The 4 S's of Adolescent Success

Summer 2008

By Michelle Gall and William R. Stixrud

A not-so-simple question: why do so many parents send their children to independent schools? The vast majority of independent school parents did not attend private schools themselves; therefore, family tradition does not explain the lion's share of today's independent school attendance. Perhaps, the best answer is also the simplest: since time immemorial, parents have always wanted their children's lives to be better than their own. The real objective, therefore, is much more complex, difficult, and satisfying than admission to an Ivy League college, whether or not the parents know it. 

Unfortunately, adolescent success these days has been reduced to a college admissions letter. The result is a wasteful means-ends inversion. Getting into college was once a means to success, but now it's an end in and of itself. Ironically, the contemporary focus on AP classes, SAT preparation, college counseling, and extracurricular activities does little to equip teens for real success and can even sabotage the process. Instead of enjoying the benefits of this well-intended largesse, many students are its overscheduled victims. Multitasking, the bane of 21st-century life, has even insinuated itself into the shower. The Intuitive Learning Company sells SAT prep shower curtains so that students can now study the top 500 SAT vocabulary words and SAT math concepts every morning in the shower before they even have one eye open. How can parents and schools find their way out of this morass? The answer lies in recognizing that the real goal of childhood is maturity; i.e., the emergence of certain behaviors and competencies that enable the individual to live a responsible, independent life. 

Attaining maturity is a far more significant and valuable accomplishment than getting into college but, alas, maturity is not in vogue. In a society marked by prolonged adolescence and conspicuous narcissism, mature behavior is not sufficiently understood, cultivated, or positively reinforced. Straight-A students are "honor students," implying that other students are less than honorable. Schools and parents place a premium on high GPAs and über-résumés, suggesting that students who don't get into elite colleges will lead inferior lives. Improving student achievement is too often defined as teaching children earlier rather than when they're ready. A growing sense of scarcity in our Land of Plenty contributes to the belief that there are a limited number of good things in life, and only the best, the brightest, the most successful students will be able to get them. This creates a debilitating climate of competition and fear, which makes a travesty out of the pursuit of happiness. Many stressed-out adolescents don't understand the purpose of the race they're running or the value of the finish line that they are working so hard to reach. This uninformed consent can have significant costs and consequences for everyone involved. When children are over-focused on others' expectations, they can't get in touch with who they really are and what they feel passionately about. 

Children know that something is wrong with this picture, but they don't know what it is. Today's teens may have more spending money and fewer household responsibilities than their parents did, but that makes for an imbalanced life, not a carefree one. Their lives are too easy in some respects and too difficult in others. In the words of Richard Kadison, chief of mental health services at Harvard University, "a multitude of hidden problems has caused a steady and alarming rise in the severity of students' mental health problems across the nation in colleges and universities large and small, public and private."1 Consider the following disturbing statistics:
  • Over 10 percent of American youth (about six million children and adolescents) have a mental health disorder so severe that it disrupts their daily functioning.2
  • Half of all lifetime cases of diagnosable mental illnesses begin by age 14, and three-fourths by age 24.3
  • Nearly 20 percent of college students at Princeton and Cornell report that they have engaged in self-injury (e.g., cutting themselves). The average age of onset is 14 years old.4
  • Adolescent suicide is on the rise and accounts for over 10 percent of young adult deaths (ages 15-24).5

Although it's difficult to pin down the exact causes of this runaway depression and anxiety, stress often plays a major role. American teenagers will tell you that they are on a first-name basis with stress, and scientific studies bear this out. Young people today face more stress and possess fewer coping skills than prior generations, all the more reason to help them mature before sending them off to college. Higher education is voluntary and selective, and it is designed to be rigorous. Accordingly, the only reason to go to college is because you want to and you enjoy school. In order to survive and thrive in college, students must have a stake in their own education and know how to walk toward problems. This requires an ability and willingness to approach faculty, navigate bureaucracy, tap into resources, and ask for help. In other words, it requires maturity. If students don't possess sufficient self-discipline, resilience, impulse-control, and a keen desire to learn, the college experience can have expensive and devastating long-term consequences. 

