Abstract Conventional strain-based mechanics theory does not account for contributions from strain gradients. Failure to include strain gradient contributions can lead to underestimates of stresses and size-dependent behaviors in small-scale structures. In this paper, a new set of higher-order metrics is developed to characterize strain gradient behaviors. This set enables the application of the higher-order equilibrium conditions to strain gradient elasticity theory and reduces the number of independent elastic length scale parameters from five to three. On the basis of this new strain gradient theory, a strain gradient elastic bending theory for plane-strain beams is developed. Solutions for cantilever bending with a moment and line force applied at the free end are constructed based on the new higher-order bending theory. In classical bending theory, the normalized bending rigidity is independent of the length and thickness of the beam. In the solutions developed from the higher-order bending theory, the normalized higher-order bending rigidity has a new dependence on the thickness of the beam and on a higher-order bending parameter, b h. To determine the significance of the size dependence, we fabricated micron-sized beams and conducted bending tests using a nanoindenter. We found that the normalized beam rigidity exhibited an inverse squared dependence on the beam's thickness as predicted by the strain gradient elastic bending theory, and that the higher-order bending parameter, b h, is on the micron-scale. Potential errors from the experiments, model and fabrication were estimated and determined to be small relative to the observed increase in beam's bending rigidity. The present results indicate that the elastic strain gradient effect is significant in elastic deformation of small-scale structures.