Thinking About the Lives of Students

by Carolyn F. McKee
Assistant Head of School for Student Life 


The Rocky, Risky Road of Adolescence

Our Parent Education Committee recently sponsored "Alcohol, Teenagers, and Social Hosting," a panel discussion featuring Kate Dion, an attorney from Robinson & Cole; Dan Weiner and Geoff Genser, therapists from Family Resource & Development Center in West Hartford; and Bloomfield Police Sergeant Ellen White ‘93. These professionals shared their experiences in working with adolescents, focusing on the risky behavior that is inherent to this age group and the possible consequences of teens' decisions and misjudgments.

Kate Dion discussed CT's laws regarding social hosting (and parents' related liability). Officer White suggested things parents can do to help kids make good decisions about parties, including creating a guest list, having parents bring kids to the house, being present during parties in their own homes, and calling ahead to confirm that host parents will be present. She also reminded parents that they can call their local police departments (most towns have tip lines) if they have concerns. Geoff Genser and Dan Weiner reviewed the basics of adolescent development, citing examples of normal and at-risk adolescent behaviors and sharing their tips for parents.

Things like:

  • Be aware of the world adolescents live in day-to-day.
  • Validate them and listen without judgment.
  • Establish boundaries; be their friendly parent, not their friend.
  • Set clear limits and expectations -- but expect them to test the limits.
  • Use reasonable, not reaction-based, consequences.
  • Limit the lecturing and encourage dialogue (ask questions, let them teach you something).
  • Reward positive behaviors (honesty, responsibility, etc.).

During the Q&A session that followed, parents heard what was on the mind of fellow parents and considered possible strategies for approaching various situations. One great example: Create a code word or a plan for your child to contact you if she/he needs to escape from a challenging situation. The panelists also shared these great resources:

National Institute of Drug Abuse: scientific information about drugs
Generating Winners: resources and information about high school and college-aged kids and parents
Common Sense Media: info for teens, parents, and teachers about social media, apps, and digital citizenship

I left the evening’s presentation thinking about all that our teens are dealing with: peer pressure, social media, heightened independence provided by a driver’s license, proms, graduation, to name just a few. So, I will end this, my final blog, as I began my first one: Boy Am I Glad I'm Not a Teenager Today!

Posted by pisani.j on Wednesday March 30, 2016 at 05:56PM
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A School Built on Relationships

I talk a lot about the relationships. Whenever I am asked why I work at KO, I mention the sense of community, the collegiality I have with my peers, and the strong rapport that exists between students and adults. While the main focus for me is advising, and the partnership that exists among students, parents, and advisors, I also value the bonds formed with teachers and coaches.

I know that students are known for who they are here, and when this assertion is somehow reinforced by an anecdote or some data, I celebrate.

Such was the case recently. KO was selected to participate in the Caring Schools Initiative (CSI) as part of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. By design, the goal of the survey was to better understand how our constituencies experience the school community. For me and members of the Student Life Team, our hope was that by participating in the research and seeing the results, we would be able enhance and enrich our school culture. The results arrived in mid-December, and I have spent many hours combing through the results of the questionnaires administered to students, parents, and teachers.

While there is a lot of data to digest, and we are spending our meetings looking at the takeaways and our next steps, the evidence that KO is indeed a relational community is overwhelming:

●   92% of the students said that people care about each other in this school.
●   97% of parents said that KO has adults that really care about students.
●   90% of teachers  reported that KO is a safe place for students and 90% of teachers  reported that KO is a safe place for teachers, administrators, and staff.
●   94% of teachers agreed that students at this school really care about one another.
●   90% of teachers felt that students at KO treat each other with respect.
●   94% of teachers said that teachers and students treat each other with respect in this school.
●   98% of parents agreed that KO is an inviting place for students to learn.


The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Kingswood Oxford is a place of relationships.

Posted by pisani.j on Thursday January 28, 2016 at 07:08PM
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Why Are We All So Stressed Out?

Did you know that:

  • About a third of teens say their stress level has increased in the past year (31%) or believe their stress level will increase in the coming year (34%)
  • Nearly half of teens (42%) report they are not doing enough or are not sure if they are doing enough to manage their stress
  • More than 1 in 10 (13%) say they never set aside time to manage stress

This information, culled from a recent APA study, was at the heart of a wonderful talk given Nov. 2 in Alumni Hall by Katie Godbout Hurley ‘93, author of the new book, The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.

Although the focus of Hurley's talk, sponsored by the Parent Education Committee and the Office of Institutional Advancement, was on stress in tweens and teens, there is increasing evidence that kids are learning stress from adults:

  • 43% of adults report that their stress level has increased
  • 36% say their stress level has stayed the same over the past five years
  • Adults’ average reported stress level is 5.1 on a 10-point scale -- far higher than the 3.6 level they think is healthy
  • 10% of adults say they do not engage in any stress-management activities

But experts say that adults also have the chance to teach kids a better way. “Parents and other adults can play a critical role in helping teens get a handle on stress by modeling healthy stress management behaviors,” said APA CEO and Executive Vice President Norman B. Anderson, PhD. 

