Starting Young

Nichole Bernier / July 10, 2018

Supporting wellness before college

Twenty-five years ago, when Head of School Rick Melvoin joined the staff of Belmont Hill, an independent boys’ school west of Boston, the school’s wellness landscape looked something like this. There was one part-time counselor who was also the crew coach and resident director for the small, five-day boarding program. He certainly cared about his students, but his form of counseling sometimes seemed to be on the order of “Sit down, settle down and behave.”

“I remember faculty saying things like, ‘We have that boy with family trouble hiding in the nurse’s office pretending he doesn’t feel well,’” Melvoin recalls. “And the counselor’s way of taking care of things was sort of, ‘Don’t be hiding now. Your job is to be strong, suck it up, and get to class.’”

But the landscape has changed, for independent schools like Belmont Hill and public high schools around the country, in part because of the crush of demand colleges are experiencing for counseling services: The 2016-2017 Healthy Minds Study from the University of Michigan found that 31 percent of students screened positive for depression, and 26 percent for general anxiety disorder; 22 percent had taken psychiatric medication in the past year. Not surprisingly, high school educators are taking a hard look at what’s happening in the years immediately preceding college to prepare students for the transition and adjustment.

“Considering the mental health challenges that are being experienced in college, and counseling services pressed to the limits of their ability, some high schools are taking efforts to help kids address the kinds of issues they might experience at school, which is quite possibly the first time they are living away from home,” said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is also co-founder of Challenge Success, an educational reform organization that partners with over 300 schools helping students with the academic, social, and emotional tools to thrive. “Not having a grasp of social-emotional learned skills — like communicating, self-regulating — will not make it easy to handle things when you get to college. We know that starting early and focusing on coping skills has a positive effect once kids go away to school.”

Workload, stress, and sleep
So much to do, so little time. There’s a widespread perception that the more high school students do — AP courses, a language or two, a sport or three, an a capella group or an instrument or both — the more successful they are in the eyes of their parents, their school, their peers, and college admissions officers.

“There’s a pressure for parents and kids to do all those things, a fear that if they aren’t perfect, they screw up, won’t get into the best schools, and their life will be over. Kids want to take five or six classes, plus all the activities. We have to tell them, ‘I know that’s important, but there has to be some give and take here,’” says Melvoin, who worries about the balance between obsession and opportunity.

“But it’s not about making them relax, and give things up. I want the kids to do that if that’s who they are, and I want them to have those opportunities to try things, because they probably won’t have it in other places in their lives. This is the constant push-pull.”

There isn’t a letter grade awarded for the act of juggling a complex workload in high school. Balance, triage, and time management aren’t considered the learning, per se, just the byproducts of learning. But those healthy habits and coping skills might be the most necessary skills they’ll need in college, when parents aren’t around to help them assess how much is too much — when, say, debate club convenes at midnight, because that’s the only time available after sports, dinner, and homework.

“Managing workload is a very important thing. In high school they’re very regimented, with classes and extra-curriculars,” said Pope.

“Kids who come out of a very highly scheduled environment see holes in their schedule and feel the need to fill them, without realizing that the class hours are based on lots of extra work time, then find themselves without enough time. It’s a big lovely scrumptious buffet of life and activities, but one without the knowledge of whether they can do all that and get the sleep that they need.”

But they don’t always believe that they need it, even when adults tell them that sleep deprivation is linked to triggering depressive episodes —which can also affect high school students loading up on an AP course load. One high school in northern California studied by Pope decided its students would benefit from hearing about the importance of sleep not from adults, but from students themselves — namely, Stanford University students studying sleep and the brain.

“High schools are seeing the importance of starting to promote stress management early on, from getting enough sleep to learning coping techniques, yoga and meditation, and enough exercise to prevent problems,” said Marcia Morris, associate program director of student health psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine. She is also author of The Campus Cure, which sprung from her 2015 article in The New York Times, Dear Parent, Your College Student Had a Psychotic Break. “There’s a culture shift happening about what it means to be ready for college. And that’s critical for them to be able to handle not just college, but high school.”

