What factors are needed to create a stable and nurturing environment for school children?
In recent years, discussion around the impact of a boarding school education has begun to evolve and a clear split has emerged between those who see the significant psychological advantage and those who see considerable trauma and psychological harm.
The difficulty with this division is that in both cases the focus is on the ‘some’ and not the ‘sum’.
It is suggested that some children experience an irrevocable loss of their primary attachment figures when they are sent away to board and that for some it can be extremely traumatic. Experiencing abuse from staff or other children can result in new attachment figures feeling unsafe. As a result, the child has to adapt in order to survive the new environment. There is understood to be an identifiable cluster of learned behaviours and emotional states that may emerge as a direct result of growing up in boarding schools and having to adapt, which can later develop into serious psychological distress with individuals experiencing emotional detachment, depression, and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. This collective of presenting issues has been termed ‘Boarding School Syndrome (Schaverian, 2015).
More recently, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the more positive nature of the modern-day boarding school, seemingly leading to an increase in boarding school applications, after a decades-long decline. School closures and distance learning have been seen to have a considerable impact on psychological wellbeing. As well as navigating the usual cocktail of hormones, physical and emotional changes, adolescents have been forced into isolation and loneliness – often devoid of positive human interaction. Bearing witness to this, some parents are recognizing the value of the social aspects and extracurricular activities that form part of the boarding school experience. Not only do boarders have access to a wider range of learning, sports, arts, and societies, they also have a wider range of adults for support both in and out of school hours, providing a sense of extended family and belonging (ie-today.co.uk).
Weighing up both sides of the argument, there are so many important elements to consider:
- Is having a broader range of adults for support adequate compensation for the lack of day-to-day family support?
- How supportive might the family be if the child lived at home?
- Is there a difference in experience for those who have a sibling at the same school?
- Might an only child experience things differently to those with siblings?
- Does culture have an impact on a child’s experience?
- Does modern technology allow for a different experience for current boarders compared with boarders 25+ years ago?
- For those who experience, or go on to experience Boarding School Syndrome, was there a rupture with their attachment figures prior to going to boarding school? For some, could being sent to boarding school be symptomatic of broken attachment bonds rather than boarding school being the cause?
Clients attending psychotherapy, who have never been to a boarding school, frequently present with difficulties synonymous to those of Boarding School Syndrome; although notably, they are often linked to broken attachment bonds as children, for various reasons.
It is too simplistic to say that the boarding school experience is either terrific or traumatic; both of which are likely true for some. However, what appears to be missing from the current literature is an integrated view of the bigger picture; one that is curious about the experiences of the sum, rather than just some.
A preliminary qualitative study in boarding schools offering both residential and day-school places, to understand the range and quality of attachment bonds of children prior to joining the school.
It is hoped that the data collected could offer a broader insight into the comparative lives of day-schoolers and boarders and the factors necessary to create a stable and nurturing environment for them. This could help identify opportunities for greater support for those deemed most likely to feel traumatised or experience psychological difficulties in adulthood. Findings could help both the institutions and parents, to ensure the best possible outcomes for their students/children.