Reframing the Foundation for Student Success

Summer 2019

By Miguel G. Marshall, Debra P. Wilson

educating-the-whole-student.jpgSince their founding, independent schools have often focused on character, community, civic engagement, athletics, and other subjects that inform not only a student’s academic journey, but their role in the world. Indeed, this work outside the core of academics is often why parents and students choose independent schools—and why schools today have an opportunity to truly demonstrate the extended value of an independent school education.
Parents and children are facing new pressures and new technologies. They are busier, more stressed, and more anxious than ever. They are wrestling with mental-health issues, a sense of purpose, and what it means to live a good life this century. In the past 20 years we have seen life and work cultures shift beyond our wildest expectations. Technology now enables working around the clock, as well as connections with others beyond traditional time and distance. Higher education has shifted as more competition has entered the market, challenging the where and how of education, as well as the content and time previously required. Employers, too, are requiring new skills. Ongoing cultural shifts and political movements have made clear that more character and self-awareness is required for everyone, but particularly for those in leadership roles that many of our students strive to fill. Cutting-edge programs and other next-generation, technology-driven learning platforms are being designed to gather and report data on nonacademic skills such as resilience.
It’s no surprise then that independent schools are recognizing the need to shift the paradigm for preparing students for life after K–12 education. While academics remain at the core of what schools do, many have begun to recognize that students’ current and long-term mental, emotional, and physical well-being strongly contribute to their ultimate success in life. This shift is causing schools to look more closely at how they consider and measure student wellness and improvements, what methods they use to advance student wellness, how they are reframing conversations around success—including in the college admission process—how they define safety, how they can help students and parents remain centered and focused during this time of seemingly high-stakes pressure, and what cutting-edge wellness programming looks like throughout K–12 education.
The current well-being data, as well as these landscape shifts, necessitate that our schools consider not only what concrete skills students must develop, but also provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to be secure and well within themselves as they enter upper grades, higher education, and beyond. The freedom and flexibility that these students will encounter in their futures will require greater resilience, creativity, self-awareness, advocacy, agency, and independence than our graduates have ever encountered. A lack of these skills will have a lasting impact on the ability of these graduates to live healthy lives. Rather than a stand-alone subject, these skills need to be taught within the core of how independent schools educate students, an overlay as opposed to a silo of a separate subject.

The Student Health Experience

There remains a dearth of reliable, peer-reviewed literature concerning health in independent schools. Perhaps the most notable work in this field has been driven by Suniya S. Luthar, psychology professor at Arizona State University, whose research focuses on vulnerability and resilience among various populations including youth in poverty, children in families affected by mental illness, and teens in upper-middle class families. Over the past decade, Luthar’s research has illuminated the complex nature of student health and well-being, which includes—but is not limited to—the interrelationship of parents, substance use, pressures to excel, peer values, belonging, and gender, and has revealed that American teens from upper-middle class families are more likely to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than any other socioeconomic group of young people. In “I Can, Therefore I Must: Fragility in the Upper-Middle Classes,” a 2013 article in Development and Psychopathology, Luthar and her co-authors share their findings, which support the argument for devoting resources and attention to the problems of upper middle-class youth. They concluded: “Obviously, pursuing financial success is laudable and essential. However, if the pursuit of status becomes a single-minded preoccupation (as it tends to do, with each success leaving the desire for more), our children, as do we ourselves, become prone to high stress, unhappiness, and even dishonesty.”

