College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

A blog from Head of School Susanna A. Jones.

Susanna A. Jones

It seems appropriate to conclude this year by continuing our focus on our students’ mental health. In my last column, I discussed the results of the Authentic Connections (AC) Survey with regard to parents.  Here, we will look at the data related to peers and school climate, particularly as they are associated with student mental health.  You may recall that AC divides its data into three categories: parents, peers, and school climate.  For Holton students, the peer factors associated with depression, anxiety, and rule-breaking, the three mental health conditions AC measures, are: high social media comparisons; high negative social media; and peer sexual harassment.  The characteristics of school climate that contribute to mental health challenges are: high COVID safety concerns, low equity/inclusion, and high valuation of grades over mental health. We’ll dig a little deeper into each of these topics.

Peer Factors in Student Mental Health: High Social Media Comparison

While our student results on this factor generally measure below national or girls’ school averages and that is a positive sign, they are still registering as a prime contributor to mental health challenges.   The most significant of the three peer factors is high social media comparison, meaning, for example, that after looking at someone else’s social media post, you don’t feel your life is as interesting or exciting.  The percentage of Holton students feeling this way is very high, 57.1%, above the national average amongst AC’s surveyed schools, but below the average of girls’ schools (68.6%); moreover, each grade (6-12) polled below the girls’ school average.  Given what we know about the negative impacts of social media on girls, that overall girls’ school numbers are high is not surprising.  While it’s gratifying that our students poll below their peers, the percentages are high and they show a significant jump in upper school with more than 65% of students in every Upper School grade being affected by social media comparisons. 


(The black lines represent the girls school averages)

We know from other data, including Facebook and Instagram’s own research, that viewing social media makes a significant proportion of adolescent girls feel bad about themselves.  We spend time addressing this issue in Seminar beginning in Middle School, and this may be why our data is better than many of our peers.  However, social media is intentionally emotionally powerful and combatting its influence and impact is challenging.  By appealing to their sense of justice, teaching students about how social media companies manipulate users has proven effective in reducing young people’s susceptibility.  Prohibiting the use of phones during the school day helps (interestingly, seniors, who have the highest level of social media impact at over 76%, are also the students with the most privileges to access their phones during the school day).  Helping our students find other sources of affirmation through activities they enjoy and in-person social interactions also helps.  Parents have a role to play in limiting phone use (especially at night – storing phones out of bedrooms is a very good strategy), modeling healthy social media use ourselves, and encouraging in-person activities.  Being outside in nature without phones is also very good for all of us.  

Peer Factors in Student Mental Health: High Negative Social Media 

The second area of peer relationships that particularly affects Holton students’ mental health is high negative social media.  This category focuses on experiencing meanness perpetrated on social media by close friends.  These numbers are low for every grade and below both the national and girls school averages, with the highest percentages (ranging from 8.5 to 9.3 percent of students reporting such experiences) in eighth, ninth and tenth grades.  While we absolutely need to worry about those students suffering from anxiety and depression and engaged in rule-breaking for whom social media meanness looms large, this is generally good news and I would say represents a reflection of work we have done related to online behavior.  If your child is experiencing online meanness, there are several steps you can take to help.  All the suggestions about staying off social media apply.  Encouraging your daughter to consider the qualities that make someone a good friend is also a worthwhile exercise.  She doesn’t need friends who make her feel terrible about herself.  If the situation persists or is causing excessive stress, contact your division director or counselor; if doing so, make sure you have actual evidence of the meanness such as screenshots of the negative posts.  




Peer Factors in Student Mental Health: Sexual Harassment

The third topic, sexual harassment, honestly is perplexing.  We can all understand how experiencing sexual harassment would have negative repercussions.  However, the fact that our students in grades 8-12 experience sexual harassment at higher levels than their peers in other girls schools and among the national data in every grade except juniors seems surprising.  Again, the percentage of students experiencing sexual harassment is low, the highest percentage being 9.8% of seniors.  The questions here are also quite general, so the sexual harassment could be coming from anyone among students’ acquaintances both within and outside school.  It’s also possible that our students are especially attuned to this type of treatment.  Regardless, it’s an issue we plan to explore to gain a better understanding and it’s something that parents might want to talk with their children about.  



School Climate Factors in Student Mental Health: High COVID Safety Concerns

School climate obviously represents the area over which we at school have the most control.  The three issues most impacting our students’ mental health, high COVID safety concerns, low equity/inclusion, and valuing grades over mental health, arise out of 28 wide-ranging topics, from bullying, cancel culture, how much work students do, feelings of belonging, and how LGBTQIA students are treated (the survey provides data on all these topics which will we are analyzing and using to inform future programming).  High COVID safety concerns represent another example where our students experience the issue at rates below their peers on average in other schools, but is a topic that matters to students with mental health struggles.  About 21% of students worry about COVID at school, with concerns about infecting family members topping their concerns.  Given that more than 89% of students aren’t particularly worried about COVID safety, changing our COVID protocols doesn’t seem merited.  I would argue that this is another place where parents can help their students to feel comfortable about coming to school. However, this is a very personal issue, with different families having different circumstances and different feelings about COVID risks.  We need to acknowledge those circumstances and feelings while recognizing that as an institution we have to make decisions that we feel serve the majority of the community best.  



School Climate Factors in Student Mental Health: Equity and Inclusions

In terms of low equity and inclusion, overall, only 10.8% of Holton students felt that the School is not inclusive or equitable, a percentage virtually equivalent to the national average of 10.5% and below the girls’ school average of 12.3%.  However, like worrying about getting sick at school, for those students who suffer from mental health challenges, feeling that school is not equitable or inclusive impacts them significantly.