Carrying glimmers of college-age awareness down to the high school level is part of what administrations see as the path to wellness, and they are increasingly addressing this under the umbrella of health and physical education programs. One organization that offers them the programming is the JED Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering teens with the skills and support to thrive. In April 2017, it launched the “Set To Go” campaign in response to observations that students coming into college were not always prepared for the emotional aspects of the transition.

“In 2015, the first time we polled college students, 60 percent said they didn’t feel emotionally prepared for their first year, and 80 percent felt very anxious and stressed,” said Sara Gorman, director of high school programming for JED. “We wanted to intervene in the earlier years, and change the culture around preparing for college.” The “Set To Go” program is designed for use in the classroom as part of a health curriculum, with guided discussions for seniors about what mental health looks like on campus, and education about self-care, emotional difficulties, and healthy behaviors.

One independent school in Manhattan that signed on for “Set To Go” did it as a way to address the extraordinarily high level of stress about the college admissions process.

“We use it to supplement our current wellness curriculum, getting students, faculty and parents thinking about college and all the transitions that come with it,” said the director of health and wellness for the school, which has a policy of not being quoted in the media. “The stress has always been high here, and it shouldn’t be at that level. JED is a vetted, trusted organization, and they clearly saw a need to address this stuff before problems arise in college, which is very much my own philosophy.”

A range of schools are implementing programs in their own ways. Castilleja School, an independent girls’ school in Palo Alto, has bolstered its wellness curriculum in recognition that students who are stressed, anxious, and not getting appropriate nutrition, sleep, and exercise will struggle academically as well as emotionally. Built around its existing PE unit, Castilleja has instituted meditation and yoga, self defense, CPR, and positive body image.
Piedmont High School, also in the Bay area, was an innovator in putting a dedicated wellness center right in its school — a comfortable place with couches and tea where students can drop in for mindfulness or meditation, learn positive coping skills, or speak with someone if they need help. “They put it in a beautiful central location, not in the basement, a place where students want to be,” says Pope.

Coping skills
High schools are recognizing the importance of offering students someone to talk to, and someone impactful to listen to. Some are initiating discussions to help students recognize the difference between everyday ups and downs, and mental health issues that could benefit from professional guidance.

“It’s critical to learn how to talk about things, recognize when you need to change course down the road -- downshift, or switch majors — so they don’t feel something unsolvable is going on,” said Morris.

Bringing in skilled, relatable speakers is one route to getting the conversation going. Cue Ross Szabo, who in 1995 was a popular varsity basketball player and president of his high school class when he attempted to take his own life.

Frustrated by shallow, joking attitudes around mental health, he stepped in front of his class and talked candidly about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. He’s now the founder of the first youth mental health speakers bureau in the country. Szabo created the Behind Happy Faces Mental Health curriculum used by over 200,000 students nationwide, and last year became a founding faculty member of Geffen Academy at UCLA.

By his count, he has spoken to 2 million students at high schools around the country on the issues of mental health.

“He has a great story, and a great message. He comes to talk to our juniors and seniors almost every year, tells his story and talks about the importance of asking for help and how to find it if you don’t feel like you’re getting it. It’s one of the most powerful events we do,” says Michelle Bracken, assistant to the Head of School at Harvard-Westlake School, in Los Angeles, and also a licensed counselor who teaches psychology there.

“He has a great way of interacting with the kids, and he’s one of the very few speakers they really react to. They come up to talk to him afterward, and email him.”

When Szabo speaks at a school, he talks about statistics, addresses the main mental health challenges students are dealing with, suggests coping mechanisms, and always includes a call to action for everyone to share their stories.

“The key is to make it a relatable conversation,” he wrote in an email exchange for this article. “I’ve had a lot of connections in my years of speaking. Students who have come forward to say they were going to kill themselves that day, and sought help instead. Students who have helped others. Students who sought help for the first time for an endless amount of traumas.”

Experts attest that the end goal of any wellness programming is to normalize the experience of asking for help when it’s needed, then making that help available. In response to the college counseling crisis — a consistent increase in demand, and a waiting list of professional hours to meet it — many high schools are increasing their own counseling staffs and services.

