TEACH THE CHILDREN WELL
By Mitch Hurst
By Mitch Hurst
Even before the pandemic, rates of depression among teens were rising. Studies show those rates have gone up even faster since, with more high school students reporting feelings of sadness and thoughts of suicide. A number of factors have been attributed to the increase, including the isolation during COVID-19, stress about academic performance, competitiveness in athletics, and fears about the future.
The question now is do we move forward, as parents, as educators, and as a community.
In general, private and smaller, independent schools on the North Shore already have the conditions in place to buck national and regional mental health trends. The solution comes down to being able to provide more individual attention to students and to having an infrastructure in place that intrinsically supports their students’ mental and emotional health.
And while public schools are also trying to enhance the resources available to help students navigate these same challenges, students in independent, privately owned institutions continue to be at an advantage. This week, we talked with a number of North Shore’s independent school administrators about how—and why—mental health is important to their students’ success.
Alex Sheridan, Director of Admissions, Marketing, and Financial Aid at Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS), says class size and culture paid big dividends in how LFCDS was able to support students coming out of the isolation due to COVID-19.
“Everyone was impacted in very different ways. For the students who were impacted it looks different for each kid,” Sheridan says. “We’re fortunate to be a small school with one that pays very deliberate attention to the social and emotional wellbeing of our students. When situations have arisen that required levels of intervention or support, we’ve been there to provide it.”
It all starts with how LFCDS defines itself philosophically. As a school that believes social and emotional health needs to live in equilibrium with students’ academic and intellectual development, Sheridan says that naturally draws the right teachers with the right orientation to their classrooms.
“You’re talking about a classroom of 15 students, which are very favorable conditions to navigate the dynamics of the classroom and also manage the pulse of individual students,” he says.” The class size helps, and we’ve got two counselors on our learning development team. There’s a social and emotional learning curriculum. There are a lot of things we do to help the kids grow in their social and emotional abilities. But I think what drives everything is just a very deliberate orientation and approach that we bring to school every day.”
Another key to providing support for students is for schools and parents to be on the same page. Sheridan says partnerships with parents are what really drive the student experience at LFCDS. Everything that is happening at LFCDS on a daily basis is only as good as what’s getting reinforced at home by parents. Conversely, everything that’s happening at home with parents is only as good as what’s getting reinforced at school.
“We’re both dependent on each other to be in constant communication, to support the needs of our students,” Sheridan says. “If a student is struggling, if they are having a hard time understanding or developing their feelings, a parent can reach out to a student’s teacher, they can reach out to a student’s advisor, they can reach out to one of the school counselors.”
Sheridan says he feels fortunate that LFCDS is in the position to provide the resources and that what the school is able to do is atypical in the broader context of education. That’s not to say the school isn’t dealing with challenges on an individual level; they definitely are.
“You hear so much about the compounding effects of the pandemic on student academic growth and in their social and emotional wellbeing and we’re lucky that we’ve been able to weather that storm,” he says. “It’s a privilege and we’re grateful for it.”
“The data speaks for itself. We have a mental health crisis in this country. I think COVID-19 exacerbated it, but it certainly didn’t cause it,” says Niall Fagan, Headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in Niles. “Social media and all of the digital experiences are the major change that’s occurred in the last two generations.”
However, what kids spend their time on hasn’t materially changed, explains Fagan, who’s given presentations on the topic of mental health. He says social media is one of the primary factors driving the current mental health crisis. Another is the ongoing issue of a lack of unstructured play with friends their own age, both boys and girls.
“Even without smartphones, there wasn’t enough of that. The highly structured lives that we live in suburbia doesn’t allow for this, and I’d say those are the two fundamental things,” Fagan adds. “It’s a very complicated topic.”
How can schools support students?
Fagan says the more that schools can remove or reduce digital interactions (student cell phones are not permitted during the school day at Northridge Prep, for example) and foster unstructured play, the better.
“We provide a lot of that, and you see that the boys are thriving here. I think our boys are doing very well on average from a mental health perspective,” he says.
Like Sheridan, Fagan says smaller schools have an advantage in addressing or preventing mental health issues because of the level of personal attention they can offer.
“It’s a lot harder for a child to fall through the cracks. I know every boy by name. I greet them all in the morning,” he says. “I can see how they’re doing. I see pretty much every boy every day and you can tell if a boy is not happy. You can see it in his face.”
Each student at Northridge has a faculty advisor or mentor and Fagan says the students are free to discuss, confidentially, anything that may be troubling them. The school also maintains strong partnerships with parents, an important component in helping students maintain strong mental health.
“It’s almost like a good marriage, where the spouses and the health in their relationship gives stability to the children,” says Fagan. “I think that analogy somewhat applies to a school environment as well, where our good relationship with the parents and a very explicit partnering provides added stability to their lives.”
Head of School at Winnetka’s North Shore Country Day School (NSCDS) Tom Flemma, like Sheridan and Fagan, says independent schools have the advantage of having their students “known,” and that’s the first line of defense in terms of supporting them.
“We were founded on a philosophy of whole child education, which meant that their social and emotional health is a critical part of academic success,” Flemma says. “So, we structure our use of time, our staffing model, and above all our size as a way to make sure that every kid is seen, every kid is known. That allows us to be really supportive and to react quickly when we think a kid might be needing support.”
Flemma says one of the things NSCDS has been doing for years is providing “mental health first aid training” to all of the school’s teachers. It includes education about basic tenants of mental health for students’ age-appropriate group, and It means that the teachers who are with the kids every day already have their antenna up and know what to be looking for. They can either step in and help or they can ask for help from counseling staff or administrators.
“You basically create all these layers of knowledge and layers of eyes on kids, and I think that can be a game changer,” Flemma says. “The key is an awareness, but it’s at an earlier stage. So, if you know the kids and you know what you’re looking for, you don’t have to wait until something becomes a problem.”
Noted Lake Forest psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, founder of EleVive, works primarily with athletes and student athletes, but also non-athletes, to address their mental health challenges. In her experience, Lombardo says, it’s important for teachers, students, and parents to acquire the tools needed to tackle mental health issues in the long term.
“It’s not much different from learning calculus or English, and if teachers are equipped with the skills, it will carry over to the classroom,” Lombardo says. “Social and emotional learning skills can play a critical role in addressing mental health issues for everyone involved in the education of our children.”