What good does it do for students to get accepted by the college of their choice if they are not mature enough to handle or capitalize on the experience once they get there? Too many college students find even the most routine tasks difficult — e.g., keeping track of their dorm key, getting themselves to class, monitoring their bank balance, walking away from the party. No wonder that only about 70 percent of college freshmen return for a second year of college, and less than half of students (56 percent at private colleges) graduate within five years of initial enrollment.6 Why are so many students dropping out and flunking out? Common reasons include lack of motivation to succeed, inadequate personal coping skills, and lack of aspiration.5 Despite the proliferation of AP classes and the college credits they translate into, these advanced courses do not appear to shorten, accelerate, or enhance the college years at all. Perhaps because of the way that AP courses are positioned or taught, they are simply an exercise in stress, fear, and anxiety for many high school students. 

Our schools can do better. The four most important outcomes of childhood can be found in what we call the four S's of adolescent success: secure attachment to the mother (or caregiver), self-regulation, self-knowledge, and stress management. Food for thought: what if independent schools focused on helping students mature instead of preparing them for the college admissions process? 

Secure Attachment to Mother 

In the words of acclaimed psychologist and author, Madeline Levine, "it is emotional closeness, maternal warmth in particular, that is as close as we get to a silver bullet against psychological impairment."8 Genuine attachment, especially during the formative years, cannot be achieved conveniently or on demand. When a baby is born, it is not equipped to cope with the immediate onslaught of stimulation and stress that life ushers in; therefore, it is vitally important that the baby absorb a sense of safety and solace from its mother. In the absence of this secure attachment, the baby's brain fails to mature properly. This leads to a whole host of problems, including the inability to manage stress effectively throughout life and the increased likelihood of psychiatric disorders.9

Forty-three thousand civilians died during the first two months of the London Blitz of World War II in the fall of 1940. British anticipation of the Nazi bombing campaign led to the mass evacuation of 650,000 children to the English countryside. The influential anthropologist, Margaret Mead, reported in 1942 that children who were separated from their parents and evacuated to safety during the Blitz suffered more than children who remained with their parents in war-torn London.10

We have become a shower-taking nation: rushed, preoccupied, efficient. That is not how enduring relationships are formed. A successful senior executive starts his workday at 4:30 am by taking a waterproof laminated poster board into the shower with him to review his daily priorities and goals. Ironically, included on the poster board are photos of his two young children who are still asleep when he leaves for work. In a primal, dependent, black-and-white world where children only know love or abandonment, good intentions on a commuter train and photos on a poster board are meaningless. Musing on children, Mark Twain said, "the most precious gift, our personal association, which means so much to them, we give grudgingly." Modern, overworked parents popularized the theory that quality time was more important than the quantity of time spent with their children. In reality, intermittent snippets of time (no matter how high-quality) are simply not enough to create strong, solid relationships. 

This is not to say that children want or need parents who hover over them incessantly. Many times, the best place for parents to be is in the background, just a shout away. Anyone who has children knows that parenting is, quite simply, an impossible job. No other life experience ushers in so much frustration, joy, vulnerability, sleep deprivation, responsibility, amusement, heartache, guilt, fulfillment, rejection, passion, and feelings of inferiority. 

Parenthood is a lifelong lesson in humility, and no one comes through it unscathed. But parents who understand the far-reaching benefits of their child's secure attachment and deep-seated connection to them realize that parenting requires emotional and physical presence, and massive quantities of time. There is no such thing as quality time; there's just time, with all its imperfections and opportunities. 

