A Message from the Headmaster's Corner - The Oliverian School
Head of School

Finding Your People: How Stress Creates Socially Resilient Adolescents

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
October 2016

Late in the decade that brought us Blade Runner, the Space Shuttle, Back to the Future, and the International Space Station, a company called Space Biosphere Ventures built a 200 million dollar self-sufficient outer-space village—right here on Earth!  It was called the Biosphere 2.

The project was supposed to demonstrate the Edenic potential of man-made “vivariums” for future interplanetary living.  It was equal parts science lab, fantasy theme park, and hippie commune.  While the elaborate glass structure still exists, it’s now just a giant greenhouse for botany experiments and was almost demolished in 2007 for a shopping center.  In other words, it failed.

One big problem involved the trees.  At first they grew very fast.  It was great.  The saplings seemed eager to prove that this artificial world was even better than the real one!  Then they fell over.   Later research identified the problem: trees need wind.  A good and regular buffeting, in fact, is what produces the stuff of strong trees—a cellulose and lignan-enhanced material called reaction wood or stress wood.  Stress wood allows trees to stand firm while retaining just enough flexibility to bend instead of break when the wind blows hard. Flooded with light and water, but protected from real-world winds, the Biosphere 2 plants were precocious as saplings but weak as trees.  They never matured.

***

At the beginning of every school year, as students move into new dorms and adapt to living with each other, we see a lot of what group dynamicists like to call “storming*.” Social winds blow pretty hard during September and sometimes well into October.  As students work to find their place in a shifting community, they may fumble with boundaries, develop untenable crushes, annoy each other, isolate, ingratiate, argue over the remote control, clique, get their feelings hurt, and regress a bit.  Like a grove of Oliverian saplings, they get blown around a bit.

Particularly for those kids with an entrenched history of social struggle, it’s tempting to intervene too early, blocking the very winds that—with the right coaching and support—are necessary to improve social skills and resilience.  So, like skilled arborists, we do well to lavish our students with light and water, aka love and support, while also allowing the social winds to blow.

Allowing adolescents to fully experience their social struggles generates both the data and, most importantly, the desire necessary to benefit from our help.  For adolescents who are not in crisis, that help should come mostly in the form of curiosity, coaching, and encouragement.  This is a challenging discipline with young people we care about.  We don’t want to see them struggle. But we do want them to become strong.

*Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development


Oliosophy: Step up!

An Educational Alternative.  Support vs Structure.  The L-Word.

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
February 2016

During a recent visit to Los Angeles I met an old colleague for coffee. She’s an experienced adolescent and family psychologist with a national reputation as a no-nonsense, savvy, data-driven clinician. She makes me a little nervous. As we sipped our coffee, the conversation turned to Oliverian. “So is your school somewhere between a treatment program and a traditional boarding school?”

“Well, I don’t know if we’re exactly in-between treatment and traditional settings,” I said, “but we’re definitely an alternative to both.”

“So then are you a step-down program?” she asked.

So-called “step downs” are generally less intensive, less restrictive versions of treatment programs. Like treatment, most step downs have level systems, a high degree of structure and supervision, and lots of scheduled therapy. Many bear more resemblance to an adolescent treatment program than to the everyday life of a young adult. In this respect, step-down programs can be past, rather than future, oriented.

Even the step-down moniker implies that the goal is to ease students “down,” presumably to a state resembling the one they were in preceding whatever crisis required treatment. If you think about it, that state was likely, “on your way to needing treatment.”

After reflecting on all of this for a moment I said, “no, I don’t think that Oliverian is a step down.”

“Then, are you a traditional boarding school but with a little more support?” she asked.
I swirled my coffee and thought for a moment before answering. “No, we’re not really that either.”

Despite a lot of language around college preparation, traditional schools, like step downs, tend to resemble what’s behind more than what’s ahead. Conformity and compliance are, arguably, important skills for children to learn and are central components of most primary-school curricula. Unfortunately, these values continue to rule the day at most traditional high schools. A friend of mine who spent over a decade employed by one of the most competitive prep schools in the country recently compared his time there to his tenure in the U.S. Army, “only the school’s expectations of conformity were more rigidly enforced.”

