For students who attend boarding school, saying goodbye to mom and dad, moving on campus and beginning a journey toward independence is often a major transition.
Students must get ready to navigate a new home and academic environment while learning to manage what for some is an unprecedented level of freedom. They will be making new friends, meeting new teachers and joining a new system, often with very different customs and traditions. Education experts say preparation is the key to a smooth launch.
Getting ready for boarding school starts with knowing what to expect. Following the school's social media accounts, reading its newsletters, touring the school repeatedly and asking plenty of questions can provide a road map to what daily life will be like for both students and parents. Families also need to discuss how and when they will communicate, when parents will visit campus and when students will return home so that the expectations are clear.
"Talking about how to manage homesickness, making a plan of what each family member will do when it strikes and discussing what they expect of each other regarding daily communication are all good ideas," says Rachel Connell, rector of Chatham Hall, an all-girls school serving grades 9-12 in Virginia.
Getting Past Homesickness
Often the most difficult time is at the beginning of the first semester, because everyone experiences moments of struggle when something is new, says Mark Devey, head of Perkiomen School, which serves grades 6-12 in Pennsylvania. But a bit of homesickness is both common and normal.
"Be sure to have an open conversation and a plan, so the student and parent are prepared to deal with a small amount of discomfort on the pathway to a life-changing experience," he says.
Families should also take full advantage of resources offered by their school in advance of the first day, says Connell. That may include opportunities to meet and mix or to connect with other students and families online.
"As students prepare to join us at Chatham Hall, we encourage them to be in touch with their roommates to begin to become acquainted, and to feel free to ask questions of our dean of students and residential life," Connell says.
Devey says parents should openly share information about a student's particular needs or challenges with school officials so that educators have all the facts. "Holding back information isn't helpful," he says. "The more your school knows, the more you can work together as partners to make it the best experience possible for your student."
Jamie Buffington Browne, director of admission at Santa Catalina School in California, where she's also an alum, says that parents too should stay informed.
"There is an extra layer of independence and responsibility that boarding school students develop, but students are most successful when the parents are engaged with the school as well," she says.
Preparing Different Age Groups
For families considering boarding school for middle school children, there is much that can be done to get students ready, according to Browne. Families can have their child attend a sleepaway summer camp or travel independently to see family or friends.
"We have found that these experiences can be great preparation," she says. "The student will have already developed some independence muscles, which will allow them to engage more fully at school."
Justin Sell, dean of the middle school at Perkiomen, recommends that families discuss the new expectations that come with independence and prepare students for practical changes like navigating friendships, doing their own laundry and being on time for meals, classes and activities.
"The life skills middle school students learn beyond the boarding school classroom are a valuable addition to the educational lessons they will learn within the curriculum," he says.
High school students will have more freedom and flexibility built into their day, and that can help in the transition to college, according to Sell.
[Read: Why Kids Go to Boarding School.]
"They will be focused on time management and balancing responsibilities like leadership positions, athletic practices and games, and higher-level coursework," he says. "These moments will prepare them for the freedoms and challenges of university life."
Families can encourage independence before students leave for school so they transition more easily. For example, focusing on self-advocacy, such as having a child speak to teachers about questions or concerns rather than leaning on a parent to do so, can help.
No matter how old a student is when they enter boarding school, it's vital to have realistic expectations, Browne says. They are entering a world where they are going to experience both success and failure.
"The parent and the child should prepare themselves to dive in, engage fully, embrace challenge and any micro-failure that comes with it, and grow," she says. "Most importantly, stop comparing yourself to others. This is each person's individual journey, so be less concerned about grades and more about effort, commitment, determination and attitude."
And when it's time to drop a child off and say goodbye, Browne recommends keeping it short and sweet.
"Focus on all the exciting things that await your child," she says. "Make it as joyful as possible since you both will have mixed emotions. Drawing out goodbyes or returning to campus only makes homesickness worse for your child and others around them."
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