I first heard JoAnn Deak speak at the GSA Heads conference in London a couple of years ago. She spoke eloquently about the brain and how it changed its wiring through adolescence. It was not surprising then that I was looking forward to hearing her speak at the NYCGS Conference last week. She did not disappoint.
This time JoAnn’s focus was on the seven core characteristics that were crucial to the development of the individual, which gave girls the armour to meet the challenges of the world. The characteristics were not surprising (temperament, grit, resilience, confidence, competence, introvert/extrovert, sympathy/empathy) but the power of her talk was in reminding us that girls hated struggling. When they make mistakes it goes to the embarrassed and shame part of the brain, the left part of the amygdala. She reminded us that our role as educators was to encourage them to make mistakes – it should be prized by the school, because the more mistakes they made the more robust their brains became. We should encourage them to “hug the monster” and do things they do not like, over and over again.
What struck me was the language she used. She said the level of panic the girls felt when asked to do things they were not confident of, was associated with pain, the equivalent pain of being stabbed by a knife. It was not surprising then how girls avoided it at all costs. Despite this, we needed girls to face these challenges early on, and the more we can do it in a safe, all girls’ environment, the better suited the girls will be to the modern world. Grit was the best predictor of success in life and we needed to ensure that girls were given every opportunity to practise it.
JoAnn felt that grit and resilience were developed by girls doing something meaningful outside their own skins. Engaging with community service developed their self-worth and, done properly, was transformational for girls. Her message was loud and clear, allow girls to fail, do not be judgemental and give the girls the confidence to be leaders of change. Once again I applauded JoAnn Deak’s words of wisdom.