There is a newfound appreciation for this age-old concept of warmth and connection, and leaders increasingly see how it even applies to bricks and mortar. Schools are now exploring how their very architecture can foster or reinforce a sense of community, thereby enhancing attachment and belonging. Susan Painter is a developmental psychologist who left academia to work as an urban and campus planner for an architectural firm. As she plans a school campus, she pays special attention to what she calls "the aesthetics of survival,"11 which refers to our very basic human needs for refuge (a safe place to sleep), prospect (a view to the outside world), and the edge (a social space where people gather). Similarly, referring to the evolving MIT campus, architect and MIT alumnus Jay Weber writes that buildings should "abound in the sorts of nooks, crannies, overlooks, public spaces, and connections with the outdoors that promote the sorts of informal social interaction which are critical to the vitality of any community and contribute to a place being memorable and even lovable."12

What can schools do to promote Secure Attachment? They can help students form secure attachments by enabling and encouraging them to spend more time with their families. Start by eliminating excessive homework and cutting back on mandated extracurricular activities. Support weekly schedules that focus on a balanced lifestyle. Create a nurturing school environment that promotes partnership and collaboration, not competition and isolation. Cultivate a learning community that is challenging but non-threatening so that students can achieve a state of relaxed alertness and voluntary attention. Foster a sense of the world as a generous place where there is more than one right answer. In short, remember that alma mater means "fostering mother." 


Emotional intelligence means that you control your emotions instead of the other way around. Self-regulation, emotional awareness, empathy, and pro-social behavior are all hallmarks of emotional intelligence. Self-discipline enables a teen to postpone gratification, get up in the morning, honor commitments, tolerate frustration, and manage anger responsibly. It takes a lot of emotional maturity to control our impulses, which is why integrity and virtue pivot on self-restraint. The ability to pause and think before we act enables ethical choices. A lack of self-control puts us at the mercy of our urges, appetites, and unbridled passions. Irresponsible or insensitive acts committed in the heat of the moment can have long-lasting, irreversible consequences.

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman writes extensively about emotional intelligence, and the power that emotions have to derail or paralyze us. His research indicates that "students who are anxious, angry, or depressed don't learn; people caught in these states do not take in information efficiently or deal with it well."13 Emotional control equips teens with the resources they need to both prevent and cope with many of life's daily challenges. Other important aspects of self-regulation include concentration, flexibility, and persistence. When students are self-disciplined, they can walk away from their video games, get to bed at a reasonable hour, and focus on their school work (even when they don't understand it the first time). Adolescents who do not demonstrate self-regulation at home, at school, and with friends are not ready for college. Parents and schools that make self-regulation and perseverance a top priority increase the odds that college will be a worthwhile investment for all concerned. 

What can schools do to promote Self-Regulation? Our ability to self-regulate disintegrates in the face of sleep deprivation and chaos. Adequate sleep (about nine hours per night for teens) is to self-regulation what gasoline is to a car — it's our fuel. Schools should design schedules that allow for sufficient sleep (e.g., later start times) so that students can bring their best selves to class. Importantly, schools and parents should require that students demonstrate responsible self-regulation in preparation for college and adult life. 


The hand-carved inscription "Know thyself" on the temple at Delphi dates back to the sixth century B.C.E. Ancient leaders regarded the oracle at Delphi as a place of answers and journeyed there for divine guidance. How interesting that the inscription reminded each supplicant to "Know thyself" before entering the oracle. This suggests that self-knowledge must come first if advice is to make sense or be put to good use. 

Everyone deserves to make a living with his or her strengths and become an expert in an area of interest. This requires self-knowledge and a bias for action. Not everyone is born with a calling or experiences passion in his or her work, but understanding what one is good at and acting on that knowledge contributes immeasurably to job satisfaction. 

But how do we help our children identify and realize their strengths? Janusz Korczak, beloved pediatrician, wrote that "a child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which will you ever be able to decipher."14 His advice to parents was both challenging and liberating: celebrate your children's quirks and dreams, and encourage them to collect treasures like feathers and buttons.15 Korczak understood that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line; it is the path of least resistance. The easier and more enjoyable a particular discipline is for you, the more likely it is that you possess a distinctive competency in that area. The first sign of talent is that you lose track of time when you're practicing it. If you find yourself so absorbed in what you're doing that you enter a state of flow, it's a good bet that you've identified an area in which you excel. 

