September 16, 2019
Dear Parents and Guardians,
The first days of school are some of the most exciting, and most stressful, of the year. I intentionally use the word stressful because I want to separate that word from the word traumatic. Trauma is necessarily bad. Stress is potentially helpful in learning and in the growth and development of our students. We intend to stress your children as learning and stress often are inherently intertwined, and helping students engage productively with stress is a goal for us every year. At the opening faculty meeting, Headmaster MacMullen shared that a top priority must be our work in helping students become more resilient and capable as they encounter stress. He cited two authors and their research, and I will talk about one,
If we think of stress as something good, we help ourselves and our children develop greater capacity to benefit from stress. I say benefit because two things can/do happen when we are stressed. One thing that happens is that our body produces cortisol — the stress hormone. It prompts our body to do things like raise our heart and respiratory rates and other responses to stress. These things are preparation for what is to come, getting us ready to successfully navigate this challenging moment. The more the individual views this as a positive, the more likely the person is going to better navigate a moment of stress.
The other component of stress produces oxytocin. This hormone is the one that causes us to all feel connected and together in navigating this stressful moment. This is central to helping us build community and connect on solving shared and significant problems. Stress helps to release this hormone, prompting people to look for support and connect to others. It builds the community necessary to solve challenging and significant problems.
Your child will be facing some stress at several points during their time at Taft. For some students (and for some parents), the transition to Taft is a stressful moment. Taft, however, is designed to help your child benefit from stress. We are a tightly knit community where we are working to connect with each other to navigate the challenges of growing adolescents. We need to care for each other in navigating stress and some might argue that Horace Taft had this in mind when he selected our school motto: not to be served, but to serve. We need to think of stress as helpful and, in the words of
researcher and author Kelly McGonigal
, “when you think of the stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”
We do our best to help stress serve positive educational ends in this way. We communicate regularly with our students that:
- You are part of this group — we are leveraging oxytocin
- This group is special; we have high standards here — we have difficult and stressful problems to solve
- I believe you can reach these standards — you can do this and we are here to help you
I know many of you will have moments this year of talking to and supporting a child who expresses feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed. These are difficult moments for parents, especially when you are far away. In those moments, help your child think of stress as helpful and to utilize the many supports here at Taft: friends, faculty members, dorm parents, coaches, counselors, advisors, etc. I promise we are paying close attention. The connections and experiences your child has here are exactly the ones that help them develop that biology of courage, which will serve them well throughout their life.
In closing, we teach the whole student and a critical part of that is to develop our students into the adults who will be positioned well to navigate the myriad challenges they will face. Having courage, being resilient, and seeing stress as a means to a positive end are central to their success. While challenging and uncomfortable at times, the Taft experience has done and continues to do this well. If you ever need a bit of oxytocin, know that many of us are here to support you, too! Just give a call. As ever, I appreciate your feedback and have a great day.
All the best,