It is not an easy time to be a teenager. The rates of adolescent stress, anxiety, depression, and other challenges have become nearly epidemic. Approximately one third of teenagers will experience anxiety, and that number is on the rise. In the decade from 2003 to 2012 (the most recent years for which data are available), the prevalence of diagnosable anxiety among teenagers and children nearly doubled. The contributing factors are myriad, from high academic and extracurricular expectations to prolific social media use to a reduced feeling of safety and control in the world.
Provide opportunities for: efficacy, self-reliance, accountability, challenge, failure, and caring for others. And do all of this while encouraging reflection; a robust face-to-face community; and a healthy lifestyle replete with good sleep, healthful food, exercise, and time spent in nature.
If you designed an environment specifically to meet all of these criteria, it might look a lot like Thacher. Here, students are provided with support without being coddled; challenged and given the tools to develop resiliency; and immersed in a deep and diverse community.
"At a time when most high schoolers spend so much of their lives in online environments that are engineered to foster feelings of insufficiency, we are building a place where they can develop a feeling of not just sufficiency but also of growth and true connection," says Head of School Blossom Beatty Pidduck CedP 1992. "We've never been a school that limits the notion of education to the academic realm. At Thacher, who we are and how we engage with the world matters. Building the tools that support life-long wellness and emotional health is key to that work." To that end the school offers a range of programs and services, including: mindfulness, counseling, nutrition services, small peer groups, and more. These, coupled with Thacher’s signature Outdoor and Horse Programs, create a mix of activities, resources, and values that serve as an antidote to many of the adolescent ills we hear most about.
A cornerstone of this successful work is the School's new emotional health coordinator position, recently filled by Nicole Miller CdeP 1983. Ms. Miller has spent the past 15 years working as a licensed Family and Marriage Therapist in Ojai and Santa Barbara, where she has focused specifically on adolescents and families—in particular, those who attend boarding schools. Her work includes treating anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and family issues. And her background as a Thacher graduate (and daughter of two former faculty members) means she has a deep understanding of the School's philosophy and culture.
"Nicole's expertise in working with so many of our students and adults makes her a natural fit to help the School continue to evaluate and support the well-being of our community," says Sabina McMahon, assistant head of school for student life.
Ms. Miller's new role, which she is undertaking alongside a student task force, is just the latest addition to the School's commitment to educating and supporting the whole student.
Long-standing Thacher traditions, such as the Horse Program, formal dinners, the Outdoor Program, prefect groups, and other core activities, come with built-in benefits for well-being. Over the 130 years since the School's founding, however, the issues facing teenagers have changed dramatically. Today, excessive screen time has been linked to increased rates of anxiety and depression. And an increase in "vehicular-parenting" (from snowplow to bulldozer, in which parents try to prepare the road ahead for their children rather than preparing their children for the sometimes-bumpy road) has continued to diminish important emotional development.
Thacher has paid attention to these shifts and listened to community members. As a result, it has continued to evolve, assembling wider and deeper offerings to meet the changing needs of our students—beginning on day one.
Freshmen enjoy a once-a-week faculty-led skills class. Topics in these classes include: connecting with the community and its resources, cultivating self-awareness, honing organizational skills, practicing inclusion and celebrating diversity, increasing knowledge about boundaries and consent, learning about brain science to become effective students and community members, and more. And students in every dorm attend age-appropriate well-being, stress-management, mindfulness, sexuality, and healthy sleep habit sessions.
The School also provides drop-in meditation and yoga, many tech-free activities, community time, a balanced and healthful food program (including an on-site nutritionist), and counseling sessions, among other wellness and growth opportunities. Student affinity groups create additional cohesion, and campus organizations provide access to spiritual communities.
All students also have access to a rare and valuable resource in today's world: unstructured time for exploration and play—whether that is a spontaneous e-bike ride into the town of Ojai, a hike with friends into the foothills on the trails, or an afternoon in the Project Studio to undertake a creative project.
These nourishing offerings are not unilaterally instituted by the administration. In fact, the creation of Ms. Miller's position grew out of conversations with students, faculty, and families—and deep research conducted by two Thacher seniors as part of an independent project. This collaboration between students and adults is, in itself, a demonstration of how the School is bucking the current trends surrounding the teenage years.
"Part of the challenge faced by adolescents today is feeling that they are observers of the world around them—whether that is as a subject of plans for their future or a follower of aspirational social media accounts," says Ms. Pidduck. "Since its inception, Thacher has held as a core belief that teenagers are capable of more than we might expect—and, perhaps even more important, more than they expect. The sweet spot is in building that right environment where challenges are met with the resources and community to foster ongoing growth."
To wit: The students themselves have led the policies on campus to limit the use of phones in public spaces on campus. Which means more time and space for real connection.
The work, of course, is ongoing and the needs of young people evolving, but the indications are that our approach is achieving its goals. In a country where more than 70 percent of teens have consumed at least one alcoholic beverage by the time they reach age 18, Thacher students estimate that 3 percent of their peers use alcohol on campus. What are Thacher students doing instead? You can find one answer most weekends at the Open House hosted by our head of school, where a large portion of the student body gathers, cell phones nowhere to be seen. In one room they are playing chess or connect four; in another they are sprawled across sofas watching a movie; in the kitchen they are baking cookies and perfecting their quesadilla recipes; while in the yard they might find ping-pong, corn hole, or karaoke—proof positive that teenage fun and wholesomeness need not be mutually exclusive.
Still, this is high school and not every moment will be as idyllic as Open House, so the conversation continues, which allows the School to continue to grow alongside our students.