Oddly enough, this may not be an easy task for particularly strong students. Top students are good at many things, or they work extra hard so that it appears that way on their report cards. It's a peculiar fact of life that the brighter you are and the more choices you have, the more confusing life can be. Education often raises expectations without providing clear direction. Experience usually helps people define what they don't like, but that's a far cry from discovering what they do like, and knowing what they're good at. When embarking on a career, it's critically important that young people understand the difference between what they can do and what they enjoy doing. The workplace is full of unhappy people in miscast roles who ignore or discount their natural strengths. Their jobs drain them, they watch the clock, and, in their honest moments, they feel like frauds. They got there by following a straight line instead of their path of least resistance. In the workplace, no one cares how good your report card was, and few people will rescue you. That's why it's so important to acquire a modicum of self-knowledge before you get there. 

Many American teenagers have no idea how to serve a customer, please a boss, or learn on-the-job because they have never held a job. They have managed to avoid that long road of rejection and self-discovery known as job-hunting, sometimes at the insistence of their parents! In the words of one independent school mother, "My daughters don't have any household responsibilities, and I don't want them to flip burgers at McDonald's either. Their job is to work hard at school and get into a good college." Students like these spend their summers building their college admissions résumés with SAT prep classes, pricey summer programs, or elite internships arranged by their well-meaning parents. This does not provide adolescents with an accurate model of reality. For many self-centered teens, landing a minimum wage job where they are treated like everyone else is an eye-opening and humbling experience that can teach them volumes about themselves and real life. 

Knowing oneself is also a matter of developing a healthy mindset. Carol Dweck, psychologist and motivation expert, focuses her research on the power of people's chosen beliefs, and how these beliefs contribute to an accurate or distorted view of personal ability. Dweck finds that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who choose a fixed mindset and those who choose a growth mindset. "Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over."16 For the fixed-mindset, every situation is a final exam that will be flunked or aced in public. These individuals are prone to lead risk-averse, secretive, anxious, and passive-aggressive lives defined by a fear of failure. 

In contrast, Dweck found that people who chose the growth mindset "could turn a failure into a gift…. Not only weren't they discouraged by failure, they didn't even think they were failing. They thought they were learning."16 These persistent, resilient individuals enjoy challenge and learning, which provides them with frequent feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, people with a growth mindset live a life that constantly develops their abilities and increases their self-knowledge. As Dweck observes, "it's not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest."16

What can schools do to promote Self-Knowledge? They can help students identify their strengths and passions by honoring their pastimes. When children are wrapped up in their hobbies, they are motivated, excited, and engaged. In short, they receive an intrinsic reward from paying attention and learning. This conditions the brain to associate intense enjoyment with practice and hard work. Schools should also encourage students to define success for themselves, particularly in terms of intrinsic rewards. For example, a student who defines success as graduating summa cum laude is focusing on an extrinsic reward that can disappear overnight and/or be taken away when the school recalculates GPA cut-off points. However, if a student defines success as learning, there are countless opportunities to learn everyday. Voluntary learning is associated with intrinsic rewards, which no one can take away from you. 

Stress Management 

There's a new definition of stress making the rounds these days, which you may have seen in an e-mail or a greeting card: Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize that you haven't fallen asleep yet. Funny and disturbing, this operating-room humor allows people to laugh for a moment at their stressful lives and thereby cope a little longer. But effective stress management requires far more than passive tolerance or sitting up in bed screaming. 

Until the 1930s, stress was an engineering term that referred to the amount of physical pressure on an object as measured by the force-to-area ratio. Today, we use the word to describe the body's response to perceived danger and how that physiological response interferes with a healthy equilibrium. Stress occurs in situations that are perceived as threatening and beyond the person's control, when the stakes are high and the outcomes are uncertain. Whenever there is something important at stake, there is always the distinct possibility of loss in all its many forms. The resultant stress ushers in a variety of health problems, including insomnia, heart disease, and stunted neuron growth in the brain. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of stress is that it's often a self-perpetuating loop: stress begets more stress. Because stress interferes with neuron growth and impairs memory ability, it can even make you forget how to relax! 

Stress is a short-term motivator (like an electric cattle prod) that can make students work harder briefly; however, this extra effort doesn't lead to significant long-term success because stress also reduces curiosity and creativity. In other words, stressed-out students do more, but they accomplish less. No amount of academic achievement is worth chronic stress, depression, or a brain-toxic lifestyle. 

