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June 11, 2018
Boarding School: The Perfect Balance
Fig West Chester is proud to feature stories from Westtown School in the following months. Written by a variety of faculty and leaders, these stories spotlight parenting, education, and more. The below story is Boarding School: The Perfect Balance. Explore more Westtown School stories on their website and here on FigWestChester.com.
In her book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Damour describes the familiar and emotional process in which teens begin to separate from their parents, assert their independence, and latch on firmly to a tribe of their peers. Damour writes, “By the end of adolescence, we expect that [teenagers] will loosen their close ties to their families and strengthen their connections with their peers.” This process, while normal and necessary for healthy adult development, can be challenging for teens and their parents alike. Providing teens with appropriate ways to assert their independence and ensuring there is a supportive safety net is essential. For some families, boarding school provides the perfect balance of independence and support.
College readiness is a primary reason many parents choose to send their child to boarding school for some or all of high school. At boarding school, there is a predictable schedule that teaches students time management and life-long study skills. During evening study hall, the entire campus settles down for two hours of quiet study. Students find it easy to get their work done because that is the routine for everyone. In time, this develops into a self-discipline that keeps students focused even when there are no formal study hours. In addition to the academic preparation, conflict resolution and interpersonal skills are actively taught in a residential setting. At boarding school, roommates learn how to advocate for their own needs and listen to each other. Adults help students have difficult conversations that lead to increased empathy as well as self-awareness. These kinds of academic and social skills are not usually taught in college, yet are necessary. It is often a sink-or-swim environment. Students who attend boarding school are often much more equipped to handle the social and academic pressures they face in college because of the practice they have negotiating these challenges in high school.
Although separating from parents is a normal part of adolescent development, that doesn’t mean that teenagers don’t need or want relationships with adults. Another benefit of boarding school is that the circle of supportive adults in a student’s life expands. Adults are everywhere at boarding school. Students develop close relationships because their teachers are also their dorm parents, coaches, or advisors. Students get to know their teachers’ families and share meals with them in the dining room. In a time when teenagers are naturally pulling away from their own parents, they find additional adults to support them and help them grow. As a result, their relationship with their parents often improves. At boarding school, it is the teachers and dorm parents who are holding students accountable for cleaning their rooms, doing their chores, and finishing assignments. This allows parents to become the support group and not the enforcers, enabling teens to be more open with their parents. Parents of boarding students often discover that the time they spend with their children on the weekends and during vacation is more fulfilling because they are not arguing over day-to-day issues. Somewhat surprisingly, parents find that they become closer to their teen when they live at school.
To a teenager, nothing is more important than their relationships to their peers. Students at boarding school have extra exposure to other adolescents and they gain important learning experiences from their peer groups. With the support of the adults around them, they learn to hold each other accountable and work out interpersonal issues on their own. It’s great practice on the path to adulthood.
College readiness, strong academics, deep relationship building, and strengthening of the parent-child relationship are just some of the important benefits of the boarding school life. The structured independence of the high school residential experience is transformational for most teens, and it cultivates skills that are necessary for college and for life.
1 Damour, Lisa. Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. New York, Ballantine Books, 2016.
Written by Whitney Suttell. Whitney Suttell has taught history at Westtown School since 2004. Prior to that, she taught Middle School math and science at the Monteverde Friends School in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Whitney loves working with teenagers and spent over a decade living in and running a dorm of 60 tenth and eleventh grade girls.