Here are a few ideas from Katie Hurley:

Sleep. It bears repeating: Teens need more sleep (9 hours) than they are getting (7 hours). Adults do too!
Exercise. When under stress, people often cut out the things that will help them most. Being physically active helps relieve tension and improves mood.
Mindfulness. A mindfulness curriculum is increasingly important to many schools. School Counselor Chastity Rodriguez '91 is introducing this topic in her Form 3 VQV class, on the heels of a Mindfulness Fundamentals Course she just completed through Mindful Schools. Here is an example of one of her guided meditations.
Gratitude. Expressing gratitude has a positive effect on bodies and minds. Just saying "thank you" can improve self-esteem, happiness, and resilience. A study of gratitude done by Boston College student Josh Coyne reinforces this idea. Many KO students have replicated this study for their independent research project in May.

Posted by pisani.j on Thursday November 12, 2015
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Developing Resiliency Through Safe Risk-Taking

My colleague Debbie Fiske skinned her knee while running with our cross country team recently, and when I read her eloquent reflection about the experience, I got to thinking about resiliency.

What exactly do we mean by resiliency? Why do some of us have it, while others seem not to? Can we teach resiliency? Is it inherent? How do we, as educators or as adults, foster it in adolescents?

These are some of the questions we grapple with in our Student Life Team meetings, in which we focus on the student experience from Upper Prep through Form 6. We examine cases and search for similarities, wondering how to increase resiliency in adolescents so they are well-equipped and ready to handle the disappointments that undoubtedly await them. We look at our own students who experience setbacks -- not making a team, missing the Honor Roll by 0.1, not being chosen for a select group. Some kids move on quickly with a "that's the way things go" attitude, while others feel sad or angry and struggle to see their way through the disappointment.

Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, which appeared this summer in the "Education Life" section of The New York Times, made the point that colleges were seeing and responding to the same thing on a much larger scale. In growing numbers college students are experiencing anxiety, depression, and even suicide as they face the reality that they aren't perfect, that they can't do it all, that they may earn a grade below an A.

Other literature --  such as The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey, How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, and Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein -- reinforce the need to talk to our students about the value of making (and learning from) mistakes, the benefit of struggling to figure things out, and the necessity of falling down and getting back up. We must provide opportunities for them to "fail" where the ante is not high, in a safe place. This is the kind of risk-taking through which resiliency is developed and strengthened. Students make a mistake, they falter, they see that it is OK, and that they will be OK.  When we can provide (and model) this type of learning, we are indeed providing a life skill.

Posted by Mrs. Michelle M. Murphy on Thursday October 8, 2015 at 07:10PM
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Partnering with Parents to Keep Kids Safe

Although I love weekends as much as the next person, this is the time of year when Friday afternoons also bring with them a vague sense of worry -- concern that our students will make good, sensible decisions during the weekend, following School rules and avoiding risk and temptation.

It seems that each Spring we get a ”Dean’s wake-up call,” that is, a mistake made by students that is full of lessons about doing the right thing, taking care of one another, taking responsibility for one’s action, and accepting and dealing with the consequences of one’s behavior. Our Principles of Community enumerate these values (and more), and thereby capture, in black and white, the concepts that bind us as a community and that we hold dear.

Yet we know that adolescents will take risks and make mistakes. That is part of growing up. Our job, along with their parents, is to try as best we can to protect them from these risks. The first step is to recognize them as risks. We engage the students in a conversation about decision-making, and we encourage them to think about the impact of their actions.

The beauty of a day school is that we work in partnership with parents on all matters, including students’ safety. We encourage parents to maintain an active (yet appropriate) presence in their children's social lives: When your child is headed to a party on a Friday or Saturday evening, please call ahead and speak with the host parents about the nature of the gathering; with cell phones and computers, it takes only a few minutes for word to spread of a party. If you do not feel comfortable making these calls, please call me. I will make the call for you. Click here for some great tips on navigating these tricky social-life waters with your children.

KO is known for its strong relationships among students, faculty, and parents, and communication is a big part of this. It is essential for parents to be clear with their children about their expectations and to engage in open conversations about these matters. We know that kids can do the right thing and make the right choices, and we ask for your help in ensuring that they do.


Posted by pisani.j on Thursday April 2, 2015 at 10:22AM
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Boy Am I Glad I'm Not a Teenager Today!

Adolescence – those difficult years between age 11 and 19 – has always been a critical time of intellectual, physical, and emotional development. In fact, the brain has one of its most dramatic growth spurts during this period (second only to infancy).

It’s during this phase that young people struggle to figure out who they are, while they simultaneously combat social and peer pressure and try to sort through messages that bombard them about what they should do and who they should be. They strive for greater independence, but they also realize that at times they are not ready to handle the responsibility that accompanies that independence.

“Adolescents start to have the computational and decision-making skills of an adult –if given time and access to information,” writes Sheryl Feinstein, author of Parenting the Teenage Brain: Understanding a Work in Progress. “But in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex.”

Today’s teens face a whole host of issues and concerns, from cheating to sleep, from substance use to homework, from adult interaction to bullying, to name just a few. And, society presents additional challenges – the Internet, social media, and reality TV. As a result, this already-difficult time of life is harder than ever. Life for me as a teenager, without smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter, was easier to navigate.

As I often say to colleagues, parents, and even kids: Adolescence was much easier back in the day, and I’m so glad I’m not a teenager today!

Posted by pisani.j on Sunday February 8, 2015 at 12:06AM
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