The most commonly reported and discussed statistics from the past few decades—percent of students engaging in sexual or oral intercourse, using drugs and alcohol, injuring themselves intentionally, being anxious or distressed, reporting frequency of screen time—remain important and relevant data. And, indeed, some of these statistics, such as those provided by the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation illustrate that substance abuse is trending down. What is more compelling and useful, however, is to know and understand the world in which our youth are growing and developing and the inferences we can make about student behavior in the context of our current society. Author and professor Jean M. Twenge chronicles the experiences and behaviors of this generation (Gen Z) in her 2017 book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
For example, Twenge explains how both correlational and experimental data show that social media and electronic device use are linked to higher rates of loneliness, unhappiness, depression, and suicide risk; novels and music are not. Teens who spend more than three hours a day on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor. The relative risk of students being unhappy increases sharply the more students engage in texting and using the internet and social networking websites at the expense of in-person social interaction. The number of teens who get together with their friends every day has been cut in half in just 15 years. The problem is that much of the time spent on the internet or social media, Twenge reports, results in the conditional cycle of “an hour a day less spent with friends is an hour a day less spent building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions.”
The limited time students have or apply to developing these interpersonal skills may be impacting students in other ways as well. Twenge explains that many iGen’ers (and younger millennials) appear deeply emotional when someone simply disagrees with them, treating such experiences as “trauma.” A better approach to a controversial opinion, Twenge suggests, might be to discuss it, ignore it, or develop logical arguments against it, but this is less likely to happen when students lack the practice of face-to-face exchanges.
In a recent study mapping developmental changes in parent-adolescent relationships, Arizona State University researchers, including Luthar, found that an adolescent’s perception of the quality (e.g., level of perceived alienation and trust) of their relationship with their parents has significant links with psychological distress outcomes, including anxiety and depressive symptoms. Although research on upper school students in independent schools show that most common sources of stress include grades, homework, getting into college, national data in “Stress in America: Generation Z,” an October 2018 report from the American Psychological Association (APA), show that the most common source of stress for U.S. students include mass shootings, rise in suicide rates, and the future of our nation. Additionally, the report states that, nearly half of those surveyed say social media makes them feel judged (45 percent), and nearly two in five (38 percent) report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use. Further, Twenge reports, teens who don’t sleep enough are more than twice as likely to report higher levels of depressive symptoms (31 percent, versus only 12 percent for those who sleep more). Teens who sleep less than seven hours a night, she explains, are also 68 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide. On Tumblr, a microblogging site popular with teens, mentions of mental health increased 248 percent between 2013 and 2016. And, Twenge reports, three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 than in 2007, compared to twice as many boys. Lastly, data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey show that if a student identifies as queer, queer-spectrum, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or other than nontransgender or heterosexual, it is extremely likely that student has a lower self-rated emotional health concept and experiences higher frequency of stress and stressful episodes. Likewise, the APA’s 2016 “Stress in America: The Impact of Discrimination” report shows that, regardless of the cause, experiencing discrimination is associated with higher reported stress and poorer reported health. These students are among the most vulnerable in our school population.
With student data in mind and the increased complexity of understanding the world in which our young people are coming of age, schools have a renewed priority to address the topic of student health and well-being. This priority and its importance across the school is most notable in the decision some schools have made to hire a well-being director. Those who serve in this nascent role are being tasked with tracking and addressing not just the issues that arise with students, but with ensuring that the school culture, services, curricula, programs, trainings, and messaging all bear in mind the current wellness of the students as well as the long-term skills and traits they will need to thrive.
Beyond considering the idea of creating such a position, independent schools show continued commitment to the health and well-being of students by including a broader diversity of nontraditional options to fulfill physical education requirements, designing high-quality health curricula, hiring trained and qualified health curriculum faculty, prioritizing inclusivity and belonging, hiring educated adults who engage with the “whole student,” and increasing the number of school nurses and psychological professionals available to see students. What appears to be on the achievement list for independent schools today is creating and infusing a well-being mindset throughout the culture and fabric of the school that is reflective of both a balance of research and of how its community conceptualizes the terms health and wellness.

Health, Well-being, Wellness: Which Is It?