Successful young adulthood requires a strong if evolving sense of personal identity, comfort navigating ambiguous situations, the ability to work independently and interdependently, critical thinking skills, a functional ethical compass, and other higher-order social, psychological, and cognitive abilities. Looking backward and stepping down hardly seem like ideal preparation for young adulthood. Instead, educating emerging adults requires a decidedly onward and upward orientation; it requires stepping up, not stepping down.

“I don’t know that a term exists to precisely describe Oliverian; so to coin one, I’d say that we’re a ‘step up’ school,” I said. “We provide experiences that resemble those of college and young adulthood. This means providing students with an enormous amount of support to replace the structure they’re so accustomed so that we can begin entrusting them with a relatively high degree of independence.”

My colleague tilted her head to the side and squinched her eyebrows at me, “Developmentally, that seems sensible. So, why doesn’t everyone do it that way?”

My hunch is that it’s much easier and less scary to offer adolescents what they, and we, are used to rather than to change things up right when they are getting all weird and surly. Our reaction to the developmental shifts of adolescence, in fact, is often to double down on our efforts to control, treating teens more like the children they were than the young adults they’re becoming. Adolescence is scary and messy and, quite frankly, dangerous. Doing anything that might compound all that developmental volatility might seem, at best, ill advised. Instinctually, we want to contain these wild, gangly things who are developmentally wired for risk and exploration and freedom and other things that scare us to death.

“I think it’s just a hard approach to pull off,” I told my friend.

For one thing, this approach requires a level of support that most schools simply can’t muster. It also requires a level of student independence that most schools aren’t willing to risk. A step-up must provide enough room for students to make meaningful mistakes but enough adult engagement to safely learn from those mistakes. This can’t be achieved without an approach that’s more akin to parenting than it is to typical classroom teaching or talk therapy. It requires a very high staff to student ratio—in our case, 1 faculty member (living on campus!) for approximately every 1.5 students—and a willingness to trade the comfort of structure for the rewards (and risks) of guided independence.

Ironically, a step-up approach does not work so well with extremely compliant students who are just fine coloring inside the lines, thank you very much. Less surprisingly, perhaps, it also does not work well with extremely non-compliant students who have not yet embraced a path of personal growth. It works best with students who are sensitive, quirky, and (intentionally or not) unconventional; students who are acquainted with struggle but not in the throes of crisis. It’s these ‘in-between” students who are the most receptive to adult connection and the most aware of their own need to change. It’s these students who sort-of-mostly-pretty-much-kind-of-really-really-really want to step up to a bigger, better life.

But it’s not only students that are challenged to step up in a setting like Oliverian. This is difficult work. It requires a faculty that is willing to assume a burden of worry, perplexity, and profound engagement. It requires inexhaustible vision, absurd optimism, and the ability to see magnificent possibility where others see only failure. In short, it requires love.

“You know, it takes a special person to love a teenager,” I said to my friend, “and that’s the foundation of everything we do at this weird little school. Love. We really love these kids.”

“Wow,” she said. “Do you really use that word, I mean, professionally?” my friend asked.

“Well, I just did.”

I braced a little, expecting her to chide me for crossing some sort of clinical or educational boundary with soft, non-clinical language. Instead she put her coffee cup on the table and smiled at me. “That is so cool,” she said.

And that it is.


 

Oliosophy: Is Oli a Prep School?

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
January 2016

In traditional parlance, “prep school” is shorthand for “preparatory school” which is shorthand for “college-preparatory school.” Prep school is kind of a fancy-pants sounding term and, for that reason and others I’m about to get into, I don’t like it. But whatever elite associations “prep school” may conjure, it really just indicates a school whose courses, credits, and services are principally designed to meet college-admissions requirements. By that definition, most high schools—private or public, day or boarding—are prep schools. So the prep school appellation, as commonly used, implies that a school’s focus is on helping students get into college. That seems like pretty good focus because once you get into college you’re home free, right?

Wrong.

Of the nearly 70% of high school graduates who are admitted to college every year (New York Times), upwards of 40% drop out for good, most during their first semester (US News and World Report). That figure roughly corresponds with the number of self-described “underemployed” young adults who live at home with their parents into their twenties or thirties (Pewsocialtrends.org).

