Columbia University researchers have published startling—and, for private-independent school leaders, profoundly disturbing—findings from a comprehensive project focused on characteristics of upper- and middle-class youth and their families.1 This is the population from which private-independent schools in the U.S. draw most heavily. The researchers’ overarching conclusion is that “youth in upwardly mobile, upper/middle-class community contexts … [are] statistically more likely than normative samples to show serious disturbance across several domains.” Many of these problems are associated with and/or leading to rampant substance abuse, barely manageable levels of stress, and persistent high anxiety.
The authors, citing their own research and decades of findings from other projects, acknowledge many of their findings to be counterintuitive, in the sense that the traditional problem-family focus in the U.S. has been in the opposite direction socioeconomically. Those on their way to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs may deserve at least as much corrective attention as those found elsewhere on the socioeconomic scale. Although not all affluent students are distressed, “an unusually large proportion shows serious levels of maladjustment, relative to parallel rates in national normative samples.”
For private-independent school leaders, the researchers’ most critical observations include the following. (The headings reflect ISM’s categorization of the research findings, not those of the researchers themselves.)
- Around the age of 13, affluent youth start to exhibit signs of emerging problems.
- Seeking independence from their parents, early adolescents increasingly strive to be popular with their peers. These affluent peer groups typically endorse “counter-conventional behaviors.”
- As students experience the hormonal changes of puberty, they also begin identity exploration: Who am I? What will I amount to? “The increasing salience of all these developmental issues across adolescence … accounts for escalating signs of trouble.”
- In affluent communities, there is an inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The chief goal is to develop an impressive résumé.
- Of major concern is “the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults. … It is critical to note that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but … from outside the family.”
- Affluent students do not feel any closer to their parents than do low-income students.
- “Laissez-faire monitoring is a particularly powerful predictor [associated with] high substance use, delinquency, and depressive/anxiety symptoms.”
- Students show elevated symptoms when they believe their parents value their success more than their integrity. Perceived parent pride drives student self-worth, which then “rests largely—and perilously—on achieving and maintaining ‘star status.’”
Résumé-Building and Anxiety
- Many students see their success as primarily depending on luck, not effort—which leads to learned helplessness and despondency.
- For children, mental health suffers when wealth provides more than a comfortable subsistence and the omnipresent desire to acquire yet more pervades. Presented with a multitude of choices (e.g., college-level courses, AP, sports), many students worry about how their decisions will impact their résumés and future job opportunities.
- Students are “preoccupied with becoming … ‘commodities,’ pursuing activities chiefly if they will enhance their résumés. There is scant time or space to [investigate] ‘who they are’ as individuals, nurturing their unique interests, passions and life goals.”
- What should we see among upper/middle-class youth? We should see evidence of “a balanced set of values, with behaviorally manifested commitment to intrinsic goals, integrity, and low rule-breaking.”
- “Ratings [of students] by teachers are easier to obtain [than peer ratings by the students themselves], but can grossly underestimate adolescent problems; [the researchers] … have found consistent elevations on rule-breaking by [students’] self-reports, and almost none by teacher reports.”
- Parents must be “especially vigilant about keeping their children firmly grounded in intrinsic values.”
- Because prevention efforts are not succeeding with affluent students, address rampant substance abuse with more urgency.
- “Our task … is to learn how we might achieve peer contagion of a balanced set of personal values—with authentic commitment to intrinsic aspirations … enlisting the help of teens who widely command respect among their age-mates.”
- Put greater emphasis on training and supporting teachers as student mentors—“formalization of training and support for teachers in this area, to enhance these beneficial relationships with students in ways that are sustainable at both the individual and institutional levels.”
- When working with distressed students, empathize not only with students but with their parents, “as their overt wrath and contentiousness often stem from intense underlying fearfulness, and even self-blame, for the child’s problems.”
Leadership in Private-Independent-Schools: Suggested Approaches
Following is an array of ISM-suggested corrective steps. Some of these are perspectives ISM has previously published (indeed, for several of them, for many years now). Others are new to this publication.
