When I think about the most important, trusted relationships in my life, they all started from a shared experience. This program is unique because all participants – teachers and students – are asked to move out of their comfort zone. The nervousness and excitement students feel is also felt by the teachers.”

– Nicole Johnston, Upper School History Department Chair and Co-Founder of EmpowHER


EmpowHER is Oak Knoll’s signature program that teaches girls to build confidence, take risks and to be themselves. EmpowHER is weaved into Oak Knoll’s middle school (grades 7 and 8) curriculum before regular academic classes begin each September and includes programmatic workshops led by Oak Knoll’s seventh and eighth grade teachers and advisors.

The workshops are designed to inspire, empower, and boost confidence, especially through failure. Workshops include lessons on the importance of building trust, friendships, how to identify and fix failures, and how to risk plan.

The EmpowHER program asks all participants – teachers and students – to move out of their comfort zones and learn how to build resilience and trust and to recover from failures all while building camaraderie with each other and as a class.

Frequently Asked Questions

EmpowHER is an experiential program unique to Oak Knoll in Summit, NJ, that teaches girls to take risks, build confidence, and be themselves. Through a series of hands-on, interactive activities, the first few days of each school year are designed to inspire, empower, and build resilience in our middle school girls through class bonding and self-discovery.

EmpowHER was developed to help young women build an even greater sense of self, confidence, and empower their ability to thrive as independent individuals. It allows them to not only grow as an individual, but also the class and grade level grows and bonds throughout.

EmpowHER was developed by Oak Knoll Head of School Jennifer G. Landis and Nicole Johnston, Oak Knoll Upper School History Department Chair in response to the growing confidence gap in middle school girls. Jennifer G. Landis, who has a master’s in Education from La Salle University and Bachelor’s in Religion from Colgate University, has more than 28 years of experience in girls education. She is a board member of the International Coalition of Girls Schools, and became Oak Knoll’s Head of School in July 2021 after serving as Oak Knoll’s Upper School Division Head for six years. Nicole Johnston has taught at Oak Knoll since 2009 and has a master’s in Public Administration with Nonprofit Management from Seton Hall University and a bachelor’s in Political Science and Secondary Education from American University.

Research shows that between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30 percent. That’s dramatic. And while many girls hit their stride during middle school and begin outperforming boys, academically, it leads many to overlook the decline of girls’ self-esteem, a decline that exists despite their successful academic achievement. For years, various psychologists and studies have all concluded the confidence mindset for girls changes when puberty arrives. According to the article, How Puberty Kills Girls’ Confidence, the tendency for girls to ruminate on negative thoughts, leads to lower confidence. Add in influences of social media and other messaging from society and it becomes clear that more so now than ever, girls are facing a confidence dilemma. During these critical years, girls are not learning the importance of taking risks, failing and recovering. Lack of confidence follows girls and persists into adulthood, where taking risks is essential for personal and professional growth.

Additional Resources:

Oak Knoll seventh and eighth grade teachers, advisors, and counselors.

Workshops have included lessons on the importance of building trust, friendships, how to identify and fix failures, and how to risk plan. One group activity about taking risks asked students to choose their least favorite activity — dancing, singing, or acting. Then, students were asked to perform the activity that made them feel most uncomfortable in front of their peers.

  • “I learned that if you are worried, that you don’t need to be because the people here are really uplifting, and they will give you very good advice to help with anything.” – Angeli Garcia ’27
  • “I loved learning that we all shared similar experiences when we tried and failed something.” – Juliette Polking ’27

Learn More about EmpowHER