These stark statistics are not the result of inadequate academic preparation. They are the result of inadequate life preparation. Most of America’s “college prepped” 17 – 19 year olds are expected to lurch suddenly into a new, utterly foreign, virtually independent existence, and just figure it out. They leave all that is familiar—friends, family, hometown, familiar teachers, lifelong routines, et cetera—to live with strangers far from home with no supervision. They have to pick a major, create a schedule, get out of bed (by themselves), speak publicly, get along with roommates, participate in highly social project and study groups, make their own dietary choices, manage personal finances, and so on. All that. All at once. No wonder so many students bounce right out college and onto their parents’ couches indefinitely, defeated and lost.

College admissions requires a transcript, an essay, and some test scores. Finishing college, on the other hand, requires sophisticated social skills, a combination of academic skill and motivation, emotional resiliency, confident self-advocacy, domestic skills like cooking and money management, a strong sense of self, and the capacity for purposeful self-direction. And since those without college degrees have nearly three times the unemployment rate and more than twice the underemployment rate of those with (economic policy institute) it’s clear that finishing college, not starting, is what counts. College graduation requires more than just academic skills—it requires life skills.

So I’m not a fan of the college prep designation because of its hyper focus on college admissions. But don’t get me wrong. We’re very proud that more than 90% of our students are admitted to an impressive selection of colleges. But if we stopped there, we would have to resign ourselves to the usual 50% college failure rate; and that might be conservative, since many of our students have struggled with traditional school. Fifty percent! We love our kids too much to settle for that…plus, we don’t allow couch surfing here.

That’s why we combine extreme support with a high level of freedom that mimics some of the most challenging aspects of college life—personal responsibility, community living, self-advocacy, time management, technology management, et cetera. We call this a “step-up” approach because it gives our students a challenging but supportive transitional step from high school to college and independence.

This experiential approach to fostering healthy independence is in stark contrast to most traditional and therapeutic schools, both of which tend to favor uniformity through control over independence with support. The former—while presumably easier for adults to manage—requires students to make a monumental leap when they transition from high school to college; the latter—while a bit messier and more demanding for adults to manage—provides an experiential step up from high school life to college life. Oliverian’s approach is not easy. It requires that faculty and parents let go a little more than might feel comfortable. It requires that they operate in some grey zones, treat each student differently, and allow students to fail on their way to success. In short, it requires that we engage our work with the professionalism of educators but the profound commitment and love of parents.

As challenging as our approach is, the results inspire us to persist. Not only do virtually all of our graduates gain admission to college, but most actually finish! They go on to become engineers, physicians, artists, teachers, therapists, chefs, carpenters, entrepreneurs, moms, dads, and lots of other wonderful things. These outcomes are all the more remarkable given that most students come to Oli having struggled—some profoundly—with traditional education. I believe our students’ success is largely a product of the unique combination of support and independence that we offer.

So is Oli a prep school? Sure, if you must. But let’s be more specific. We’re a “college, life, career, relationship, and family” prep school. I can go along with that designation, but it is kind of a mouthful.


 

Oliosophy: How to Teddy Bear?

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
December 2015

Almost immediately after our wedding over twenty years ago, Beth and I were on the move. We moved from San Francisco to Colorado to Tokyo to LA to Costa Rica in our first few years of marriage. My work as a trouble shooter for education and mental health companies and Beth’s as a marketer took us all over the US, Asia, and Latin America. We loved it. But we soon discovered that the tradeoff for our life of adventure was a permanent state of emotional dislocation. By the time we began to settle into one place—making friends, finding a routine, unpacking our boxes—the trouble I’d arrived to shoot was shot and we were on to the next gig. It was a thrilling and expanding way to live; we were fed and housed by Tajiks who had never seen westerners, recruited by the Japanese mafia (we said no…very politely), tracked by Taliban snipers, chased by a crocodile, and on and on. But along with the thrill of motion, there was a constant edge of loneliness that we knew we’d have to address if we were to avoid personal and/or marital meltdown. We both recognized that my own insatiable appetite for adventure belied a hypersensitivity to transitions. Each move caused me enormous anxiety, making me edgy, angry, impatient, and—Beth will assure you—intolerable.

