Success Mindsets for Boarding School – Part 2

Dr. Chris Thurber & Dr. Szu-Hui Lee

Dr. Chris Thurber & Dr. Szu-Hui Lee

Philips Exeter Academy

Five Elements of a Success Mindset

As psychologists who provide therapy at boarding school, we have learned a lot from our students, especially about the ingredients of a successful mindset. As two people who have spent lots of time away from home, much of it in school, we also use our life experience to inform our work. From our perspective, here are the top five ways to approach boarding school with a healthy mindset. Caregivers and faculty should seize the opportunity to share these five Cs with all of their new students.

See Part 1 of this blog pair for Success Mindset 1: Choice Mindset.

  1. Commitment Mindset—Well-intentioned and loving parents can sometimes sabotage adjustment and amplify homesickness by suggesting that a student can return home early if they feel homesick or don’t like boarding school. Here, too, the research is clear: Parents who make these “pick-up deals” have students who become preoccupied with the comfortable option of returning to a familiar environment (home) and who refrain from investing themselves in the novel environment (boarding school). As a result, such students make few friends and have few opportunities to contribute their talents. Consequently, the intensity of their homesickness increases.

Success Mindset: “I am here to stay, at least for this year, and I will do my best to contribute to this community.”

  1. Calendar Mindset—Although the academic year lasts for 9+ months in most parts of the world, those months are always peppered with weekends, one-day breaks, holidays, and multi-week vacations. A healthy mindset shift entails replacing exaggerated thoughts, such as: I’m going to boarding school for a year, with accurate thoughts, such as: I’m going to boarding school for nine months out of twelve and those nine months are broken into much smaller bits. Homesickness can increase when students think the school year lasts an entire calendar year—or worse, when they say to themselves I’ll be away at boarding school for four years. Most people would feel despondent imagining an enduring, multi-year absence from friends, family, and pets, not to mention familiar cuisine, customs, and climate.

Success Mindset: “I am fortunate that my time at boarding school has plenty of breaks.”

  1. Call/Text Mindset—The smartphone revolution has transformed the type and frequency of parent-student communication. Rather than exchanging hand-written letters or making a weekly phone call during time away, most students at most boarding schools are texting with a parent multiple times a day (just as they did before starting boarding school) and calling home more than once a week. On the plus side, frequent contact means that parents can actively collaborate with boarding staff to nurture students. On the minus side, dependence on parents for small tasks and decisions can undermine adolescents’ burgeoning self-reliance. For international students, another minus of instant and incessant calls, texts, video chats, and emails can be disrupted sleep. Both international and domestic families should be intentional about the time and frequency of electronic communication.

Success Mindset: “I balance connecting with home and connecting with people here at school.”

  1. Competence Mindset—The most difficult existential adjustment for students at rigorous boarding schools is coming to terms with no longer being one of the very top students at school. Most students at top-tier boarding schools were in the top 15% of their class at their previous school. Getting the first low grade of their lives (and by “low,” we mean some kind of B, not a D) can feel devastating. Lower grades not only raise the specter of attending a mid-range university, but also shake students’ confidence in their competence. Students become anxious about the future and depressed about their self-concept when abilities they thought were signature strengths turn out to be average. Therefore, almost all new students must re-calibrate their self-concept against a new peer standard. Success entails feeling grateful for the skills one has and adopting a growth mindset for the development of new and improved aptitudes.

Success Mindset: “I will continue to try my hardest and focus on my personal strengths, knowing that some of my peers sometimes perform better in this area than me.”

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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