Consider the extent to which your school can approach these suggestions to counter the destructive trends highlighted by the Columbia University research team. The first list, “programmatic steps,” deals with organizationally complex approaches. The second list, “administrative steps,” deals with organizationally less complex—though not necessarily simpler or easier—approaches.
- Focus in lower-school parent education on the upcoming threats to children and their families as the children mature into pubescence and adolescence. The researchers note that lower-school parents must recognize:
- “the long-term risks to their children of embarking on a path overly focused on achievements;”
- “the critical importance … of shared leisure time, good communication and monitoring, and firm limit-setting, all starting from the earliest years. By middle and high school … it will be extremely difficult to change family patterns that have become well-entrenched.”
- Enlist the support of middle- and upper-school youth who serve in leadership positions (e.g., student body officers or editorial staff of school newspapers) or those who are de facto leaders (e.g., those opinion-shapers who do not hold leadership office or title). Solicit their help in addressing the need to focus on:
- intrinsic over extrinsic values and value-development, and
- a heightened and strengthened sense of shared community values and mutual support and concern.
The research team notes that, for example, “Interactions with [high school newspaper editors and writers] … have been especially gratifying, as students … have initiated active dialogues about the nature of stresses in their high-achieving communities.”
- Establish your advisory program as a difference-maker. Incorporate advisory-program excellence into the faculty evaluation system, so that a sustained high level of advisory focus and skill becomes a basic condition of employment for middle school and upper-school teachers. Commit adequate time and utilize some of the faculty professional development budget (ISM benchmark: two percent of the operating budget) to fund appropriate levels of faculty education and training.
- Design student surveys to measure levels of middle school and upper-school attitudes and behaviors that tend to exacerbate the threats highlighted in the research outcomes. In addition, utilize or develop faculty surveys designed to estimate the faculty’s level of understanding of, and self-perceived capacity to deal with, the network of issues contributing to the threats.
- Develop a system that integrates philosophically the personal counseling program and the college counseling program so that the two share a common perspective and can mutually reinforce the other’s efforts. Strive to ensure that both programs focus on what the researchers have termed “intrinsic” values and goals, and that the college counseling office therefore shines its spotlight as much toward undergraduate institutions whose missions include developing campus communities, as on high-prestige research universities whose missions may not.
- Review effects of Advanced Placement programs and IB programs on stress-and-health levels of students and their families.
- Review and reassess the effect of the school schedule and calendar on stress and health levels of students and their families.
- Assess current approaches to hiring and evaluation of teachers and coaches in “performance” areas, e.g., sports, music, and drama. Hire and reward those who hold, espouse, and model the same “intrinsic values” implied by the school’s Purpose and Outcome statements.
- Assess the adequacy—in view of the research project cited here—of the current Parent Retention and Education Plan.
- Encourage, in advisory, personal counseling, and college counseling settings, student consideration of middle school, upper school, post-high school, and post-college “leveling” experiences (experiences providing exposure to people from all socioeconomic strata).
- Host a research intervention as described in the project cited by this article. “Parent groups, students, and teachers have all been invariably not just receptive … but eager to work with data that are: (a) scientifically rigorous; (b) presented with no judgments … and (c) with specific messages about areas that need attention.”
Private-independent school leaders’ contributions to the issues described by the Columbia University research team (and by many others, usually less comprehensively, over the years) have tended to be indirect. No educator wishes, via adversarial or accusatory messaging, inadvertently to contribute to the “serious disturbance across several domains” described in the research report. A blunt-instrument approach could jeopardize student and family retention.
The ISM-suggested programmatic and administrative steps are designed to assist school leaders in navigating these shoal waters with enough care so as not to antagonize the student-family population, and yet with enough force to make a difference. In combination with one another, this suggested array of corrective programmatic and administrative steps may—with leadership persistence, courage, and patience—allow the institutional ship to sail toward a safer, healthier, and more emotionally and psychologically balanced destination.
1 See “‘I can, therefore I must’: Fragility in the Upper-middle classes,” Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, by Suniya S. Luthar, Samuel H. Barkin, and Elizabeth J. Crossman.