The Dictionary of Health Education—a comprehensive guide to the professional and technical words, terms, and phrases used in the health education profession—defines health as a “sense of physical, mental, and social well-being.” It defines wellness as “an abstract concept that relates to the development of health-related behaviors involving exercise, nutrition, meditation, stress control, etc.” This reference book does not include a definition for well-being. It does define, however, a well-being center as “a basic unit of the health care delivery system organized to provide people with learning opportunities with respect to their health.” Importantly—and somewhat humorously—this dictionary’s 11th listed definition of health is, “an elusive term which usually encompasses the option of individual and collective well-being with physical, social, and psychological dimensions.” An elusive term it is indeed, as the core construct of health has evolved nearly every century. What health means not only differs across time, it also differs across cultures and across people. What you won’t get out of a definition, however, is what health should look like in the school setting.
In the early days of health in schools, the classroom curriculum was limited to education around hygiene and maintenance of the physical aspects of the human body, or even limited to the experience of a child returning home from school “happy.” The contemporary ideation of health in the school setting acknowledges the psychosocial needs of students, in addition to their physical needs, both of which speak to the larger picture of wellness. Psychosocial needs as defined in Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability, include having:
  • an emotional support network; 
  • the experience of conviviality;
  • opportunities for cooperation;
  • a natural level of sensory stimulation;
  • an interesting environment;
  • an aesthetically pleasing environment;
  • opportunities for creative behavior;
  • opportunities for learning;
  • opportunities for recreation;
  • opportunities for spontaneity;
  • variety in daily experience;
  • a sense of belonging, purpose, and love; and
  • absence of alienation and deprivation.
This list serves as a contemporary, research-based conceptualization of what we, as humans, may require in order to live and lead fulfilling lives. By reflecting on this list alone, schools can start a process toward development (or re-development) of their programs, culture, and curricula more specifically designed to meet the needs of students at any grade level.
What’s most critical for schools, however, is how they collectively conceptualize and adopt a definition of health and wellness, how they understand and articulate what that definition means to their community, and how they use it to inform their approaches to very real problems—student suicide, depression, anxiety, self-harm, peer-to-peer sexual assault, self-medication/drug and alcohol abuse—directly. Developing a strategy for embedding this definition into the school’s strategic plan or initiatives is a critical step toward success. It’s also key to acknowledge that student wellness may mean something different to each individual, even though the institutional definition may differ, as this helps promote the school’s goal of being reflective and inclusive of how people define health for themselves.
While the terms may be somewhat interchangeable, what matters most at the end of the day is that schools develop an identity around what wellness and health mean and that the school community remains open to revisiting and revising that definition as new evidence—internally and externally—arises. A focus on the outcomes and what schools want for their students in deeper reflection of the realities of the world and of what students report may be the first step in creating and infusing a well-being mindset throughout the fabric of a school.

Partnering with Other Priorities

There are many important priorities that school leaders are always trying to balance: diversity, equity, and inclusivity; sustainability; technology; enrollment; culturally responsive teaching; college preparation; STEAM/STEM curricula; fundraising; value proposition; teaching and learning strategies; and strategic planning. And all of these would seem to compete with advancing a school’s health and wellness mission—but they don’t have to. Finding the synergies within and across departments is one of the keys to innovative and interdisciplinary health and wellness programming. And, this is something independent schools already do well. Ravenscroft School (NC), for example, has adopted this approach in its partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, which marries traditional academics with the nonacademic skills students will need. The school provided new training to staff, students, and parents, emphasizing the importance of social-emotional learning, leadership, and other personal skills, interweaving the subjects with the school’s existing curriculum. It now prioritizes these nonacademic skills on a level with traditional classroom learning.
A more day-to-day approach can be found in simple classroom lessons. For example, a key component of health is helping students to understand and think critically about the world in which they are growing. Examining an intersection of health, technology, power, communication, and gender could include deconstructing and understanding the names and voices of household virtual assistants. “Cortana” (Microsoft), “Alexa” (Amazon), and “Siri” (Apple) are all female names with seemingly feminine voices. Students can discuss, write, and think critically about how gender influences interaction with these assistants, exploring what it may imply subtly (or obviously) when one is consistently making requests to a feminine voice, and thinking about how interaction with virtual assistants influences our communication with the world around us. This kind of critical thinking and reflection are already embedded within most independent school cultures; framing it from a health and wellness angle gives students the opportunity to reflect upon their own experiences, assumptions about the world, data, and lessons from other classes to understand and discuss complex sociocultural issues or public health problems.

What About the Adults?

