The making of me: Exploring how an engaging learning environment influences the experience of agency in early adolescent girls

Kimberly Field-Marvin, University of Pennsylvania


As a transitional life phase, early adolescence, spanning roughly from ages 10 to 14, can be fraught with challenges connected to Erikson’s (1968) “normative crisis” of identity formation that extend across social, emotional, and cognitive domains. Girls, in particular, often suffer from a precipitous decline in self-esteem during this period of their development and harbor a fragility that can result in anxiety, self-doubt, and an unwillingness to speak out in ways that align truthfully to their still forming selves. The study suggests that one way to locate safe passage through early adolescence involves the establishment of competencies that foster a sense of agency in early adolescent girls including: a voice to express opinions, the ability to make decisions, the development of self-confidence, a capacity to organize, and the vision/ability to motivate others. Agency is defined here as the ability to make decisions about one’s life and take actions to achieve a desired outcome. Using social cognitive theory and social identity theory as focusing lenses, this study expanded on existing research (Kuriloff, Andrus, Jacobs, & Cox, 2013) that explored learning environments in which girls themselves identified feeling confident and competent. This study investigated how girls, in a specific all-girls’ independent, Catholic day school, experience their active and engaging learning environment and how such an environment influences the development of their agency. The study called upon girls to describe factors in their learning environment that influenced agency in both positive and negative ways. The study’s focus on the experience of early adolescent girls, specifically sixth through eighth graders, contributes to the literature that currently emphasizes the middle- to late-adolescent agency as it relates to identity formation. Focus groups with key informants helped to shape the narrative of student experience and highlighted the importance of relationships as a means of overcoming perceived judgment from both teachers and peers. The students’ shared narrative was supported by observation, artifacts, and supporting documents. The study makes recommendations for enhancing conditions that cultivate agentic behavior among early adolescent girls and suggests ways to mitigate the impediments to agency in the learning environment.

Subject Area

Middle School education|Womens studies|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Field-Marvin, Kimberly, "The making of me: Exploring how an engaging learning environment influences the experience of agency in early adolescent girls" (2016). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10158553.