How we work to support our students’ mental wellness

Nov 09 2023

How we work to support our students’ mental wellness

“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”

“Doing well by being well” in the words of Upper School Head Bill Spedding succinctly describes our efforts at Keystone to encourage students academically by supporting them holistically. Study after study demonstrates that children and adolescents succeed when they feel healthy physically and psychologically. Consequently, faculty/staff have devoted extraordinary time and energy to creating programs that teach students how to take care of themselves when they feel stressed out or anxious.

As a starting point, we should acknowledge that some stress is healthy, and even desirable. As well-known psychologist and writer Lisa Damour has explained, “”Not all stress is bad. Trauma and chronic stress are unhealthy, but all other stress brings growth…think about psychological and academic stress the same way you think about strength training; there’s payoff in working at one’s edge.”

If we recognize that some stress can be beneficial, we can focus our efforts on teaching students how to manage it rather than avoid it at all costs. Similarly, as parents, we can guide our children in learning how to deal with stress instead of attempting to block their ever experiencing it.

Beginning in the Little School, Keystone’s counselor Dr. Erica Shapiro and Division Head Dena Hoenig Valdez offer programming for parents on ways to support children in their psychosocial development. Parents may read books together or Dr. Shapiro will speak on the latest thinking around pre-kindergarten child growth.

We acknowledge that the Little School is a child’s first real school experience and as a result, it’s the initial educational opportunity for parents. We view the relationship as a partnership that recognizes our staff’s many years of experience combined with parents’ understanding of their particular child. Teachers also help our youngest Cobras learn how to channel and regulate their emotions as they struggle with frustration or playing with peers.

This commitment to the whole child progresses in the Lower School as Dr. Shapiro and Head of Lower School/Interim Head of Middle School Mallory Matthews provide learning opportunities for parents through book group conversations, coffee conversations, and lessons for students in managing stressful situations whether these are in the classroom or on the playground. The expansion of the athletics and outdoor education programs into Lower School resulted, in part, from the desire to teach students that a healthy body complements a healthy mind. Dr. Shapiro works individually with students in the Lower School on stress management and peer relations, and we continue to create programming that benefits all students collectively.

These efforts continue in Middle School with Dr. Shapiro, Ms. Matthews, and Ms. Shotzberger leading discussions in Town Hall. In addition, students in grades 5-8 participate in the Social Institute program which focuses on ways to behave ethically and make good choices online. Middle School students also begin to receive lessons in sex ed, thanks to the Healthy Futures program.

Students in the Upper School also take part in the Social Institute and sex ed courses, led by Keystone parent and physician Dr. Michele Muldrow, and many more wellness programs. The high school’s Wellness Council, made up of students, Dr. Shapiro, and Mr. Spedding, plan activities and education for the entire year ranging from support dogs for the seniors after the November 1 early action/decision deadline to acai bowls to teaching healthy eating habits. All 9th graders take a year-long wellness course devoted to students learning how to handle stressful situations and be proactive in creating a healthy lifestyle.

Thanks to seniors a few years ago who met with administrators over the course of several weeks and offered suggestions around well-being, including the creation of a page in Canvas where students can access mental health resources. In addition, Dr. Shapiro and Director of College Counseling Sara Christiansen hold sessions with seniors and twelfth grade parents on a healthy transition to college.

The Preventive Solutions organization provides programming for high school students on ways to avoid substance use and abuse. The courses form part of the CASA time in high school that includes class meeting time, advisory get togethers, and wellness breaks.

An emphasis on wellness a few years ago resulted in a new mid-year and finals exam calendar where students take the same number of exams, but those are spread over five rather than three days; as a result, students can focus on one exam at a time and not feel overwhelmed. We also moved the 10-12th grade outdoor education trips to the week preceding Thanksgiving break so those students have a two week break in the middle of the first semester.

High school students participated in the Independent Schools Health Check inventory a few weeks ago. This survey enables us to gauge the overall well-being of the high school student body. We also offer an anonymous reporting tool where students can alert Dr. Shapiro to a friend that may need help.

Counselor and therapist Dr. Alyssa Booth has been working with high school students on stress management in the past few weeks. She spoke to parents during this Fall’s PTO General Session, and with the faculty/staff during the In-Service Day on October 23. She will also meet with lower and middle school students to help them identify signs of stress and anxiety.

Keystone has been working diligently for a long time on ways to support students in crafting lives that are balanced and healthy. This commitment has only expanded in the past few years. We understand that growing up can be an emotional roller coaster for children and adolescents (and consequently for parents), and students will have ups and downs on different days and sometimes on the same day. This is part of normal human development. We aim to partner with parents in aiding our students to grow academically and personally so they can become the people we all wish them to be.

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