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Kindling a Fire: What Are We Doing About the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

Kindling a Fire: What Are We Doing About the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

At the end of the last school year, I examined the teen mental health crisis in a series of articles. I was pleased by the response I received, with many readers reaching out to share their observations about technology use, declining childhood independence, and overly intensive parenting.

But several readers asked me a valid follow-up question: What is Country Day doing in response? So I thought I would share some of our new initiatives, as well as some of the tried-and-true approaches that have served CCDS well for decades.

First, we are formally banning smartphone use by students during the school day. Although technology is a critical element of our curriculum, we believe smartphones are more detrimental than instrumental to our students’ learning during school hours. By removing the distraction of smartphones, we will seek to foster more face-to-face interactions and authentic shared experiences among our students. But we will still provide a tech-rich learning environment, with tablets in every student’s hand from grades 5-12, deep engagement with emerging trends around artificial intelligence, and plenty of hands-on learning opportunities with cutting-edge technology in our computer science and engineering programs.

We are providing more education to parents about responsible technology use, delaying childhood smartphone acquisition, and shared community norms. Parents will hear from outside speakers, industry experts, and our own faculty and staff. None of us have all the answers, but by being open with each other about this challenge, we can collectively shift the behaviors and expectations of our community.

Beyond technology, we are ensuring our students are equipped with emotional skills and mental habits of success. Through a nationally recognized program called Sources of Strength, Country Day students in all three divisions will receive training to help them identify their own abilities and mitigate mental health challenges. And instead of some intervention programs that rely entirely on peers to interrupt suicidality, this program provides upstream, strength-based support to students and trains trusted adults who can serve as resources for struggling students.

Of course, at Country Day this approach is not entirely new. We have long prided ourselves on knowing and nurturing every student, and this is just the latest manifestation of that ethos. Under Sources of Strength, faculty and staff mentors are trained at every level and range from Upper School teachers to Middle School support specialists to facilities team members. All the while, we will continue to have staff psychologists in each division and a full-time Children’s Hospital mental health therapist to deliver on-site counseling sessions throughout the day.

In Middle School, we are also developing a proprietary program called Activating Leadership through Academic Learning. This initiative, created in partnership with national consulting firm Cor Creative Partners, seeks to deliver key life skills and habits of success within our existing classroom experience and curriculum.

In addition, we are expanding our commitment to outdoor education, especially in Lower School and Middle School. Opportunities for outdoor play, independent exploration, and connections to the natural world have been consistently shown to promote mental health and cognitive performance. Something as simple as a lower school student climbing a tree can be an impactful learning moment. As a result, we are enhancing our outdoor learning environments with walking trails and a low ropes course to promote more of these important experiences.

Finally, we are continuing what has always made us unique: small classes where every child is known and nurtured; trusted relationships with outstanding faculty; class trips, clubs, and student bonding activities to allow students to cultivate authentic relationships and a sense of connectedness; and opportunities for student leadership and independence.

We have long known that in order to thrive, students need to develop a sense of mastery, autonomy, and community. And while our methods will continue to evolve in response to a rapidly changing world, those objectives will remain the same at Country Day.  

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the September 2023 edition of the publication.