As the October 2020 survey by Authentic Connections showed, mental health stressors — amplified and exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic — have had a measurable impact on many of our students and their families. Through it all, the members of Ravenscroft’s Student Affairs team, in partnership with fellow faculty and staff, have continued to prioritize student social-emotional wellness and to position wellness programming as an essential component of student academic success.
The groundwork for this comprehensive approach to student wellness was laid long before the pandemic made masking and social distancing a part of the school day. The 2001 opening of the Jones Health Center and the 10-years-in-the-making Olander Center for Student Life at the A.E. Finley Activity Center, which officially opens this week, created spaces where a holistic approach to health and wellness are front and center. An endowed position created in 2015 added a schoolwide leadership role — Assistant Head of School for Student Affairs — to work in partnership with the Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs to join “the head and the heart” of Ravenscroft.
Members of the 2021 Homecoming Court, including (at front) freshmen Olivia Rivera ’25, Gaddyn Cole ’25, Frank Hassell ’25 and Henry Zhang ’25, prepare to be introduced at the Fall Pep Rally on Oct. 1.
These programmatic commitments have enabled the school to respond quickly and purposefully to the recent increased need for student support. In addition, Assistant Head of School for Student Affairs Kendra Varnell, the three divisional counselors and the two school nurses all have clinical training to assess and respond to emergent needs.
Robert Strebendt directs the Upper School choir during a performance at the all-school Gathering of Thanks, held Nov. 5.
“We recognized students’ mental health struggles would be an ongoing challenge,” Varnell said of the pandemic conditions of the last two years. “These can impact not just the student but the wider community as well.”
“Our slogan, ‘Every Raven, Every Day,’ means we take care of each other,” said Justin Brandon, who assumed the role of Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs in July 2021. “It informs who we are and what we represent.”
In the sections below, we explore some highlights of wellness programs in each division that have not only helped Ravens cope with the social and emotional challenges of living with the pandemic but proven essential to students’ continued academic growth as well.
First-graders Idan Golosker, Holden Brodie, Christian Snook and Charlie Dill embrace Pajama Day, part of the Fall 2021 Spirit Week celebration.
Middle School leadership team members Greg Anysz, Merritt Cole, Nicole Brown (seated) and Bernardo Guzmán get into the spirit of Tropical Day.
As students from the Middle School cheer them on, Audrey Kalorin ’26 leads the JV volleyball team through the rose arbor during the Fall Pep Rally’s Parade of Athletes, the culmination of Spirit Week and the beginning of Homecoming.
Head of Middle School Bernardo Guzmán and fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Barcella encourage her students to share their school spirit, loud and proud, at the Fall 2021 Pep Rally.
Understanding Students’ Social-Emotional Needs: The Authentic Connections Survey
Ravenscroft leadership gained better insight into the mental health concerns of students in sixth through 12th grades following an anonymous survey in October 2020 through Authentic Connections, a third-party organization. At that time, members of the school community were adjusting to the hybrid-learning model, with many students attending class remotely, and the country was in the midst of a heated presidential election cycle.
A key finding from the survey was that Ravenscroft students reported clinically significant levels of anxiety (8%) and depression (8%), slightly more than national norms (6% and 5%, respectively) of students in independent schools. These survey results enabled the Student Affairs team to develop the programming needed to support students across all divisions more quickly and purposefully.
“We’re giving kids the tools to express their feelings”
Even though many of us remember our early childhood and primary-school years as carefree, today we know stress can affect even young children. Many Lower School students continue to experience anxiety, sadness and other negative emotions related to change and uncertainty over the public health crisis. Some have struggled in transitioning back to an in-person learning environment; others, after more than a year of remote learning, are battling separation anxiety from being away from their parents.
“The longevity of the pandemic has really taken a toll on kids,” Lower School counselor Lindsey Barnett said. “For a lot of them, this is all they’ve known — schooling in a pandemic — and they’re not getting the typical experience of socializing and learning emotional regulation with their peers.”
The Lower School team has introduced different tools and techniques to help the youngest Ravens work through their feelings in an age-appropriate manner. Teachers encourage students to document their emotions in a feelings chart and incorporate “Brain Breaks” and “Mindful Moments” to help manage and relieve stress. The Kindergarten Center even features a space teachers are calling the Big Feelings Center, to which students can retreat when needed.
The center’s popular and comfy “egg chair” offers several options for dealing with big feelings, including a fold-down screen for students wanting privacy and, as Nick shows, a spirit-lifting spinning base.
Kindergartener Nick Peguese — who identified happiness as his most frequent feeling at school — said the center was “perfect” for helping him when he felt mad. “I took a deep breath,” he remembered, “and I [stomped] the floor.” He said he also enjoys spinning in the “egg chair,” which includes a screen for students who want privacy, and cuddling with the center’s stuffed frog.
