It’s just kindergarten, right? Why invest in an independent school education at such an early age? From the East Coast to the West Coast, this is a question we often hear in our role as admission professionals. And it is probably the question that evokes the most emotion for us. As educators and leaders who have served in both public and private schools and as parents of children who graduated from or currently attend independent schools, we can’t think of an investment that better safeguards a child’s future. Independent school education builds a strong and positive foundation that will impact the habits of their hearts and minds for a lifetime.
Importance of Early Entry
In early childhood and elementary school, children begin to develop their identity as learners and young leaders. They develop social and emotional skills that will strengthen their ability to communicate, connect with others, and build relationships. In these early years, they establish habits and behaviors and an overall approach to school and the learning process. It is the most important time to invest in a child’s educational journey so they come to see learning as a joyful process where their curiosity and interests are welcomed.
During the preschool years (ages 3-5), children begin to form their identities. They start attaching labels to people and putting themselves and others into categories. During the elementary school years (ages 5-10), children start to assign meaning to those groups which ultimately results in assigning value and worth to characteristics inherent in themselves and others. During this stage of development, children begin to establish who they are and how they see themselves in the world.
For identity to develop in the most positive and healthy manner, children must have the individual time and attention that assures them they are seen and known. School communities play an important role in this development. Children thrive in environments where student-teacher ratios are low, schedules are flexible and honor the needs of each child, and high-quality resources and mentors are available. Rich and robust programs that include visual and performing arts, instrumental and vocal music, science and technology, physical education, health and wellness, reading and writing, engineering and math, research and design, character education, and more allow students to explore a range of interests and issues. They are further supported when the surrounding community (students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, etc.) share expectations and are committed to the same mission and core values.
These qualities and more define the independent school experience. Providing this support and exposure at the earliest possible age helps foster positive identity development and allows young children to appreciate their inherent value and worth, while at the same time understanding they are part of something bigger than themselves.
Instilling Habits of the Heart
For parents examining school options, their child’s health and well-being is a central consideration. The 2015 Children’s Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute showed an increase in diagnoses for anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other mental health concerns. Of the 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million have or have had a psychiatric disorder. To best support children, it is incumbent on school communities to partner with parents to support healthy habits of the heart.
Healthy habits help regulate emotions and enable empathy with others. They support interpersonal skills that impact the quality of relationships we have with ourselves and others. Habits of the heart reveal a child’s social-emotional development and take shape in the earliest years, making unlearning unproductive habits difficult. Independent schools are more likely to include health and wellness as a key curricular component, often partnering with experts and related industries to provide distinctive programs that support the student’s sense of well-being.
La Jolla Country Day School is partnering with Donna Hicks, Ph.D., an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and author of Leading With Dignity: How to Create a Culture that Brings Out the Best in People. The goal is to develop a school culture that promotes dignity education, weaving the practice of treating one’s self and everyone on earth with dignity, into the fabric of school life. The school is also working with Rady Children’s Hospital to develop a wellness program.
Ravenscroft School has partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership to co-create Lead from Here, a pioneering pre-K through grade 12 educational framework designed to foster early leadership development in children. Students have the opportunity from the earliest age to actively participate in a curriculum that will draw on and develop skills including collaboration, accountability, strategic thinking, and empathy.
In many schools, faith and/or a specific religious world view shapes how the school instills the habits of the heart. For independent schools that are affiliated with (and often share property with) a church or synagogue, there is a built-in partnership. Clergy or staff may teach classes on campus or work alongside the faculty and students in service learning programs that impact the community. Each school has the freedom to set up its curriculum in a way that reflects its specific set of values.
A faith-based education from the earliest years is important to many parents. A family may be members of the house of worship affiliated with that school, or they may be members of that particular faith. The school experience complements and reinforces what the family practices at home or in their house of worship.
The intentional support and learning related to the habits of the heart that happen during a child’s most formative years—preschool and elementary school—provides a deep-rooted foundation that will serve the child well throughout life. In a pre-K-Grade 8 or pre-K-Grade 12 setting, it is reinforced by the middle and high school mentors who model good habits and skills.
Developing Habits of the Mind
Habits of the heart paired with habits of the mind prepare children to thrive in a complex and interdependent world. Habits of the mind connect directly to children’s thinking dispositions. They help us create new ideas and solve problems, and they support the development of mental models that impact how we learn and grow.
An independent school is uniquely equipped to develop the habits of the mind in ways that support what author and educator Tony Wagner has called the seven survival skills: critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, curiosity, and ability to analyze information. As debates rage over state and national standards, and performance on end-of-grade tests dictates curricular decisions, independent school educators have the autonomy to make decisions about how best to meet an individual student’s need in real time. They are not bound to a prescribed program, a predetermined timeline, or a mandated standardized test.
Independent school educators have the freedom and flexibility to determine, “What do my students need to know to best prepare them for college and beyond? How am I going to deliver the curriculum to the specific set of students I have this year?” That might mean speeding up the pace of instruction or slowing it down, diving deeper and extending a concept, or altering the pedagogical approach. It means differentiating instruction and having the time and resources to do it well.
Expert educators prioritize process over product and strategies over content. As the world continues to change rapidly, along with the skills our children will need to be successful, independent schools are able to adapt to prepare children for a lifetime of intellectual exploration, personal growth, and social responsibility.
For example, in the lower school at La Jolla Country Day School, the student-centered approach is reinforced and supported by a philosophy on standardized tests. The students take a standardized test called the CTP 4, so they have experience with this process and parents can have normative data on their child’s progress. The test is administered at the beginning of the school year, so it can be used as a formative assessment, and provide information to guide teachers as they make decisions about the curriculum and instruction needs for each child. In this case, standardized testing is not used to measure the students’ academic success.
In third grade at Ravenscroft, the teaching team uses cross-grade-level groupings based upon a multiplication unit pre-assessment. When one group demonstrates mastery of the unit’s objectives on the pre-assessment, the teacher has the freedom to completely alter their instruction and utilize a hands-on, real-world problem-solving approach to extend the learning. For example: when students complained about the overcrowded dining hall, the teacher took them there to investigate solutions to the problem. Using sticky notes, chart paper, and a cell phone to take pictures, the group used multiplication and division to determine there were more tables than were actually needed. The students sent a formal request to the director of facilities, and as a result, several tables were removed.
Students from early childhood through upper school benefit when teachers are given autonomy and are empowered to make meaningful choices in how best to deliver curriculum and instruction.
Sense of Community: Voices of Students, Teachers, and Parents
The intentional work to support healthy habits of the heart and mind starting with the youngest learners is an important aspect of an independent school’s value proposition. It contributes to more joyful learning experiences and greater academic success. New research conducted by Gallup suggests the holistic approach of tending to students’ emotional wellbeing and
providing strong academic opportunities result in better long-term outcomes among independent school graduates. Access report here
One final dividend that comes from investing in an independent education in the earliest years: the supportive school community. The “lifers” who enter in preschool or kindergarten have the opportunity to learn and grow and be known within an extended school family from the very beginning of their school journey until they are ready to go off into the world. Experienced parents agree that having a consistent partnership in a child’s upbringing is invaluable.
This article was featured in the SAIS (Serving and Accrediting Independent Schools) spring 2019 magazine. To read the article within the magazine, click here.