Just Girl It builds girls’ confidence through positive preparation

Members of the The Just Girl It program   stand together in the gymnasium at Veterans Park Elementary School.

Members of the Just Girl It program stand together in the gymnasium at Veterans Park Elementary School.—Jennie Carr photo

If you’re comfortable with yourself, you can accomplish pretty much anything. That’s the message a pair of local mothers, Jennifer Hanson and Stacy Krys, are trying to spread to elementary school girls through their empowerment program, Just Girl It.

The 10-session, hourlong class that runs once a week before school in the fall and spring just completed its third run at Veterans Park and includes everything from inspirational quotes and dream boards to yoga and meditation to exercise activities and journal writing — all focused on building confident, positive-thinking girls who are mindful of their actions and decisions.

“It’s girl talk at the end of the day,” Ms. Krys joked.

“It’s always interesting to hear what comes out in a given session; it’s enlightening and sad sometimes, because I don’t think parents really know what’s going on and the kids only feel comfortable sharing it with us in that group setting.

“They could go on forever if we let them because they’re girls and they love sharing,” she said. “We’re trying to pinpoint who they are exactly and find out what tools we can help give them to overcome challenges they will inevitably face.”

The moms say the girls have learned patience through meditation and acknowledged their mistakes through reflective journal writing.

Most importantly, the group setting has allowed the 25 third-through-fifth-grade girls to channel their feelings toward a variety of problems, such as bullying — both in and out of the classroom, trouble at home, and the onset of puberty.

“No matter what, it always comes back to the mean girl thing,” Ms. Krys added. “If I say, ‘Today we’re going to talk about leadership’ or ‘Today we’re going to talk about confidence,’ it always comes back to bullying, and it’s relevant because this is obviously something they want to talk about and that’s why it comes up every week in our discussion.”

How girls bully each other — and why they do it — is a particular subject the mothers have heard since the program’s inception in September 2012, as cyber bullying has become more and more pervasive with the rise of smartphone technology.

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Jennifer Hanson and Stacy Krys founded Just Girl It in September 2012.—Jennie Carr photo

Ms. Hanson and Ms. Krys believe Just Girl It’s success can be attributed to the fact they both understand this modern crisis and realize that there may not be a single solution to solving it.

“Girls are getting meaner at a younger age, they’re going through puberty younger, some as early as 8 or 9 years old, and in general, girls are starting to learn about themselves and the rest of the world at a much younger age than ever before — it’s just a sign of the times,” Ms. Hanson said.

“We accept that social media is part of their life and we must formulate ways for them to deal with it,” she said. “With cyber bullying, no matter where they are, as long as they have their phones, they can be bullied.”

The four tools, or steps, the mothers have given the girls to handle situations involving any type of bullying include these: stand up for yourself, don’t react, walk away, and use sarcasm.

“One girl shared with us that her bully was making fun of her dress in school and she responded by asking the bully, ‘Well, do you want me to go home and change?’” Ms. Krys recalled. “Some girls need to just walk away, though, because most aren’t going to feel comfortable using sarcasm, and that’s why we give them a lot of different tools.

“We like to cast a big net with a lot of tools so that these girls can figure out what solutions work for them and their individual situations.”

Despite the positive feedback they’ve received from parents and the personal success stories they’ve heard in group discussion, the problem of bullying is perpetual and continues its shift toward the social media.

The difficult task Ms. Hanson and Ms. Krys must accomplish is figuring out to talk about the interconnected subjects of bullying and social media with a group that has just discovered this innovative technology and all they can access with it.

The mothers say they’ve heard of some elementary-level girls who have access to texting and have already started to “group text” with boys, as well as share pictures through Instagram.

“There’s this dichotomy we get within the group, even though the girls are the same age,” Ms. Krys said. “Some are so advanced — and yeah, I get that it’s been happening since the beginning of time, but fourth grade is so young for stuff like group texts and social media to come into play. Yet we have to touch upon it because it’s relevant in their lives and is only going to become more relevant.

“We do have to tread lightly, though, because some girls don’t know Facebook or Instagram even exist, or in many cases they know it exists but they don’t have access to it because their parents restrict what they can do on their phones and computers,” she said. “It’s too big, too broad and too new for us to have all the answers.”

When they started Just Girl It, Ms. Hanson and Ms. Krys didn’t intend for anti-bullying tactics to play such a vital role in their confidence-building program.

“The sad thing is they can’t get away from it at home, like we once were able to do. The bullying follows them right out of the classroom and into their room at home,” Ms. Krys said.

The most important tool they bestow on the girls is to have confidence in themselves, and that’s where the fitness regimen plays a huge role in balancing the mental, expression-based component of the program.

“We keep trying new activities each week,” Ms. Hanson said. “But good old-fashioned relays seem to work the best, and they run for about 30 minutes and it’s good, because by the time they’re done they’re all exhausted and aren’t fidgety anymore — they just want to share and get into that group discussion after they write in their journals.”

Although it wasn’t a mandatory part of the fall session, 17 out of the 25 girls in the program signed up and completed the Great Turkey Escape 5K in Redding with their mothers on Thanksgiving.

Ms. Hanson, who is a marathon runner, said the message she and Ms. Krys spread before the event was that it was not a race and that the most important thing was staying positive, no matter if the girls were running, walking or jogging.

“All we kept saying is mind over matter — the mind needs to be trained like the rest of the body,” Ms. Krys said. “This is another way to help young girls get exercise that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

She added Just Girl It only touches on nutrition, with the focus being “always be mindful,” a slogan the mothers incorporate in all lessons about awareness, not just ones pertaining to eating habits.

“There’s a fine line to make this be about body awareness rather than body conscious,” Ms. Krys said. “We’ve talked about it — everybody is different, all we want is for you to have a fit mind and a fit body and make solid choices.

“We never want them ashamed, we want them proud of themselves,” she said. “We keep telling them, Mental will is a muscle, and just because it’s a lot harder to do it when you’re taller and bigger than it is when you’re smaller, it doesn’t mean you can’t each accomplish the same thing.”

A phrase they don’t allow their girls to say is “I can’t,” which they say promotes “negative self talk.”

By staying away from negative thoughts and feelings, Ms. Hanson and Ms. Krys hope the girls will be better prepared for the next step in life, which for them is middle school.

“These girls are only in elementary school, but the point is that some of them are moving on to middle school next year and have no choice but to learn about this stuff and learn ways to handle the pressure,” Ms. Krys said. “It’s better to prepare them with what’s out there than to shield them from it, because it’s a slippery slope after elementary school.”

As for expanding the program, the mothers are launching an after-school session for middle school girls at St. Mary’s in January before continuing in the spring at Veterans Park, where they will open the program up for second graders.

They hope to spread Just Girl It into other schools in the district and are keeping the focus local here in Ridgefield and possibly Redding, although their efforts have gained some international recognition.

“I have family in Canada and in the Midwest that love the idea, and they may be able to do more with it than we can because it’s a more laid-back lifestyle — a different culture — out there,” Ms. Krys said. “We’re doing what we can here with an hour per week, and we’ve found people think that’s enough of a commitment.

“The difficult thing in this area is finding time — everyone is always booked solid,” Ms. Hanson said. “If we expand, we need to find leaders for that next step.

“We’ll see how the program goes, though,” she said. “We’ll have to make that decision as we go forward.”

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