“We’re giving kids the tools to express their feelings so they can be successful,” Barnett said.
Another fun approach has been the use of UNICEF Kid Power, YouTube Kids and GoNoodle videos. These resources showcase yoga and dance movements, guided breathing and meditation exercises just for kids. “These videos help students get their energy up and out, or calm them back down as they transition between classrooms,” Barnett said. Another benefit: for every 10 UNICEF videos they watch in class, the nonprofit sends a food pack to a community in need — which makes young Ravens feel even better about engaging in self-care.
Reinforcing community connections has also been important.
“The Mystery Readers program has been a great opportunity for parents and faculty to read to a classroom via Zoom,” Barnett said. “When the readers pop up on screen to reveal their identity, it’s just a big joy for everyone.”
Long a beloved tradition in Lower School, Tree Talks continue to emphasize students’ sense of community and explore the Lead From Here competencies. February’s Tree Talk, for example, focused on cultural inclusivity and holiday traditions and highlighted some of the great work Ravens have done this year.
Helping Lower School Ravens feel part of the broader campus community has been a goal, too. Lower School students have joined in campus-wide gatherings this year and, in late October, showed off their Halloween costumes to cheering crowds from all three divisions in the Fall Celebration Parade.
In the end, it comes down to cultivating for students the sense of safety and security that is essential to learning. “We want to make sure kids know they are seen, heard and loved here at Ravenscroft,” Barnett said.
Lower Schoolers enjoy cheers and encouragement from the entire school community during their Fall Celebration Parade.
Even the youngest Ravens revel in showing school spirit during the Fall Pep Rally, shaking pom-poms provided by the Parents’ Association.
“You could see the benefits in real time”
The middle school years are some of the most formative and challenging in a young person’s life. Throw in the complexities of a health crisis, and the usual struggles become greater. As Middle School counselor Merritt Cole noted, the biggest challenge exacerbated by the pandemic for adolescents involves peer relationships. “Middle schoolers are social creatures, not just in terms of how we see them but in terms of their brain development. Peer relationships mean everything to them at this age.”
Ella Kantor ’26 agreed. “Most of us found out the hard way that learning from home had far greater difficulty than being in the classroom. I missed the social interactions,” she said. “Nowadays, social media, FaceTime and Zoom makes it easier to communicate with peers; however, seeing them face-to-face is better.”
Ravens adjusted to COVID-19 protocols as they made a return to campus, but many still find some safety measures difficult. “Now that we’re back at school they desperately want to make those social connections, but we’ve had to limit their interactions to keep everyone safe,” Cole said.
Xaden Wilson ’26, Neil Awasthi ’26 and Mazen Mustafa ’26, members of the Performing Musicians Club, explore songs and arrangements.
Members of the Serenity Club, including (in foreground) Caroline Edwards ’28, Siena Gehring ’26 and Jet Tran ’28, enjoy the calming activity of drawing during a recent meeting,
Participants in the Volleyball Club enjoy mood-boosting fresh air, sunshine and exercise.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no fun. Middle School Ravens have recently reconnected with programs that have a social component, including clubs, sports, “Advisory Fun and Bonding” on Fridays, Community Day and a Day of Service.
Michael Schulze ’27 and Willa Claire Denlinger ’27 guide their group in a Lead From Here problem-solving and collaboration exercise during Community Day.
“We have really liked doing clubs this year,” said Lauren Perry ’28. “It’s been a good opportunity to meet new people, try new activities and, depending on what club you’re in, get a nice break outside.”
Ella leads the Serenity Club, which has 10 members. “I want to give students [time] where they don’t have to worry about anything and just have fun,” she said. “We collaborated with the Random Acts of Kindness club to make thank-you notes for all of the advisors in the Middle School.” Members also play card games, color and doodle.
As in the Lower School, teachers use the practice of Mindful Moments to help students feel centered. DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) also helps them unwind — and strengthen their literacy skills — as they read for pleasure in their advisory groups.
Cashier Brooks ’26 said, “Some of the most helpful wellness programs and activities for me have been the Mindful Moments and the access to a school counselor whenever necessary. These have helped me and others to feel calmer and less stressed about the school day. It gives us time to breathe before we move on to completing other work and oftentimes involves meditation or reflection on the week.”
The division has also had help from some furry friends. Canines for Service brought therapy dogs to visit students in December, to rave reviews. “The students were relaxed and smiling, talking to each other, cuddling with the dogs,” Cole said. “I even heard some say, ‘This is the happiest I’ve felt all week.’ We could see the benefits in real time.”
The Student Affairs team is working to bring the therapy dogs back in the spring and organize another Day of Service, which always boosts spirits. “They feel good helping others, and that’s important to us,” Cole said.