So to simultaneously preserve our lifestyle and evade relational catastrophe, we adopted a set of practices designed to accelerate the process of feeling at home in a new place. We now call these practices “teddy bears” because they serve the same purpose as a child’s teddy bear during a sleepover in an unfamiliar place—to create an instant sense of home away from home and ward off homesickness. A teddy bear is any strategy that helps make home a portable concept.

Our teddy bears included unpacking our moving boxes and decorating our home during our first week in a new place. We brought a few of the same pieces of artwork and décor with us wherever we went to help us quickly claim a new space as our own, as our home. Another effective, if expensive, teddy bear was to find a restaurant within walking distance of our house and become regulars, eating dinner at the bar in order to maximize the social opportunity and build a quick sense of community (think, “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name). I ate so many hamburgers at one such restaurant, in fact, that “The Will Burger” eventually appeared on their menu. That signified a lot of hamburger eating. But it was worth it. To this day our strong Boulder, Colorado network mostly traces back to Restaurant 4580.

Beth and I are not the peregrinators we used to be (thankfully), but we still use this concept of teddy bearing (the verb) to help us manage and accelerate transitions—small or large. When we travel or go to a relative’s home for the holidays, for instance, we unpack and put our stuff away immediately; then we set up work space and take a walk to explore our surroundings. Time and tub permitting, Beth lights a candle and takes a bath while I go for a run. If it’s a family event that might trigger some stress or conflict (hey, families are families, after all), I meditate, say a prayer, and sometimes do a little guided visualization. These and other teddy bears help us get our bearings and feel at home quickly, wherever we happen to be.

Oliverian’s mission is to help students find their place in the world—wherever in the world that place may be on a given day, or month, or year. By the time they become Oliverians, most of our students have experienced a dizzying amount of transition, whether back and forth from one parent’s home to the other’s, one school or program to another, or one peer group to another. For all their experience with transition, however, most aren’t very good at it. In that way, they’re a bit like me. In that way, they’re a bit like most of us. That’s because change and transition are not really what we are designed for; most organisms and systems—including people and families, respectively—automatically seek homeostasis, not change. But change, as the saying goes, is the only constant. This truth will become acutely evident to our students as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood and from high school to college and independence.

So before every holiday or break, we encourage our students to consciously practice the art of transition as they move from school to home and back in a very compressed time frame. There are many ways to do this, of course, but we recommend starting with the most obvious one—an actual teddy bear. To that end (and with a little help from our friends at Vermont Teddy Bear) all of our students have been equipped with their own personal transition coach. His name is Oli Bear and he is soft and cute and listens well. Oli Bear’s job is to remind us that with the right mindset, a little practice, and a soft teddy bear, we can find our place anywhere. Happy Holidays. Please visit our Facebook page for more pictures of Oli Bear.


 

Oliosophy: How to Spot an Adolescent

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
November 2015

I love watching extreme sports.  Flipping motorcycles, skiing avalanches, free soloing big walls, flying in a wingsuit, you name it.  But there is one sport I find too terrifying to watch—women’s gymnastics.  Especially the beam.  Watching tiny grinning girls hurtle through the air at ferocious velocities over a four-inch wide beam of steel-hard maple makes me anxious to the point of nausea.  But my wife makes me watch anyway.

She was an elite gymnast once upon a time—the US all-around champion, in fact, favored to win the 1984 Olympics had she not retired six months prior.  No, we don’t have a beam in our living room and Beth does not entertain me with floor routines, but she does insist that we watch gymnastics whenever there’s a major competition on TV.  While Beth wonders if little Anna from Russia will get a fair score, I close my eyes and wonder if she’ll brain herself or break her neck. It seems impossible that she won’t.  So I give her a 10 for just surviving.

Anyway, I recently asked Beth how these young women learn to complete such horrifying routines so perfectly under so much pressure.  What’s the key to performance when the stakes are so high?

“Spotting,” she said.  “A good spotter can really make the difference.”

Spotting, of course, is when a coach provides safety while a gymnast is learning or practicing a new skill for competition.  I asked Beth what makes a good spotter.  Her answer, it turns out, applies just as well to preparing an adolescent for young adulthood as it does to preparing an athlete for the Olympic Games.  Here’s what she said along with some.

