Growing Resilient Risk-takers

As I watched the Ellis Tigers approach the robot table a couple weeks ago at the FIRST LEGO League Grand Championship, I was impressed with their excitement and self-assurance. They couldn’t wait for their turn to run their mission in this coed challenge, and they were calm under pressure when their robot experienced some difficulty.
When they left the table with a very respectable score, they received congratulations and feedback from Mr. Rauhala, one of their coaches. They thanked him, agreed with his summary of the competition, and ran off together to join their team. These fifth- and sixth-grade students were able to approach a competitive situation with anticipation, face the risk of failure, and emerge from this experience with confidence.

This scene was impressive given what we know about the confidence levels of middle school girls. In 2017, The Girls Index, a national survey of 10,000+ girls in grades 5–8, found that confidence drops over 25 percent between fifth and ninth grade. Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and Jillellyn Riley, authors of The Confidence Code, point to several factors influencing this trend, including the increasingly high standards girls set for themselves which is further exacerbated by social media. In turn, this leads to a fear of failure and less risk-taking.

Interestingly, this occurs at a time in life when girls are outpacing boys academically. While the statistic is concerning to all of us who work with girls, our focus is on what sets these fifth- and sixth-grade students apart, and how we can increase girls’ confidence during these pivotal years.

I’m a regular podcast listener, and one of my favorite quotes, “Confidence is a muscle,” comes from Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot, a marketing software firm. At Ellis, we grow and practice this confidence muscle early and often through a variety of competitive opportunities for girls. Sometimes, we begin small and experience what Burke calls “micro risks,” such as in House Games.

Next month we begin preparing for Middle School Olympiad, one of our favorite Ellis traditions. Students of all grade levels will work together to create banners and skits and compete as a team in everything from trivia to Boggle. They will get in front of their classmates in costumes, sing, and cheer. At other times in their journey through middle school, students will be encouraged to choose challenges which involve a greater possibility of failure, yet will also increase their chances of mastering a new skill. They will miss shots in a basketball game, have design failures in a science competition, play the wrong note in a concert, or forget their line in a school play.

Yet, there is no doubt that intentionally providing this brave space for girls to push themselves, see failure as feedback, and bounce back to ultimately achieve success can have an important impact on their future. A recent study from EY and espnW (ESPN’s women’s site) found that 94 percent of the women currently with C-suite jobs in the United States played competitive sports. This competitive advantage isn’t exclusive to athletics. Participation in science, math, and engineering competitions, concert performances, scholastic art competitions, and running for Middle School student council office is a vital component of how we teach Ellis girls to exercise their confidence muscle in order to grow into resilient risk-takers.