Yara Othman ’27, Kamia Abdullah ’27, Bodhi Chapman ’27, Damien Luciano ’27 and Katie Overton ’27 make cat treats for Safe Haven for Cats during the Middle School Day of Service.
Joshua Ward ’26, Catie Chua ’26, Hallie Eichler ’26, Addison Diener ’26 and Sam Caplan ’26 enjoy a visit with a furry friend from Canines for Service.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
New Center for Student Life Emphasizes Holistic Wellness (Nov. 11, 2020)
Living Lead From Here During the COVID-19 Crisis (Sept. 9, 2020)
Resilience Goes Virtual During Remote Learning (Sept. 9, 2020)
“How students approach school is much different now”
Before COVID-19 swept the nation, the life of a high schooler was predictable. Being with friends in the classroom, participating in sports and other school activities, taking the SAT and ACT, attending prom and sharing hugs and tears at graduation were all part of the experience students took with them to college.
Since 2020, the pandemic has changed much of that — and affected high schoolers in ways they might not have expected.
“The mental health crisis that COVID-19 started hit home for me on all levels — family, friends, everything,” said Delaney Washington ’22. “Some of my friends were so anxious because they didn’t know how to talk and interact with people after being stuck at home for such a long time or how to deal with the academic structure of being back at school. Some began therapy, and that’s become a crucial part of their self-care routine.”
Classmate Lindsey Barrett ’22 added, “How students approach school is much different now. They’re more guarded about getting back into the world. I see a lot more students putting stress on themselves and having a harder time staying on task.”
Sage Bolarinwa ’22 and Clara Krafft ’22 enjoy a senior-class outing to TreeRunner Adventure Park early in the school year.
Upper Schoolers are thrilled to be back among fellow Ravens as spectators at the Homecoming football game on Oct. 1, 2021.
Upper School counselor Sam Borkovic agreed. “It’s an intense time to be an adolescent right now. It’s a sign of true resiliency for this age group in that they’re navigating school, college application processes, the switch from virtual to in-person learning and maintaining standards of excellence, while taking care of their own well-being,” she said. “I commend them for that.”
For Borkovic, who joined the Upper School this year, that has meant blending traditional approaches to student social-emotional health with new offerings.
“A lot of my work is individual, so families and students can request meetings and be able to talk about specific things that are happening in their lives,” she said. “While we have broad-scale programs for students, in the midst of that there are also one-on-one or small-group conversations with people that may be experiencing similar challenges.”
Upper School leadership has also responded to students’ needs by incorporating wellness into existing support programming. Morning Meetings — a longstanding division-wide check-in that takes place about twice per week — now include suggestions for self-care strategies to manage the stressors of the pandemic. Twice-weekly advisory group meetings incorporate mental wellness talks that Lindsey, who leads the Upper School’s Community Service Board, said not only allow students to reflect on themselves but also bond with one another and their advisor. A revamped College Transition Series provides seniors with practical advice in navigating not just the college years but life beyond. Guided classroom meditations and visits from Canines For Service have also benefited Upper Schoolers.
“I applaud our administration for being able to respond to our mental health challenges and making sure every student feels comfortable,” Delaney, who is president of the Student Government Association, said.
The return of beloved school activities like clubs, dances and prom shows that student life is slowly returning to normal. Ravens in both Middle and Upper School are also looking forward to new wellness programs when the Olander Center for Student Life at the A.E. Finley Activity Center opens this spring.
Danielle Williams ’22 (at front with football) helps the senior class win the 2021 Women’s Flag Football Championship, held during Fall Spirit Week to much enthusiasm from students.
The fall visit from Canines for Service gives Upper Schoolers including Hodge Burkhardt ’23 and Will Stevenson ’23 a much-needed dose of warmth and affection from trained therapy dogs.
Faculty and staff take advantage of a yoga class in Cox Court during the fall semester’s Work and Wellness Day.
Wellness matters for faculty and staff, too!
Students aren’t the only Ravens focusing on wellness this year! Faculty and staff across campus have been taking advantage of a number of opportunities to prioritize their mental and physical health. They include:
● Access to the Fitness Center and support from trainers in the A.E. Finley Activity Center
● Wellness and recreation activities during the November and March teacher workdays, dubbed “Work and Wellness Days”
● A BINGO-style wellness challenge — complete with prizes — throughout the month of March to help establish and achieve health and wellness goals
“Our work is to connect the head and the heart of our school. We know our students can’t have their best experience if our faculty and staff aren’t taken care of, too,” Brandon said. “These wellness activities give everyone a break and an opportunity to connect with each other.”
Athletic training staff Sofia Cole ’11, Wilton Baskett and Mike Rice (with their sunglasses-wearing friend) participate in Tropical Day, a popular part of Fall Spirit Week.