Since equity and inclusion represent a topic on which the School has placed a great deal of emphasis in the last few years, it is gratifying that our students’ concern about this issue ranks at or below sample averages.  That said, the 10.8% represents a composite number, one made up of a number of factors.  Again, because this matters to us, it is worth digging deeper into the data.  Approximately one-third of students agree or strongly agree that students are treated differently depending on how much money their family has.  It is with regard to political views, however, that students believe that people are most often treated differently, with more than 55% of students agreeing or strongly agreeing with that statement.  The other areas related to equity and inclusion polled lower with gender identity at a little over a quarter of students, race and/or ethnicity at just slightly over 18%, and sexual orientation at a little over 16%.  Regardless of whether these figures are high or low, however, we want to address the concerns.  We need to delve into the ways in which students perceive that students are treated differently because of family wealth or lack thereof.  Likewise, gender identity, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation.  By finding out more from students, hopefully, we make the community feel more equitable.  The political views issue stands out obviously as the one where students perceive the most inequitable treatment.  This probably isn’t surprising since, despite what the students say, Holton is not a bubble, and what happens in school inevitably reflects forces outside the campus gate.  Given the intensity of current political polarization, we would be naive to think it wouldn’t enter our hallways and classrooms.  We have worked hard to create protocols for ‘courageous conversations,” protocols we use.  Like the other topics, this issue bears deeper investigation and continued attention.

Finally, it is worth noting that feelings about equity and inclusion vary amongst different ethnic groups.  Black, LatinX, and Middle Eastern students all believe that there is generally low equity and inclusion at Holton at percentages higher than their Caucasian, Asian, multi-racial, and other ethnicities peers and higher than their counterparts in both the national and girls’ school samples.  Moreover, Black and LatinX students perceive that students are treated differently as a result of how much money a family has, gender identity, and race and ethnicity more frequently than their peers, while Blacks note different treatment due to political views at higher rates than any other group, followed by Middle Eastern students. LatinX and multi-racial students observe differential treatment based on sexual orientation at the highest frequency.  In addition, as students get older, they tend to perceive low inclusion and equity more than younger peers. These ethnic and racial disparities point to the need to continue our institutional attention to DEIB to help ensure that our Black, LatinX, and Middle Eastern students experience similar levels of equity and inclusion as students from other ethnic and racial groups.   


As an aside, while we’re on the topic of diversity, a bright note in the data was how few students felt that the curriculum lacks diversity.  Every ethnic group rated this issue below the national average although Asian, Black, LatinX, and other ethnic students feel the curriculum is low on diversity compared with their girls’ school peers.  All these percentages were low, with the largest group being the 7.2% of Asian students who wish the curriculum contained more diversity.  I think this data both reflects and affirms the work we have done over the last several years to broaden the range of voices and perspectives we teach.

School Climate Factors in Student Mental Health: Valuing Grades over Mental Health

Finally, Holton students who suffer from mental health challenges particularly believe that Holton values grades over mental health.  However, our students generally feel this way, and do so increasingly as they get older.  Over 67% of students feel that the school emphasizes grades too much and almost 59% feel that we don’t prioritize mental health sufficiently.  These are both topics that bear further study.  The overemphasis on grades stands out to me because institutionally we do quite a lot to deemphasize grades.  For example, we have no Honor Roll.  We discourage students from comparing grades (though, of course, they do) and we have also tried to take prizes out of the spotlight by reimagining Class Day.  We made the change from percentage to letter grades precisely because Dr. Lisa Damour advised that it would help reduce focus on grades (because students would no longer be able to zero in on minute point differences).  I can’t help but think that students carry concerns about grades with them into school since we know that 33% of them feel that they hyper-parent with respect to grades.  For what it’s worth, many teachers are frustrated by what they perceive as students’ interest in grades to the exclusion of much else.  An Upper School math teacher recently described trying to institute a grading protocol whereby she returned tests with comments but no grades in an effort to focus students on learning rather than results.  She gave up in response to students’ intense desire to see their grades immediately.  



In terms of mental health, we have definitely increased our attention to this issue significantly in the last several years and will continue to look for ways to support our students better in this area.  As everyone knows, we have a counselor in every division as well as a Student-Centered Support Department that includes counselors and learning specialists and who meet regularly both by division and as a whole group to meet student needs holistically.  Seminar addresses mental health by raising awareness of how different conditions manifest and teaching students how to seek help and support one another.  Advisory is another place where we try to keep a finger on how our students are doing.  For the third year, students organized a very informative Mental Health Day in Upper School that brought in both outside experts and provided the opportunity to hear about personal experiences with mental health struggles.  We have “zen dens” in every division and the Upper School counselor holds regular lunch sessions called “stress happens.”  

We believe we have more opportunities to educate both parents and teachers about mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression, and we plan to implement such programming next year.  We also probably need to be more intentional in our language so that students understand when we are taking steps for their mental health.  For example, almost 38% of our students report what AC terms “low faculty emotional support” which is slightly above both the national and girls’ school sample.  Drilling down on that topic, over 63% indicated that faculty never or rarely reach out to ask about students’ mental health.  By contrast, over half of students feel that teachers ask about their emotional wellbeing at least sometimes and almost 73% report that teachers “communicate care and concern for how I am doing.”  Maybe simply changing how we ask our questions could be a step toward changing students’ perceptions about the School’s concerns for their mental health.

While I have largely focused on the factors with the highest impact on our students’ mental health, the survey results provide a huge amount of additional data which we will use to inform next steps with the goal of continuing to improve the Holton student experience.  In addition, last week, we shared the AC data with students and gave them an opportunity to share their thoughts.  This activity, in turn, gives us more information to inform our work.  As always, we look forward to partnering with parents as we strive to create the best possible learning environment for our students.