In 2012, San Francisco’s University High School (UHS) put in place an innovative mentoring program described as “augmented advising.” When the class of 2020 entered the school, it enhanced the program to become a one-on-one mentoring relationship, one aimed at making each student feel fully known, with individualized attention to goals, challenges, and developing 21st century skills.

A case study of the school and program was included in OVERLOADED AND UNDERPREPARED (Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles), a book of studies and strategies for stronger high schools. It appears to be making a difference. “There is a lack of cliquishness, and we see more reaching out to adults and asking for help,” noted UHS Dean of Students Alex Lockett. “Seeking out support is now a norm, whereas before it was seen as a sign of weakness.”

At Belmont, where Melvoin is departing this year as Headmaster, an increased attention to wellness played prominently in the school’s recently completed strategic plan.

Starting this fall, a newly hired full-time wellness educator will become the hub of a health team that has included a counselor (who sets up “affinity groups” for kids dealing with similar issues to meet regularly at lunch), a consulting psychiatrist, a nurse, a director of academic support, and consulting psychologist — internationally renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, author of RAISING CAIN.

“So we have a group, and every week we’re with the upper and middle school directors checking in on the kids,” said Melvoin.

Beyond wellness programming
As many high schools add wellness to their curriculum, some are targeting acknowledged sources of stress and changing the rules on how students are viewed by themselves and others.

A consortium of independent schools has created an entirely new way of assessing performance to replace the traditional transcript — and colleges, by necessity, are going with it.

Mastery Transcript has about 112 prestigious independent schools in various stages of replacing typical grades — say, for History, English, Math — with grades for 21st Century skills acquired. Communication. Collaboration. The idea is to replace narrow scores and grades-based admissions assessment with a more three-dimensional view of the student — which in turn helps students at the high school level feel more authentically known, and less frenetically playing “the game.”

Wellesley High School, a public school west of Boston, is looking forward to joining the consortium’s learning process as soon as it opens to public schools this summer. The impetus is one of many at the school to reduce the rat-race feeling of jumping rote hurdles for a diploma, and college acceptance.

“They have created a more meaningful way of having your transcript looked at by admissions readers, and this cracks open the door for more authentic ways of assessing kids,” said Jamie Chisum, principal of Wellesley High School. “This is the only thing I’ve seen college admissions respond to. They had to. If Phillips Andover is doing it, colleges aren’t going to not consider their kids. They already have admissions readers who get all kinds of alternative transcripts.”

Wellesley High School has implemented some elements of Challenge Success along with other programming designed to lower stress and heighten meaningful learning in high school.

There are small things designed to simply inject joy in an ordinary day—like bringing baby barnyard animals to the schoolyard to break up finals period, having an a capella group in the lobby singing at the beginning of a random day, or handing out Sweet Tarts during standardized testing days.

Then there are large things, like the adoption of the Evolutions program in 2016.

Evolutions is a school-within-a-school experiential learning program open to juniors and seniors, with three tenets distinguishing it from a typical classroom structure: Collaboration, interdisciplinary learning, and experiential learning.

“I got tired of kids telling me they just wanted to survive high school. And they meant it,” said Chisum. “If we could find a way for them to have meaning in their learning, that’s what every kid wants, every parent wants, every educator wants. We want kids to be excited about their learning. For some kids it’s changed their lives, their families, it’s been an entire game changer.”

The goal of all these initiatives is to focus on the growth of healthy and curious young people — not stressed-out students struggling to play the game, get good scores, defer pleasure, and get into one of a limited number of prestigious colleges where they may or may not find what they thought they were looking for.

“The hope is they come out of Wellesley High School a little more grounded, more confident that they know themselves as a learner, that there’s a little more meaning behind learning what they’re learning,” said Chisum.
“If they come out of high school and have had a reflective experience, maybe they have a better understanding of who they are and where they want to go in the world a little bit. Then when they get to college and have challenges and frustrations and bumps in the road and changes in deciding who they want to be, it’s just a continuation of that path.”