Preparing boarding school students for learning is not just about buying back to school supplies. Moving onto campus and adjusting to a new rhythm can be emotionally trying, even for experienced boarders (and their parents). For students to be ready to learn, they need to feel as if they are in a safe space, both physically and emotionally. Our seasoned faculty recognizes that this transition can be stressful for many families and is ready to help.
After the ice breakers are over, our student life and academic faculty will spend time listening and learning about every student on campus helping them make connections with others and assisting them with creating their own support systems on campus to ease this transition and prepare their minds for growing. Having time to meet and connect with other students and faculty during the first few weeks of school is a crucial part of helping students feel safe, comfortable, open to accepting new challenges, and, ultimately, ready to learn.
Below is a letter by Dr. Becky Miller, our school psychologist, written to help prepare our students and parents for the transition.
Most people are familiar with the feeling of homesickness, but sometimes that uneasy feeling has nothing to do with being away from home and more to do with feeling uneasy about change. This transitioning might actually start at home with students becoming agitated when beginning to pack or starting fights with their parents or siblings all because they are nervous about the change that is about to happen. Most of us dealt with our first real homesickness when going away to college, and we likely didn’t perceive that our families (who got to stay home and carry on the same schedule that we missed) were also experiencing some distress over the change. All these feelings are completely normal, and as we start the school year I wanted to offer some experiences that our alums and alum parents have shared to help you with the exciting change that is about to happen.
When I put out a Facebook status asking for advice and help writing this, I was amazed at how many of our alums and past parents responded immediately. It was clear that they felt alone in their feelings and thought they had experienced something that everyone else was just able to handle, but everyone wanted to help. The thing I hope that everyone takes from this entry today is that homesickness is normal and there are many strategies that will help ease the transition and ultimately help your child become a confident and independent adult.
Advice for students:
Our school nurse always says that homesickness is the only sickness that doesn’t require rest and isolation for recovery. Between athletics and clubs for every interest there are so many things to get involved in that many kids have trouble not overbooking themselves! Amanda (’10) reminded me that she joined a club called Adopt-a-Grandparent, where she spent one evening a week at a local nursing home visiting with the residents. This club helped Amanda realize that she wanted to spend her life enriching elders’ residential care, and she now holds a gerontology degree where she works as a program director at a nursing home. Elena (’15) from California poured herself into technical theatre while at Eagle Hill and just spent the summer completing an internship designing and running lights for various professional shows. Jarrett (’14) from Long Island mentioned that his piece of advice would be to get involved in anything you can, including the various social events that are put on by the Student Life department. He said the more you get involved, the more you will get out of the EHS experience. Even though he didn’t mention it specifically, I am sure he was talking about the epic talent show skit that he and I put on dressed up as Aladdin and Jasmine…
Stay on the weekends
Amanda (’10) also told me that she thought she didn’t get too homesick because she was able to go home every weekend, but in retrospect she wished she had stayed on campus some weekends. She felt that other students seemed to have stronger friendships when she came back on Sunday nights because they had a shared experience over the weekend that she missed out on. Other students mentioned that staying on campus for the first few weekends was really helpful to make friends. While they reported that it was hard to wait until Columbus Day weekend to go home for the first time, it gave them ample opportunity to forge strong relationships, get acclimated to the community, and to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Alana (’16) who is from Massachusetts mentioned that she enjoyed staying for the weekends, but loved when her parents would come up to take her to dinner every once in a while. Susan, a mom from the Midwest, mentioned that she would meet her son in NYC for long weekends and that helped him make connections by not traveling so far on the weekends, but it also broke up the times between breaks and allowed them both to feel connected.
Have a scheduled phone call time
Almost all of the people with whom I spoke mentioned that having a scheduled phone call to say “goodnight” was really helpful. They would do this after study hall and free time, and it helped them relax and get ready for bed. While technology allows you and your family to connect immediately, sometimes it is more helpful to wait until a scheduled time to discuss the entire day. Sometimes you’ll be having new experiences that can feel stressful at first and your first inclination will be to call home. Your parent’s first inclination will be to fix it for you right then and there. This piece of advice will feel wrong and will be hard to follow, but allowing yourself to navigate the social landscape will help you develop confidence and grow into a self-directed, resilient adult. Before you speak to someone at home, seek out an adult on campus for direction like your dorm counselor, teacher, or your academic advisor. When you do speak to your parents during your scheduled time, you’ll be able to talk about how you handled a situation yourself and you’ll feel a sense of responsibility and accomplishment that will be so meaningful to both of you.
