Admiring a photograph of an expert climber flashing a frosty smile and waving a tiny flag on the summit of Mount Everest is radically different from actual Himalayan mountaineering. Similarly, admiring a school or college website, replete with carefully curated student profiles and teacher bios, impressive admissions statistics, majestic buildings, and lush lawns is radically different from the daily grind of studying.
Of course, marketing an experience and living that experience are never the same. Parents know that. Independent educational consultants (IECs) know that. But who is informing the kids? If students’ increasingly severe social and emotional adjustment problems1 are any sign, the answer is: no one.
Vibrant but Suffering
Many schools and colleges offer outstanding educational experiences. The facilities, faculty, staff, and coaches provide wonderful instruction; the wholesome values and leadership opportunities promote sterling character; and, where it exists, the diversity of the student body challenges students’ assumptions in healthy ways.
The vibrancy of these communities has kept me working in them for nearly three decades, but students’ declining mental health suggests that vibrancy alone does not make students successful.
Many factors have contributed to modern students’ mental health problems, such as family history; stress associated with racial or sexual minority status; poverty and limited access to mental health care; neighborhood violence; and unhealthy parental pressure. Unfortunately, IECs cannot change the past. But they can change the future.
Balancing the Message
The yawning gap between students’ pre-matriculation fantasies and their post-matriculation reality creates predictable shockwaves in students’ social and emotional adjustment. For example, schools’ marketing materials never mention the massive homework load, the intense atmosphere of social conformity, the penetrating pressure to excel, or the self-discipline demands that students confront when they make the transition from their old school to one with competitive admissions.
We cannot expect all schools to balance their marketing messages with some sobering description of the hurdles students will face when they matriculate. However, a few forward-thinking schools do address mental health as soon as students accept their offer of admission. At some schools, for example, Counseling and Psychological Services and the school’s Health Education teachers correspond with new families to help welcome and orient them. At other schools, the student leaders (proctors, prefects, student listeners, and team captains) receive training in conflict resolution, peer support, and how and when to make a referral to a professional provider.
These and other efforts to promote positive adjustment help prevent some serious mental health problems, but two roadblocks remain: (1) Not all schools are so forward-thinking; and (2) No schools offer objective information on their true demands. Fortunately, world-class IECs can remove both roadblocks and pave the way to student success.
More than ever, IECs’ success is measured by not only placement rates, but by retention rates and other indicators of students’ well-being after they matriculate. Simply put, if they do well, you do well. Especially in these post-pandemic times, families are asking, “How do your students do socially and emotionally after they enroll?” If you want to provide an encouraging answer to this question, you will need to close the gap between a school’s advertised experience and a client’s actual experience.
Here are four win-win consulting strategies that boost student success:
From the start of your relationship with a client family, emphasize goodness-of-fit as one of your guiding principles. When you are able to match a school’s strengths with a student’s strengths—in spirit, mind, and body—you are stacking the odds in everyone’s favor. Of course, many parents and students will want to want to apply to some schools based solely on reputation. That is fine, as long as you also share your professional assessment about each school’s goodness-of-fit for the student in question.
Just as successful mountaineers equip themselves with the right gear for a challenging new climb, your client families need the right coping strategies to successfully navigate the transition to a rigorous school. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with separation anxiety, academic pressure, packed schedules, and a complex social environment. Remember: Families who are equipped with adaptive skills and attitudes enjoy smooth transitions and fruitful school years.
Early in your relationship with a client family, caregivers and kids will tell you what they imagine they want. That, of course, is important data because it will help you begin finding schools that match those preferences. Equally important, at this early stage, is your recommending that caregivers and kids practice what it will take to be successful once they matriculate. For example, all students should take ownership over their schedules and homework, endeavoring to manage their time, sleep, homework, and family responsibilities without any reminders from parents. (This turns out to be as hard for parents as it is for students. Certainly, it is eye opening for both parties.) Forming healthy habits now, long before the transition to a new school, will help students get much more out of their first year.
As an adult peer, you are in a uniquely influential position to coach parents on the healthiest ways to support their child. So, talk with them about how to listen, encourage, and assist with love. Remind them that their child’s maturation will be gradual, uneven, and full of trial and error. Connect them with other families whose children have done well artistically, athletically, or academically and invite them to ask questions and share ideas. Follow up with parents after the first week or two of school to find out not only how their child is doing socially and emotionally, but how they are holding up as parents. Empathize with their hopes and fears and offer trusted resources and gentle advice. After all, happy parents are the best ambassadors for your services.
Taken together and customized to suit your professional style, these four strategies are powerful ways to bridge the gap that would otherwise exacerbate social and emotional problems for students—the gap between students’ pre-matriculation fantasies and their post-matriculation reality. Schools are doing more to help these days—in terms of both prevention and intervention—but marketing concerns will always limit their effectiveness. Fortunately, this limitation is your opportunity, and the outcomes benefit everyone.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Available at: www.cdc.gov/YRBSS (Note: Data from the 2020 YRBSS are not yet available, but the 10-year trend between 2009 and 2019 showed a steady increase in emotional distress among secondary school students.)
By Christopher Thurber, PhD, Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, Phillips Exeter Academy and Founder of Prep4School.com. You can learn more about Christopher Thurber and contact him through his website: DrChrisThurber.com