AMES, Iowa-- Programs that support the development of girls’ healthy attitudes about themselves and their lifestyles, like those offered through Iowa State University Extension, are vital for today’s youth, notes Keli Tallman, who leads program evaluation and research for ISU Extension 4-H Youth Development.
“If girls are provided opportunities and the supports necessary to improve their health and self-confidence, they can develop into women who are resilient to prevailing negative environmental influences that surround youth each and every day,” Tallman said.
A 2005 study published by the Girl Scout Research Institute showed that many girls are more concerned about appearing “normal” and being accepted by their peers than maintaining good diet and exercise habits. To promote healthy media messages about girls and women and to encourage more positive programming for girls’ health and self-esteem, the Girl Scouts initiated the Healthy Media for Youth Act. The act was introduced in Congress this spring.
ISU Extension supports the mission of developing positive environments for girls, Tallman said. Through participation in ISU Extension family life and 4-H programs, girls are offered multiple experiences to help develop healthy lifestyles while effectively facing the pressures that adolescence, culture and media often present to young people.
“Families desperately need a place where they can go to get assistance on how to talk about all the things kids are being bombarded with in today’s media,” said Donna Donald, an ISU Extension family life program specialist.
Girl Talk is a program offered through ISU Extension for fifth and sixth grade girls and their mothers. The four-session program offers girls and their mothers or female caregivers a way to improve communication with each other.
“Schools have sex education and health classes, but they give just the facts,” said Donald. “Girl Talk is about facilitating communication between girls and their mothers.”
Subjects covered in the Girl Talk curriculum include sexuality, hygiene and female health issues. Girls in fifth and sixth grade are going through physical and emotional changes. It’s important for their relationships, self-esteem and health to be able to communicate with their family.
The power of the Girl Talk curriculum allows mothers and their daughters to generate healthy communication and therefore a healthy relationship.
“It is really opening channels of communication,” said Donald. “When they face decisions and issues with other kids, these girls can go home, sit down and comfortably talk with mom.”
The program began in 1995 and was revised in 2008 to meet current health issues. ISU Extension county offices often work with school districts in the state to begin individual programs.
Extension employees are also exploring new programs that focus on girls’ health.
Girl’s Circle is a curriculum that has been used by Janet Smith, Henry County program specialist, and Ali Reif, Henry County youth coordinator. Teens Reaching Youth (TRY), an afterschool program in Mt. Pleasant, uses the curriculum. Reif, Susan Mast, the Mt. Pleasant children’s librarian, and five high school girls use the Girl’s Circle curriculum to communicate with middle school girls about important issues.
“We talk about issues that the girls don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about with their parents, so it gives girls a chance to find out developmental information they are curious about,” said Reif.
The 4-H club discusses a different major topic at each meeting. These topics usually include things like body image, individuality, friendship and self-confidence.
“There is too much stress associated with friendships and belonging,” said Reif. “This 4-H club makes it possible for girls to understand their differences and accept one another.”
TRY creates an environment for middle school girls to learn from each other and discuss issues that they may not be able to discuss anywhere else.
The 4-H club also coordinates group activities. The girls made cards for troops overseas that the soldiers could use to communicate with their loved ones back home. These types of activities give the middle schoolers a chance to bond with a diverse group of girls that isn’t associated with societal and cultural pressures.
Henry County 4-H decided to adopt the Girl’s Circle curriculum with the TRY 4-H club, but Girl’s Circle is available for any interested group.
“This program is a great one to be connected with 4-H, because these girls are learning leadership skills by working together as a 4-H club,” said Reif.