Success Mindsets for Boarding School – Part 1

Dr. Chris Thurber & Dr. Szu-Hui Lee

Dr. Chris Thurber & Dr. Szu-Hui Lee

Philips Exeter Academy

Why Mindset Matters

From the moment we are born, life is a series of adjustments. Infants first adjust to light, louder sounds, and direct touch. Toddlers and preschoolers adjust to spoken language and changing social contexts. School-age children adjust to cultural expectations for behavior, academic performance, impulse control, and conflict resolution. Adolescents adjust to their changing bodies, identities, relationships, and—for those fortunate to have the opportunity—boarding school. In this blog, we review the concept of mindset, familiar to many professional educators, and offer powerful strategies for specific stressors.

Community living, away from home, in an enriched, academic setting can be the ideal setting for development. Boarding school also poses a plethora of adjustment challenges, in addition to those inherent to adolescence. Homesickness, performance expectations, and social pressure can all cause distress, especially for new students. Success depends on coping with these emotional, cognitive, and behavioral sources of pain. Preventing the pain in the first place depends largely on mindset.

By mindset, we mean the way in which an individual appraises themselves, the environment, and their capacity to survive and succeed in that environment. Psychologists Ellen Langer and Carol Dweck have conducted some of the famous studies demonstrating how a person’s mindset influences their mood and performance.

Langer showed how a speaker’s use of specific vs. vague terms can create confidence or uncertainty in a listener’s mind. Asking someone who watched a video of a busy intersection, “Did you see the school bus?” vs. “Did you see a school bus?” makes them more likely to say yes, even though only cars and trucks drove through the intersection.

Dweck showed that when a teacher describes a collection of timed math questions as “fun puzzles,” students get higher scores and persevere longer, compared to when the teacher describes them as “frustrating problems.” Together, Langer and Dweck’s research has clearly demonstrated that the way people think about or frame a situation or task can have a profound influence on their memory and competence.

Like Langer, Dweck calls our mental approach to tasks mindset. She warns against the dangers of a fixed mindset—where someone imagines they either possess or lack a skill set and cannot acquire new competencies easily. Students with fixed mindsets take fewer healthy risks, get frustrated rapidly, and give up quickly when they encounter difficulty. By contrast, students with growth mindsets see themselves as flexible learners who can acquire new skills with effort. They persevere, are open to new experiences, and bounce back from failure.

Here in Part 1 of this pair of blogs, we will offer the first of our Top Five Success Mindsets. In Part 2, we will share the additional four. The first involves the choice to attend boarding school. For more than a millennium, this choice belonged to parents. In the last century, the choice has become increasingly collaborative, as caregivers have gained an appreciation for how important a sense of agency is to a student’s emotional well-being.

  1. Choice Mindset—We hope that all students take part in the decision to attend boarding school. The research is clear: Young people who feel forced to leave home—whether to attend summer camp or boarding school—experience more emotional distress than those who get to participate in the decision. For the few students who do feel that they had no choice, we emphasize that they always have choices about how to approach this forced experience. Students should seek out people, coursework, and extracurricular activities that bring them joy. They also have a choice about how much effort they put into their boarding school experience. And with sustained effort comes fruitful outcomes.

Success Mindset: “I always have some choices about how I spend my time at school.”

Recently, our passion for creating successful boarding school experiences motivated us to create a dozen animated videos called Prep4School. In partnership with TABS, we now offer subscriptions to this library on two different platforms: a website and a WeChat mini program. To date, we have created a dozen videos on topics ranging from homesickness prevention to time management. Both students and parents will enjoy and benefit from the reassurance and expert advice in each 4-to-7-minute video.

Subscriptions to and the Prep4School mini program are available in two ways:

  • Institutional: Schools or consultants can prepay for a book of coupons, at a 20% bulk discount. Institutions can then distribute these coupons as a free resource to all new families. Each family can then use their coupon to activate a subscription to Prep4School
  • Individual: Schools or consultants can distribute the URL and the QR code that links to Prep4School. Families can then pay for a subscription to Prep4School. Note that only subscribers with a Chinese bank account can pay for the Prep4School WeChat mini program without a coupon.

Website and WeChat coupons are available by emailing [email protected].

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