“A GOOD SPOTTER DOESN’T TOUCH YOU.”

Athletes need some space to learn a new and difficult skill and a good spotter knows it.  While it’s common practice for spotters to physically guide their athletes’ movements during practice, the most effective spotters keep eyes on and hands off throughout the learning process, except when the athlete actually falls (see below, “a good spotter lets you fall”).  This approach lets the athlete experiment, feel her way forward, develop a strong sense of self-awareness, and learn the skill independently without external interference.  That fosters the kind of deep learning and confidence that transfers well to competition.

Similarly, teens need some space to learn the complex competencies of young adulthood such as independent decision making, self-advocacy, identity formation and expression, boundary setting, time management, community living, and et cetera.  It’s tempting to over intervene with adolescents, especially in areas of struggle; in a well-intentioned spirit of teaching or protection, we often micromanage instead of letting them grope and bumble forward at their own pace with us guiding rather than controlling.  Over-interference fosters a false sense of security that is likely to evaporate when it matters most—during the transition to college and independence.

At Oliverian, we provide an open-campus and encourage a relatively high degree of independent decision making. We favor support over structure and, while we celebrate success, we are careful not to engineer challenges out of a student’s experience.

“A GOOD SPOTTER LETS YOU FALL.”

We all know that mistakes and failures and falls are an integral part of learning any new skill.  But the higher the stakes become, the more difficult it is to honor this wisdom.  A good spotter allows the athlete to fall, interfering only to break those falls and prevent injury.  This teaches the athlete to how to fall safely and how to recover. It also teaches the athlete that a fall is not fatal. Finally, it gives the athlete a sense of what “cometh before a fall,” so that with practice they can anticipate and avoid falls. By allowing small falls during practice, the accomplished spotter helps prevent catastrophic falls during competition.

The incredibly high stakes of young adulthood tend to make parents, teachers, and other adults extremely risk averse when it comes to the adolescents they care about.  But if we work too hard to prevent mistakes or poor decisions or even failures, those in our care will enter the world either with a false sense of invincibility or an exaggerated fear of mistakes.  Both reactions increase risk and impede success.  We do better to treat adolescent stumbles as opportunities to learn how to fall safely and recover.

At Oliverian each student’s three-person, interdisciplinary advising team (in collaboration with all faculty, parents, and involved professionals) intervenes as needed to break “falls” and capitalize on the coachable moments they provide.  We view both victories and setbacks as critical for deep experiential growth.

“A GOOD SPOTTER USES FALLS TO COACH.” 

Good spotters know that a fall is the best diagnostic tool available.  A fall provides clues about otherwise hidden weaknesses that might chronically impede performance—a muscle imbalance, stiff ankles, poor posture.  These things might remain obscured if the athlete’s full movement, including falls, is muted by overzealous spotting.   Good spotters do not chide mistakes, but use them opportunistically as diagnostic and teachable moments.

At Oliverian we foster what we call “anti-fragility,” meaning the ability to grow not only from successes but from difficulties too.  Our students learn how to fall and recover and improve, aka how to “fail forward.”  In the process, they become less braced against mistakes and develop a remarkable sense of freedom and confidence.  Small supported mistakes now help build resiliency, skill, and confidence, preventing catastrophic mistakes in the unsupervised world of college and independence.


 

Oliosophy: Try and Try and Try Again

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
October 2015

One of my heroes here at Oliverian School is our academic director, Abby Hood.  She is charming and smart and kind and, as well, models the most Oliverian of qualities—an abiding love for quirky teenagers.  Our students are the ones Steve Jobs celebrated when he exhorted the world to “think different.”  Everybody got excited when he said that. They thought that was a great thing to say and, ironically, all went out and bought the same computers as a result.

Of course, most continued to think the way they always had, which was not different.  That’s because what Mr. Jobs failed to mention is that thinking different makes you, well, different.  And that can be hard.  It means that you might not easily or automatically feel at home in most settings, since most settings—schools, programs, places of worship, fraternities, sororities, workplaces and, even, families—value sameness.