What can schools do to promote Stress Management? They can help students manage stress more effectively by teaching them to work smarter, not harder, and this starts with adequate rest. Our quality of life is strongly linked with how well-rested and alert we are. At the bare minimum, adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep each night to keep their brain at peak capacity. Schools should incorporate stress-relief options (e.g., yoga, meditation, exercise) into school every day; it is cruel not to offer these healthy choices. Schools can also change start times, eliminate excessive homework, and encourage summer classes for students who need more rest during the academic year. Cultivate a learning environment that stretches and nurtures students — i.e., a safe place where youngsters can make mistakes, practice making their own decisions, laugh at themselves, and forget to watch the clock. Most importantly, help students develop strong, supportive relationships on-campus and off. "Any kind of frustration or challenge can cause stress, but by far the most powerful stressors, as measured by physiological stress responses, are those caused by disrupted or absent social relationships."17 To paraphrase Barbra Streisand, "people who have people are the luckiest people in the world." 

Independent schools can distinguish themselves in today's increasingly competitive environment by focusing less on college placement and more on student maturity. Legions of schools include the words integrity, honor, character, responsibility, and self-confidence in their mission statements, but these fine qualities are conspicuously absent or underdeveloped in many of their graduates. The high incidence of adolescent psychiatric disorders and the low percentage of college students who graduate within five years of enrollment paint an alarming picture of a desperately immature and unprepared student population nationwide. Our children deserve better, and our schools can do better. Independent schools spend vast amounts of resources preparing students for the college admissions process, which does not necessarily provide adolescents with a solid education or prepare them for life. Schools can promote the four S's of adolescent success — secure attachment to the mother (or caregiver), self-regulation, self-knowledge, and stress management — by teaching them to students and parents, and by cultivating a learning environment that models and positively reinforces mature choices. 


1. R.D. Kadison and T.F. DiGeronimo, College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004, p 5.

2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. (2008). Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Retrieved 1/17/08, from:

3. R.C. Kessler, Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). "Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication." Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, pp 593–602.

4. J. Whitlock, et al, "Self-injurious Behaviors in a College Population," Pediatrics, Vol. 117, No. 6 (June 2006), pp 1939-1948.          

5. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2008), Retrieved 1/17/08, from:

6. American College Testing (ACT) Institutional Data File, (2004), Retrieved 2/12/08, from:

7. W.R. Habley and R. McClanahan, "What Works in Student Retention? Four-Year Private Colleges," ACT, Inc., (2004), Retrieved 2/12/08 from:

8. Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, p 31.

9. Allan N. Schore, "Dysregulation of the Right Brain: A Fundamental Mechanism of Traumatic Attachment and the Psychopathogenesis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 36 (2002), pp 9-30.

10. Margaret Mead, "War Need Not Mar Our Children," Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 1942), pp 195-201.

11. Lea Winerman, "Designing Psychologists," Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 7 (July/August 2004), p 30.

12. Jay Weber, "Architecture and Community at MIT," What Matters: The MIT Alumni Opinion Journal (March 2002), Retrieved 1/23/08, from:

13. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995, p 78.

14. Janusz Korczak, Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents, Chapel Hill, NY: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007, p 4.

15. Dina Kraft, "In Orphans' Twilight, Memories of a Doomed Utopia, The New York Times (January 23, 2008), p A4.

16. Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York, NY: Random House, 2006, pp 4-6.

17. Eric Wargo, "Understanding the Have-Knots: The Role of Stress in Just About Everything," Observer, Vol 20, No 11 (December 2007).
Michelle Gall

Michelle Gall is an executive coach, national speaker, and the author of Keep Your WITS About You: Work Smart, Be Happy, Feel Great (Glenbridge, 2005). Her last article for Independent School appeared in the Summer 2006 issue and was entitled, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Independent School Parents* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)."

William R. Stixrud

William R. Stixrud is a neuropsychologist who works extensively with children and adolescents. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of learning disabilities, and the promotion of self-esteem. Dr. Stixrud is a member of the clinical faculty in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School.