Advice for parents:
Funny that this is the first piece of advice for the kids as well as the parents! We totally understand that many of you are going from being your child’s only advocate for the last 10 years of school to feeling like you’re handing everything off to strangers. It’s hard to change that state of mind without feeling like your kids don’t need you. They still do, just in a different way! Definitely get involved in anything you can. There are so many opportunities for you to meet other parents, locally or in here in Hardwick. There are moms’ luncheons in various cities, where you can connect with other parents in your area to discuss school, your journey, or even coordinate travel so you know your child will be on a plane with someone familiar. You can form friendships with your child’s friends’ parents so you feel more comfortable when they ask to go home for the weekend with their new friends. You can be involved in athletic events as much as you are able. A lot of parents on the rowing team connect with each other and those who are able to attend races make it a point to send pictures to those who cannot. When everyone is in town for Family Weekend they all put on their green to show their Pioneer Pride. If you do happen to be in town during other times, give your child’s coach a heads up and they can help you find a way to attend away games, races, or matches. The Parent Advisory Board is a great way to learn about the school, get to know the administrators and to meet other parents. Similar to the kids, you will get out what you put in to the community and the options are endless!
Send care packages
Susan from the Midwest mentioned that she made it a point to send her son a newspaper subscription from their hometown and would mail his favorite snacks, magazines, and letters from the family, including pictures of them together on past family vacations. It was important for her to make sure her son realized that she wasn’t just “going on without him” and that he still had a place in the family. In an age where we can send updates or pictures immediately, sometimes it is nice to have something physical that you know someone spent time thinking about and putting together just for you, and it was important to Susan that her son saw “in black and white how proud I was of him.” Alana (’10) also mentioned to me that her favorite thing to get in the mail was a Walmart gift card to use on our weekly trips down to the store.
Keep home predictable
Have you ever come home from vacation and just couldn’t get the thought of your OWN bed out of your head? Your own pillows and blankets… even the feel of your dog sleeping next to you! Sometimes just sleeping in your own space is very grounding. Try to avoid changing or updating your child’s room (particularly as a surprise) as coming home to the same space will make the child feel like she always has a place in the home. When your child comes home for the first time, have some family time set aside. Stock the kitchen with favorite foods or plan to cook family recipes and eat together as much as possible. As delicious as the food at Eagle Hill is sometimes you just want something familiar that your parents made just for you!
Make friends with the faculty
Faculty are far closer with students at Eagle Hill than they would be in a public school. Your kids will come to our houses for dinner, catch a ride with us to the store, and babysit our children. We’ll celebrate your child’s milestones with you. We’ll feel proud of your child when she finds success in the classroom or when the college acceptances pour in…and when your child graduates college or gets married we will be there, too! We will be your eyes and ears, and we’re here for you, as well. One mom mentioned that having an open dialogue with the dorm counselors and academic advisor helped her know in her heart that her son was being taken care of. She mentioned that many times the dorm counselor would let her know something was brewing, and she was prepared to respond appropriately when her son reached out to her. She wanted you to know that a lot of times kids just need a sounding board. They sometimes need to unload and process when something happens to realize that they can handle it. Whenever possible, direct them to a faculty person who is around and likely already involved in the situation. Always feel like you can follow up with the advisor and take to heart different perspectives. She mentioned that the best thing she could do for her son was to listen to him instead of trying to fix the issue. She learned that listening to what he had to say and reiterating how proud she was of him for taking control of his future was most beneficial. We will definitely appreciate your perspective as well. Author Rick Lavoie says “if you believe only half of what your kids tell you about school we promise that we will believe only about half what of your kids tell us about home!”
Finally, know that these feelings of homesickness will come and go. Some kids will have them before they come to campus and some kids will have these feelings creep up throughout the year. Remember that you always have support on campus with the academic and residential life faculty, your child’s academic advisor, support staff, or athletic coach. If you ever feel that you just want someone to check in and need to reach out to the counseling office please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or our doctoral intern Erin Johnson at email@example.com
We all look forward to meeting you!
Dr. Becky Miller
Eagle Hill School