that we use with young children, with adolescents, with teachers, and with parents. A girl sometimes declares, “I’m just no good at __________.” We add “yet.” The girl pauses. We leap in with what we believe about growth mindset. As a teacher, growth mindset allows for possibility and hope. The tenth-grader who still hasn’t mastered the proper use of commas might yet do a better job on her next essay; the girl who struggles in seventh grade with the first year of algebra may yet emerge as a math star.

Growth mindset reminds us that development is more plastic than fixed; girls can get better at hard tasks, especially when they don’t give up and take themselves out of the game.

Parents and caretakers, too, are part of cultivating growth mindset at Laurel — adults in the lives of our girls need education in what growth mindset means. Sometimes a parent worries that because he wasn’t good at languages, his daughter won’t be either. Growth mindset thinking helps parents avoid passing their own anxieties on to their daughters, and it helps girls turn a source of stress (“I can’t do this”) into a source of motivation (“I can’t do this, yet”).

Self-Care: A Source of Restoration

Self-care is so practical that it is easy to overlook; at school, we often assume that girls (and parents) know everything that they need to know about sleep, nutrition, and coping with stressful feelings, but the fact is that they don’t, and our curricula must expand to include these topics — for girls and for parents.

Having sat with our share of teary, overwhelmed students over several decades and even more in recent months, we have learned to ask a crying girl, “How’s your sleep?” All too often, the answer comes back “I’ve slept five hours in two nights — I’m living on Starbucks.”

It is hard to imagine a literature less controversial than the research on sleep. The results are simple and clear: adequate sleep leads to improved thinking, learning, concentration, attention, memory, creativity, problem solving, decision making, communication, coping, mood, and physical health. Nothing matches the restorative powers of sleep, yet most of the girls we educate are chronically sleep-deprived. And, to a certain extent, our ambitious girls are their own worst enemies. If they hope to attend a highly selective college, a grueling schedule that includes demanding courses, playing on a team, and pursuing interesting extracurricular activities on weekends feels, for many, nonnegotiable.

While few girls are likely to get the recommended nine or more hours of sleep, Laurel educates our girls and their parents on research about how technology use, shifting sleep schedules, and caffeine all interfere with sleep. Based on these efforts, girls have reported an improvement in their sleep. Further, many parents have thanked us for partnering with their efforts to improve their daughters’ sleep habits.

In addition to addressing sleep deprivation, we work to help our girls improve their nutrition. We approach these conversations carefully, given the real danger that the message to “eat healthy” can spark an eating disorder in a well-behaved, perfectionistic girl. Discussion of calories or “good” or “bad” foods have been replaced with an emphasis on the girls taking good care of themselves — listening to their bodies and eating neither too little nor too much. We have borrowed from “Sesame Street” to talk in terms of “sometimes” and “anytime” foods, which we simply equate, respectively, with processed and unprocessed foods. In our pre-primary and primary schools, our Healthy Snack Initiative has been enthusiastically embraced by parents. Habits start early for girls; when the habit is healthy, the girls stay healthier.

Finally, we think with our girls about how, in addition to eating and sleeping well, they choose to cope with stressful feelings. We emphasize that every girl should have an autonomous “go-to” form of restoration, be it exercise, a meditation practice, knitting, spending time outdoors, taking a warm bath, practicing yoga, or watching a favorite mindless sitcom on TV. We teach our girls that they should be able to restore themselves without always having to rely on others and that they can make simple, daily self-care choices that will have profound effects on their ability to cope with stress.

Purpose: A Source of Self-Esteem

Our mission, “to inspire each girl to fulfill her promise and to better the world,” has a direct relationship to purpose — to better the world means to use one’s gifts for good, to make a difference. Purpose helps a girl to understand that she is not the only star in the firmament, nor is she a tumbleweed being blown through life. Her hopes and dreams matter. If she wants to be a punk rock drummer, she works hard at drumming — her purpose, ambition, and goals are united. Purpose also helps a girl understand that others matter, too — other people depend on her whether they are members of a team, the cast of the play, or a younger sibling who needs to be picked up from school.

While it is tempting to use purpose and service synonymously, we must be cautious not to pit altruism against what we know about self-care. That being said, girls feel good about that which they do well. For many decades, great girls’ schools encouraged community service in the tradition that “of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Through service, girls understood more about the world, more about its complexities. While this is still true, as our awareness of the power of community-based learning and service learning evolved, we have discovered that girls feel best in a mutual, collaborative structure where giving and receiving are reciprocal. The model has evolved from privileged girls “doing good works” to girls in our school growing and learning as they contribute to their local and global communities.

Research finds that adults who have a clear sense of purpose, a sense of intending “to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self”1 are happier and enjoy higher self-esteem and life satisfaction than those who do not have a clear sense of purpose. Not surprisingly, research also has found that when young people engage in “pro-social acts” — acts designed to help others, such as volunteering or helping someone in need — their self-esteem grows.

