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The Landscape of Young People’s Health and Wellness in New England Private Schools

When Erin Fisher approached her Head of School in 2019 about expanding the school’s wellness program into a standalone department, she was immediately supported and given the green light.

“We are trying to meet kids where they are and give them tools for life,” says Fisher, Director of Wellbeing at Pomfret School in Eastern Connecticut. The department is now entering its fourth year, offering students a holistic variety of courses to support their mental, physical, and emotional health—from now-common options, such as yoga, to more innovative classes, including the science of generosity and the power of storytelling.

Pomfret isn’t alone. Across New England’s independent schools, educators are responding to a rise in student stress, anxiety, and mental health issues with new course offerings and expanded social-emotional support.

There has been a great deal of attention given to a growing mental health crisis among America’s young people, particularly adolescents, highlighted by worrying data from the CDC. Schools are taking note and evolving with the times.

For families, understanding how a school approaches mental health and wellbeing can be just as important a decision-making factor as the school’s academics and extracurriculars. “Wellness and wellbeing are part of the conversation and much more integrated into school life and curriculum,” says Claire Leheny, Executive Director of the Association for Independent Schools in New England (AISNE), which counts 270 private schools in the region as members.

Knowing the right questions to ask is key. Even as most schools consider student wellness as integral to the total education experience these days as science or history, their approaches can vary greatly.

“A question parents should ask as they are selecting a school for their child is, ‘Is it clear there is a strong web of support and that your child will be known and seen?’” says Jennifer Hamilton, Director of Psychology and Counseling at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA. “Our teachers have the opportunity to get to know students more intimately due to our small class sizes. Therefore, they can pick up on subtle cues to better support students.”

Hamilton also notes that other programmatic elements in school life are important to consider: How does a school promote curiosity, playfulness, and belonging? What role does service and community engagement play in student life? Does the school celebrate the idea that wellbeing and achievement are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing?

Several area wellness practitioners pointed to the forward-thinking work of clinical psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour, whose latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, has been praised as a leading voice for those working with and raising adolescents.

In a recent interview on The Ezra Klein Show, Dr. Damour points out that psychological distress and mental health concerns are not always linked—that negative emotions are not always a sign of trouble. In fact, they can be a sign that a child is appropriately responding to situations. Says Damour, “[Psychologists] are looking for two things: Do the feelings fit the situation, even if they are negative, unwanted, unpleasant? And then second, and perhaps more important, are they managed effectively?”

So how do you know where that line between negative emotions and mental health trouble is? “The number one indicator of health and well-being is sleep,” says Pomfret School’s Fisher, adding that many boarding programs emphasize healthy sleeping habits for students in their dorms. She adds, “Kids ideally need 9.25 hours of sleep for optimal functioning. They are experiencing one of the biggest growth spurts in brain development, and when they’re not sleeping, the pruning and growth and neuroplasticity isn’t happening as well as it could.” Among the active steps schools are taking is reducing screen time before sleep. For example, at Pomfret, freshmen and sophomores are required to place phones in a lock box at 10 p.m.

A 2017 Stanford University School of Medicine study found that poor and disrupted sleep is a warning sign of worsening suicidal thoughts in young adults. This means schools are increasingly vigilant. “I’m confident our faculty across the board is well-versed in recognizing the signs of depression and suicide, as well as signs of low sleep,” says Tara Hofherr, Director of Elementary Programs & Next School Counseling at Kingsley Montessori School in Boston.

All the schools we spoke to agreed that parents can expect a baseline level of staff and faculty training for indicators of declining mental health. Schools are increasing their commitment to ensuring that their faculty and staff engage in ongoing professional development in this area, led by both internal and external experts. Some schools, including Noble and Greenough, have robust ongoing training for employees. “Kids open up to adults they trust, so we want to ensure teachers feel equipped with the tools to support students holistically. For example, we run a gatekeeper training for mental health and suicide prevention awareness for educators,” Hamilton says.

At AISNE, mental health takes center stage each May at its annual Health and Wellness Conference. The event gives more than 250 area educators a chance to share their experiences and hear from experts, including clinical psychologist and author Sharon Saline, and fellow doctor and author Devorah Heitner, who last May presented on helping students navigate healthy social media use and online personas.
The topic of social media use cannot be separated from school approaches to student wellness. While opinions range on the efficacy of restricting social media use entirely for children and pre-teens, many studies link increased social media use to a decline in mental health. Hofherr notes that while she hasn’t seen an increase in depression among students at Kingsley Montessori, stress and anxiety are high, even at elementary ages, something echoed by educators across all levels.

But some are quick to point out that stress and anxiety are not necessarily indicators of a broader problem, particularly in teens, and that maybe the kids are alright after all. “If a kid has a huge test and they have not started studying and that test is tomorrow, we expect to see anxiety. That is actually what we would rather see than a kid who is indifferent,” Damour says in her Ezra Klein interview.

“Kids are resilient. I think that not just as schools, but in the broader culture, we need to stop pathologizing what is often typical teen behavior,” says Pomfret’s Fisher. This confidence in students to navigate life’s challenges and rise to the occasion permeates across independent schools, which view wellness as an area of lifelong learning and skill development rather than just an in-the-moment coping mechanism.

Many adults are new to wellness themselves, having no experience with it as part of their own pre-K–12 curriculum. At Kingsley Montessori, caregiver education events encourage adults to learn wellness signs in their children and also reflect on their own behaviors. “Anxious parents have anxious children,” says Hofherr, going on to observe, “My one-on-one conversations with parents trend toward their own wellness.”
That sort of parent-school partnership is at the cornerstone of any successful education and frequently can be the greatest value an independent school offers.