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One of the most significant changes in schools in the past ten years has been an increased awareness of student mental health and wellness needs. Harley has long endeavored to promote student wellness, and in the past several years, we have worked to have a more comprehensive approach.

by Lars Kuelling, academic dean

One of the most significant changes in schools in the past ten years has been an increased awareness of student mental health and wellness needs. Harley has long endeavored to promote student wellness, and in the past several years, we have worked to have a more comprehensive approach. As Larry Frye discussed in a blog post in November (click here), Harley’s efforts have recently focused on increased counseling resources, professional development, and programmatic efforts.

Two significant efforts are underway to strengthen our mental health and wellness plans. The first involves the formation of a Trauma, Illness, Grief  (TIG) Team, a group of faculty and staff that receive five intensive days of training from the Monroe County Consortium for Trauma, Illness, and Grief and serve as a response team for students in crisis or when a traumatic event—such as a death—occurs in the school community. While the training highlights preventative measures, it is primarily focused on establishing a group of trained “first responders.”

The first group to be trained includes the three school counselors, the school nurse, and the academic dean; in the fall, an additional group of faculty and staff will receive training.  Participation in the Consortium also includes training for a broader cross-section of faculty and staff in Mental Health First Aid, a national program of National Council for Behavioral Health. The program includes professional development for faculty and staff in how to best support students with mental health concerns and refer students to additional resources at school and in the community for ongoing support or during times of personal crisis.

Another item Larry referenced was the initial work being done through a combined effort of Parent Council and the faculty and administration to promote student mental health and wellness.  In the spring of 2018, students in grades 7-12 were surveyed to get a snapshot of mental health concerns in several areas; stress and anxiety related to coursework was an area students identified as needing some attention. Concurrently, Kristen Jones (class of 2018) completed a capstone project studying the relationship between homework and student reported levels of stress and engagement. Both efforts were important in helping us kick-start conversations with students and parents about steps we could take to better support our students.

At the same time, those of us working on developing a structured approach to student mental health and wellness understand that our focus has initially been narrow in scope and not always driven by relevant data regarding symptoms, underlying risk factors, and perhaps most importantly, the positive protective factors present in the student body that we can build a program from. So, when an opportunity arose to participate in a High-Achieving Schools Study (HASS) pilot program for grades 9-12 offered by the National Association of Independent Schools to eight member schools nationwide, we quickly signed up.

The program builds off of the 30+ years of academic study conducted by Dr. Suniya Luther. Dr. Luthar’s research has focused on high-achieving schools in upper-middle-class communities.  For her research, high achieving schools are marked by above-average standardized test scores, rich extracurricular and academic offerings, and graduates headed to selective colleges, markers shared by Harley and other NAIS schools nationwide.

The HASS is a comprehensive survey of symptoms, risk factors, and positive protective factors that is administered anonymously to students in grades 9-12 and from which aggregated data is pulled.  Areas to be examined include:

Student levels of well-being

  • Depression, anxiety, rule-breaking
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Disordered eating, self-harm
  • Altruism, and prosocial behavior
  • Empathy, integrity, and humility
  • Life satisfaction
  • Envy of peers
  • Perfectionistic self-presentation

Modifiable aspects of school climate

  • School bullying
  • Respect for diversity
  • AP and IB courses
  • Academic support
  • Caring teachers and adults
  • Alienation from adults
  • Parent-school engagement

Modifiable aspects of parent-child relationships

  • Perceptions of parents’ tolerance of substance abuse
  • Emphasized parent values (importance of success vs. showing decency and integrity)
  • Felt closeness to each parent

Those of us working to promote student wellness are excited by the information the HASS will provide for us. For instance, we know that our students often report a high level of stress from their workload.  Unknowns, however, include:

  • How does their reported level of stress compare to students at other high achieving schools?
  • Is the level of stress a factor of the quantity of work assigned or perhaps related to other factors such as overscheduled students, parental pressure to succeed, or students’ own levels of perfectionism?
  • What are the inputs (school schedule, required activities, parent education around college, etc.) and student protective factors – such as caring teachers and adults or positive parent-school engagement – that the school could marshal in effecting meaningful change in the area of student stress?

The results of the High Achieving Schools Study will be presented to us personally by Dr. Luthar upon completion of the research (about two months after administration of the survey to our Upper School students in mid-March). Her presentation will include Harley’s overall results in the three categories previously mentioned, comparisons with a bench-mark group of other high achieving schools, an analysis of our top risk and protective factors, and specific intervention recommendations based on the study’s findings. Upper School parents should keep an eye out for an invitation to a parent presentation led by Dr. Luthar in the late spring.