How Keystone helps students build independence and why it matters

Mar 22 2024

How Keystone helps students build independence and why it matters

“Independence is happiness.”
-Susan B. Anthony

Recently, I saw an article about the rise of “concierge moms” that caught my attention. For a sometimes hefty fee, parents can hire substitute parents to help care for their children when they are away at college. Whether one agrees with this concept or not, I think we all want our children to be as self-sufficient as possible when they leave the nest. At Keystone, I am impressed with the ways our faculty and staff members help children and adolescents develop a sense of independence.

Of course, the way we encourage independence changes throughout a student’s educational journey from preschool through senior year. To a degree, it begins even before students start at the Little School. We require that they must be fully potty trained and able to feed themselves before they attend their first day of school. (And yes, being fully potty trained does not mean “kind of” or “every other day.”) We make clear that we are a preschool rather than a day care center, and we are educationally focused.

In the Little School, we encourage students to do things on their own from the moment they arrive on campus. Teachers and administrators help them out of the car and into the building rather than having parents or caretakers bring them inside. Students head to their individual cubbies, unpack their knapsacks, take out their water bottles, and head out to the playground to play with friends. Throughout the day, teachers show them they are more capable than they realize and they can do hard things.

When students come to the main campus, we continue strengthening their sense of self in both small and large ways, starting with the way they enter campus. While it may be difficult for parents to say goodbye to their children as they go through the gates on Craig Street, it does in fact help these young students develop a sense of agency. When we started doing this during the pandemic, kindergarten teachers commented on how much more self-assured the children seemed when they began the school day. Like their younger Little School counterparts, kindergartners unpack their bags and store their belongings in their cubbies, and this continues through Lower School.

As children progress, they learn independence in their academic pursuits. At times, they choose their own books to read and topics to study on certain projects. They also learn how to read for content and build executive functioning skills that will allow them to succeed. Along the way, they develop an understanding of what it means to be a student and an independent learner. During 2nd grade, students move to content specific teachers and learn in multiple spaces. In grades 3 and 4, they receive a planner where they record daily assignments and learn how to plan ahead.

Students used their power of choice at the Science Fair where children in grades 3-6 shared their research findings and presented them effectively. Their passion for the topics they chose is both enlightening and inspiring.

In the social emotional realm, children learn how to communicate and advocate for themselves, and they discover ways to mediate conflict and be in dialogue with peers. During recess, they figure out ways to resolve conflicts and disagreements with their peers. In 4th grade, students take a class in leadership where they practice skills in collaboration and teamwork.

During their middle school years, students engage in what may be called “structured freedom.” They now have multiple core teachers as well as electives in different classrooms, and they make their way around the main campus without an escort. They choose their own research topics as seen in the recent Speak Up: Speak Out competition, they can opt to take another leadership class, and they participate in service learning projects. They have some choice during morning care and lunch whether to play, hang out with friends, or just quietly read. The increase in agency reflects their maturation while the imposed structure acknowledges that they are still in middle school and have to learn how to navigate freedom.

As can be expected, they will make mistakes along the way, and this is ok. The middle school years constitute an opportune time for them to learn from their errors; although the emotions may be high, the stakes, in fact, are low. As parents, it may be difficult to watch them make bad choices, but it’s imperative that we allow them to stumble and learn how to bounce back. This is an ideal time for them to become resilient so they are prepared for the next step in their educational journey.

In high school, adolescents grow into their independent selves. They have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate leadership in clubs, student organizations, and service activities. Over the past few years, Keystone has created partnerships with both nonprofit and for profit organizations that provide internship possibilities for students. Whether students are working at arts organizations, architecture firms, or companies like HEB, they come to comprehend workplace skills and what it takes to succeed in the world beyond high school.

During their time in Upper School, students learn how to advocate for themselves, whether it’s meeting with a teacher or the administration. As a head of school for many years, I have always appreciated when students take a school’s core values or pillars to heart and speak to the administration if they believe a policy or practice violates those principles.

Ultimately, students’ ability to articulate for themselves comes in the college application process when they have to express why a certain school should accept them. Here, they must explain who they are as a person and what are the things for which they stand. Nobody can speak for them and they must address their strengths and abilities. At this point, while they may not be self-sufficient, they are more independent in their thinking than they have ever been before.

As parents and educators, we welcome and support students as they become more self-reliant. We watch with pride as children and teens form their own opinions and argue eloquently for the things in which they believe. Nevertheless, there’s some wistfulness as we realize that they’re moving beyond us and the cute child who once needed us has morphed into the adolescent who can’t wait to leave home. I recall my father once telling me “We brought you up to be independent but we never thought you would really go and do it!”

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