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The Williams School – Educating the Whole Child

Super Saturdays at The Williams School (admission testing, campus tours, lunch) – December 9, January 6, February 3 & June 9

Today’s hectic world is full of stressors. Job demands, making ends meet, government policies, terrorism, and family life are only a few. The debilitating effects are not limited to adults. Today’s teens may face more social, sexual and ethical challenges than any preceding generation, robbing them of the joy of youth and seriously impacting classroom performance.

Anxiety is weighing on today’s students, says Macy Kleinfelder, Dean of Student Affairs for The Williams School in New London. “It tends to manifest itself in ways that are discernable, but sometimes students internalize what they are feeling making it harder for the adults to recognize” she says. “High anxiety or anxiety that isn’t addressed in the adolescent years can lead to poor decision making and greater issues with drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships, and more.”

According to the Child Mind Institute, 22% of U.S. kids “will have a diagnosable mental illness with ‘serious impairment’ at some point before they are 18.”  A third of these include anxiety disorders. Many middle and high schoolers are stalked by fear of rejection or failure, and worrying about not fitting in. Left unidentified and unaided, they can become insular or withdrawn and perform well below their academic potential.

At Williams, a co-ed college prep school of grades 6-12, these concerns have motivated the staff to proactively embark on a new Health and Wellness Program to address these issues. “Our emphasis is on developing the whole child,” says Mark Fader, Head of School.

For now, it’s not a course-based curriculum, but rather utilizes times where the community gathers in large and small groups like assemblies and advisor meetings. Kleinfelder explains that Williams wants to go beyond what’s thought of as traditional health & wellness issues like substance use and abuse and nutrition, to address “what are often called social/emotional learning skills or success skills.” Topics like mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, leadership, resilience, integrity, and embracing diversity are all a part of these formative traits. Williams also looks to include topics such as sexual health and development, the transition to college, healthy relationships, and digital citizenship.

As a private school, there is no regulatory requirement to have a health and wellness program. But Williams strives to be proactive in this area, Kleinfelder says: “We recognized a gap in our curriculum and began to look at what other schools are doing but also listened closely to what families and students are asking for. Local organizations and colleges have also enthusiastically made huge contributions to the direction and development of the program. It’s been a heartwarming,” Kleinfelder says, “to see just how much the community wants to be involved in this and help and provide resources.”

Groups like the New England Center for Anxiety, Community Speaks Out, Project Courage, and the College of Health and Wellness at Johnson and Wales University have provided materials, presentations, speakers, or hosted workshops. Williams is also working with Connecticut College LGBTQIA Center and Looking In Theatre for spring programming.

Anxiety is a fact of life for many students, and there is no simple antidote. “In some ways it’s less about school,” Kleinfelder says. “I think it’s often more about trying balance to everything.” The Advising Program at Williams ensures that each student has at least one faculty member to whom he or she can turn for support or guidance. Advisors create a safe and neutral forum for discussing sensitive topics and help students access greater support when needed. Advisors have no more than 10 students assigned to them, says Fader, and hold weekly meetings. While there is often guidance on topics and resources, advisor meetings tend to take shape as open-ended discussions rather than a lecture, with the intent to “help students develop and create their own belief system,” says Kleinfelder. Exercises “encourage people to stand up for who they are and to stand up for others,” Fader adds, “and to have understanding for one another.”

Our culture and our social activities are full of distractions. Staying focused on what’s important takes concentration, but can also be energy-sapping. Besides the vast allure of social media, teens at Williams participate in a lot of extra-curricular activities. Preventing digital devices and unproductive pursuits from controlling oneself becomes crucial to academic success. Kleinfelder says they’ve introduced mindfulness to help students block out distractions and get centered. Workshops for faculty and for students have been held to learn different mindfulness techniques.

Many schools don’t have the resources to cope with the wide variety of emotional and behavioral problems that face adolescents today. Without those resources, some schools resort to reprimanding or suspending troublesome students in the well-meaning belief that classrooms need to be kept free of disruptions. Williams takes a more empathetic approach, emphasizing intellectual curiosity, diversity and critical thinking. It prides itself on individual attention. With an average class size of 12 students and a 1:8 faculty to student ratio, students gain a personalized approach to their education at Williams.

The experience of Andrew Watson, class of 2013, testifies to the significance of that attention. “I got off track once in a while,” Watson says. “But [at Williams] there were people really invested in me succeeding. They wouldn’t just let me fade into the background. When I needed a push, I got a push. When I needed some comfort, they were always there.”

To learn more about Williams School, please visit www.williamsschool.org.

Super Saturdays at The Williams School (admission testing, campus tours, lunch) – December 9, January 6, February 3 & June 9.

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