Supporting the Health and Wellness of Students
Teenagers today are facing challenges that have not been experienced by many previous generations. Common stressors for high school students, such as applying to college and the pressure to do well academically, are compounded by complications related to the coronavirus pandemic. Faculty, staff, and administrators at independent boarding schools know it’s more important than ever to support students’ well-being. Social and emotional learning, support from faculty advisors, health education, and wellness programs are among the ways that boarding schools support their students.
At Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH), Kristen Peterson, dean of student life programs, explained, “Holistic student wellness is at the forefront of everything we do. We have to shift some of the ways we are living right now, but we can do that and still provide opportunities for meaningful experiences that feed our students’ souls and brains.”
Independent boarding schools have the ability to weave opportunities to support students to stay well and thrive throughout many facets of a student’s experience. NMH, for example, has a required wellness course for ninth graders, a digital citizenship seminar on social media and technology for ninth and 10th-graders, wellness-focused student life seminars for 10th-graders, a peer education program, and space and time for weekly mindfulness sessions. Students who serve as Resident Leaders work closely with school counselors and the dean of student life programs to help shape wellness programming for their peers.
“Students feel best when they are known and loved,” Peterson said. “Connecting with at least one adult during difficult moments can help anchor a student and make them feel safe, secure, and seen.” That’s where advisors come in. At NMH, every student has a faculty advisor, who is responsible for a small number of advisees and serves as the primary contact with families. Advising is a key piece of NMH’s unique Partnership of 12 program, in which a network of adults — classroom teachers, coaches, deans, advisors, campus-work supervisors, and dorm parents — work together to support each student.
Health and Wellness Care
Integrated care for the whole child is an important part of the boarding school experience. Independent schools’ health centers are staffed by professionals trained to meet teens’ unique needs and provide integrated care for a student’s mind, body, and spirit.
At NMH, co-directors Dr. Sara Rourke, director of medicine, and Johanna Callard (LICSW), director of counseling, combine their expertise in clinical medicine and counseling services for students at the O’Connor Health and Wellness Center. Services include:
Tiffany Doyle (NP), director of nursing, leads a team of registered nurses who staff the health and wellness center around the clock while school is in session, so someone is ready to help whenever students need it.
The O’Connor Health and Wellness team oversees community surveillance testing and provides diagnostic rapid testing for students. This year we have also added onsite flu testing. It also provides reinforcement of mitigation efforts including mask wearing, physical distancing, and hand washing that aim to minimize the presence of COVID-19 on campus.
Time with a licensed therapist can help in ways that talking with peers can’t. “Students may need more support right now to feel grounded and regulated, since there are limitations on some of their regular ways of coping — hanging out with friends, or how they exercise and play,” Callard said. “We know students feel this, and we’re here to help them find ways to feel more secure and grounded during their time at school.” Students can make an appointment to talk with counselors (licensed mental health providers) in a safe, confidential, and nonjudgmental environment. NMH counselors are available for short- and long-term counseling to students, free of charge, primarily via telehealth in 2020–21, or may be referred to a consulting psychiatrist.
Support for Athletes
In addition to running an athletics program for student athletes, many boarding school athletics programs support students in improving and maintaining their overall mental health and wellness. At NMH, Athletic Director Debby Ghezzi coordinates with coaches to host speakers and create programming on wellness for athletes, how to deal with anxiety and stress, and social justice issues. Trainers and a strength and conditioning coach work together to ensure that athletes are ready for competition and address injuries. These professionals also work closely with Dr. Rourke to ensure that student athletes are healthy in mind and body.
As a secular institution, NMH affirms religious diversity, and strives to help students explore the religious or spiritual journey of their choice. This is done through regular gatherings of the religious and spiritual life groups on campus, including the Interfaith Council, Moment of Silence messages given by students at all-school meetings, and student-requested individual meetings with the school chaplain.
Recreation and Play
Academics are important, but so is rest, relaxation, and play. Independent boarding schools have the flexibility to adjust their schedules and calendars to accommodate much-needed time for students to hang out safely with friends, outdoors, and in the dorms. NMH’s expansive rural campus provides opportunities for students to thrive in nature and socialize outdoors with friends.
Callard said, “I have been thinking a lot about students being outside so much more and how our weekend activities are often play-related. For many students, this brings out the opportunity for joy.”