Purpose is protective for girls; if her peer group in eighth grade is annoying, the girl who is deeply involved in volunteering at a home for the elderly has a distraction as she reads aloud to an 80-year-old lady, and she is reminded that she is part of a larger continuum, both of which provide some comfort against the complicated vicissitudes of middle school peer groups. The girl who struggles academically may, herself, be an outstanding tutor for a younger child; in giving of herself and her time, she gains a sense of usefulness. Purpose might mean grooming a horse, being involved at a church or a temple, working for a political campaign, or walking for breast cancer; what is important is that the sense of purpose derive from working on behalf of others.

It comes as no surprise that volunteering benefits the volunteer at least as much as those being helped. As part of 21st Century Athenas: Aligning Achievement and Well-Being,2 CRG’s large-scale, longitudinal study headed by Belle Liang of Boston College and undertaken in partnership with Dana Hall School (Massachusetts), we have collected detailed data on the role of purpose in the lives of girls. What we have learned so far complicates the simple story that “having a purpose” is always good for girls.

Our findings indicate that middle school girls are more likely to feel that they have a clear sense of purpose than upper school girls. This fits with theoretical models of adolescent development: younger adolescents often comfortably adopt their parents’ core values while older adolescents tend to reject parental views but have not yet settled on their own beliefs. Interestingly, the girls in our study reported that searching for a sense of purpose is, in itself, a stressful experience. Quite simply, asking girls to articulate the purpose of their lives, as they often are asked to do on a college essay, for example, poses a developmentally premature question that might make girls feel worse, not better.

We will gain clarity on the protective role of purpose in the lives of girls as results continue to accrue from our 21st Century Athenas study. In the meantime, we are turning our attention to giving girls self-esteem, boosting opportunities to serve others so that they have a constantly renewable source of worth and pride, even on days when nothing else goes well.

Relationships: A Source of Support

While girls of all ages can certainly be catty or unkind, many great girls’ schools, Laurel among them, have an almost palpable sense of community. Visitors perceive immediately that our school is one in which girls are well known and cared for even as we stretch and challenge them. Those of us who have experience in girls’ schools have always sensed that relationships with peers and teachers matter for girls. Girls with strong friendships can withstand difficulties at home and at school far better than girls who tend to be socially isolated. Earning a teacher’s respect and retaining that adult’s respect and affection matter to most girls. We also know that most girls work harder for those teachers they like and respect and for those teachers they feel like them back than they do for other teachers. Happily, the research now offers us empirical evidence of what we have long intuited.

Social support is a critical component of resilience and girls, more so than boys, turn to the people around them when distressed. Early results from our 21st Century Athenas study confirm that girls who have high-quality, close relationships with friends and mentors also enjoy lower levels of stress. Furthermore, our study has found that having a strong sense of connection to people at school shields girls from some of the damage wrought by experiencing high levels of pressure at home.

While social support is generally considered to be stress-reducing, research sponsored by CRG and conducted by Jeanne Duax for her dissertation at Case Western Reserve University found that you can have too much of a good thing. Duax’s study of mood and self-esteem among middle school girls found that “being popular” did not necessarily make girls happier. In fact, some of the happiest girls in middle school were those with one or two reliable friends. This fits with our observations that juggling complex loyalty obligations and a broad social network might be less pleasant than having one or two true friends.

We are delighted to see that our early results from our 21st Century Athenas study confirm the protective power of relationships with peers and with nonparental adults, and we look forward to learning more about how peer, parent, and school relationships can be most beneficial for girls. For now, we are paying more attention than ever to helping girls make and maintain healthy relationships so that they have ready access to the critical support relationships provide when their personal resources are depleted.

A particular strength of these components of resilience is that they reduce stress for every girl regardless of IQ. Even creativity — the attribute one might assume would be amplified by “smarts” — has been shown to benefit girls regardless of their intelligence. Creativity, growth mindset, self-care, purpose and relationships can be developed by each girl, can serve her regardless of the conditions in which she finds herself, and are diverse enough in their benefits that they should be able to help meet the many, unpredictable stressors that girls and young women will certainly face over time. Excellent, brief, validated scales exist that will allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of using these resources to help girls reduce stress and to shore up areas where they still need to grow.

In the aftermath of tragedy, we worked hard to reassure our students that the depth of sadness would abate over time and that they had, within themselves, enormous capacities for resilience. Awash in painful conversations — and struggling with our own grief — we took comfort in having a “mental checklist” of resources to which we could turn. We talked often with girls about how they might use creativity, growth mindset, self-care, purpose, and their relationships to help sustain themselves during this stressful time, and the stressful times they will inevitably face as their lives unfold.


1. William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton Bronk (2003). “The Development of Purpose During Adolescence.” Applied Developmental Science, 7, 119–128.

2. For more information on the 21st Century Athenas research project, visit

Lisa Damour

Lisa Damour is the director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School.

Ann Klotz

Ann V. Klotz is head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the founder of Laurel's Center for Research on Girls.