It’s impossible to talk about the school ecosystem and the pressures of adding more teaching and learning expectations without considering the adults in the room. Much of the pressure for schools to evolve today comes from the parents. Ironically, these same parents are more anxious about student success than ever before, creating an almost impossible field on which to develop skills such as resilience and familiarity with common struggles. While some schools have moved further away from working with parents, others have embraced educating parents on the why behind their approaches, as well as decreasing the perceived impact of student “failures” so that parents will allow their students to struggle. Parents ultimately need to understand what struggles are within the norms of adolescence and young adulthood and need to embrace their role as healthy parents for students in those struggles. This partnership is vital to the long-term success of these students; schools and parents need to work together to help students develop their own definition of what their healthy life will look like.
Working with the “whole student” also asks teachers to take on more than ever before. Teachers must now claim the professional role as models to students, but also to form stronger relationships with them as they learn to think and act critically about everything from traditional academic subjects to sexually charged scenarios to managing their public persona at school and online. Most teachers have never been trained to act in this adviser capacity that schools are now requiring. When schools don’t provide them with the training, systems, and support to evolve, they are set up for failure. Tending to these more emotional needs comes with a greater weight. As reported in the American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, 61 percent of teachers indicated that their jobs were always or often stressful, and 58 percent of respondents cited poor mental health as a result of that stress. Beyond training and support, schools need to be cognizant of the burn-out effect that the harder, emotional work of ensuring the long-term wellness of students can trigger. The McLean School (VA) appointed a director of school and community wellness and is taking community-wide approaches to well-being to ensure that the adults are not left behind in the effort to bring greater wellness to students. For McLean, this initiative has resulted in a variety of social and emotional well-being programs for students, but also for parents and faculty, as well as a mindfulness curriculum that the school uses to provide professional development opportunities for other educators.  

What’s Next is Already Here

If there’s one thing that all educators understand, it is that change has become a constant state. While our school worlds and cultures may change slowly, the impacts of technology and the ever-changing needs of the employers of the future are evolving rapidly. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is predicted to radically impact how humans experience the world and the jobs they perform within it. Neuroscience, too, is evolving to provide greater insight into how the human brain learns and develops. This evolution creates crucial areas for schools to understand as they create learning environments designed to capitalize on what neuroscience has to teach us about learning, but also to teach what new skills and ways students need to learn to become healthy adults. Schools that are planning to evolve to develop relevant health and well-being skills in their students will need to continuously scan these and other developments outside our sector to ensure that their students are prepared to meet these challenges. The healthy future of our students depends on it.

Getting Started

When first approaching student health and well-being, here are some steps schools should consider.
1. Identify and support faculty, administrators, or staff members interested in school health and well-being initiatives.

2. Research what other independent schools are doing on the topic, online resources related to school health and well-being, internal data, mindsets, or perspectives on student health.

3. Form a planning committee to develop a vision for health and well-being work; committee work should:
  • set goals and objectives
  • conduct an internal audit/review (consider objective perspectives)
  • assess needs (interviews, meetings, surveys, focus groups, observations)
  • provide ongoing communication to community and stakeholders around initiative
  • review protocols and policies related to students in distress/crisis
4. Develop a rationale, purpose, or mission around health and wellness given external research and school’s mission, culture, and values. Critical considerations include:
  • approvals needed to put forth that mission
  • student perspectives
  • parent perspectives
  • financial resources
  • space resources
  • curricula and instructional resources
  • personnel
  • visiting other schools with programming or experience
  • taking a marketing campaign approach

After this work has progressed, prepare a report of findings from planning committee work and share it widely before implementing. Plan to evaluate it regularly.

Online Exclusive

Asking the right questions before launching a new program is critical to its success. That’s where leaders at Hackley School (NY) began when exploring the complex issues of health and well-being. Steve Bileca, assistant head of school for academic affairs, shares his school’s journey to creating a safe and healthy foundation for all students and faculty.

Miguel G. Marshall

Miguel G. Marshall is an independent school alumnus, former teacher and administrator, and currently an educational and school health and wellness consultant based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Debra P. Wilson

Debra P. Wilson is president of NAIS.