But our students do “think different,” and Abby delights in solving the problems that our different-thinking, delightfully peculiar, smart, misunderstood, out-of-place teenagers routinely experience.  Problems like how to be yourself without annoying others, how to do the usual things—like algebra—in unusual ways, how to deal with loneliness and anxiety, how to be a great friend, and how to feel at home wherever you happen to be.

A seven-year veteran of the school, Abby is a keeper of the Oliverian flame; she is deeply in touch with what makes Oliverian unique and powerful for our different-thinking kids.  Last week I asked her to explain a deceptively simple, profoundly useful Oliverian heuristic (i.e. guiding principle) that we call “try and try and try again…”  Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Will: Abby!

Abby: Will!

Will: So one of your favorite Oli sayings is “try and try and try again.” The definition of insanity I’ve often heard is to try the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome. So surely that’s not what you mean by try and try and try again.

Abby: Well, sometimes it actually is. The reason that’s not insane when you’re working with people and trying to help them achieve significant change is that they often have to practice things a lot in order to internalize and do them naturally.  So for instance a kid who’s struggling to learn keep track of assignments and manage himself is going to need reminders over and over and over and over.  It’s very tempting as an educator to think, “well, I taught him the system and I reminded him three times, so why hasn’t he mastered it yet?”  But if the student has a deficit in that area and has never done it before and it’s really hard for him, he’s probably going to need to try it dozens of times before it really takes hold.

So sometimes, when you know you’re on the right track with someone, persistence with a single approach and enough repetition to create a new routine is the key.

Will: So you said “sometimes” trying the same thing over and over is the key.  What about other times?
Abby: In other situations, “try and try and try again” means being able to abandon the thing that you thought was the perfect solution to try something totally different.

For instance, we have a great and comprehensive planner system that we adapted from our work with NYU a few years ago; it works beautifully with many of our students.  But for some it’s just too much.  We have one student we’ll call “Joe” for whom that was the case recently.  So we tried and tried and tried other approaches with Joe’s input until we landed upon one that really works for him.  Now he literally just opens his notebook and writes everything down on one list and crosses it off when it’s done.  For Joe, less is more, even though for most of our other students a more comprehensive approach works best.

Will: So is the real issue here that a different approach might actually push the teacher out of their preferred methodology and comfort zone?

Abby: Yep.

Will: So if trying and trying and trying again is so simple and works so well, why do we have to remind ourselves to do it?

Abby: Well, I think it’s something that any good educator strives, or should strive, to do.  Even the schools that haven’t worked for our kids would agree that it’s best to keep working with every kid until you find the solution.  In some cases it’s just that they just don’t have the personnel to pull that off to the extent that our students need.  It’s easy for any educator’s attention to drift away from certain students either because they are problematic or because they manage to make themselves invisible.  So this heuristic is just a reminder that if things are not working for a given student, we need to try a new strategy.  It’s never just over in terms of our opportunity to innovate and find a way.

Will: In Japan when one of my university colleagues was faced with something difficult, we would shout, “Gambate!” which means, “Try hard!” and the person would reply, “Gambare mas!” which means, “I’ll try hard!”  We were cheerleading for them to keep at it and not give up.  Is “try and try and try again” the same kind of exhortation?

Abby: Yes.

Will:  Is this particularly important at a school like Oli?

Abby: I think you’re onto it there.  It’s a pep talk we give ourselves and each other because many of our students have gone through a lot of schools without any of those schools being able to “figure them out,” and without the student being able to put together the skills they need to be successful.  These are the kids other educators have tended to stop trying with without having discovered what works for them.

So it’s our mission to find a way to make it work where others have stopped trying.  As long as a child is in our care here we have to be actively thinking about whether things are working or not and, if not, what else we’re going to try.


 

Oliosophy: A Question of Readiness

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
September 2015

When asked what kind of students Oliverian works with, I usually have to pause and smile before answering. I pause to mentally scroll through all of the Oli students I’ve known. I smile because they are such a delightful, quirky, and eclectic bunch of adolescents. They are all different. There is not a singular, simple “elevator” description of the Oli kid.

In fact, the very first time I met a group of Oliverians, that’s exactly what they told me. “We’re all different,” said Ben, the 17 year old spokesman for the group of students selected to interview me, “but that’s why we get along so well. We all know we’re here for reasons that are bigger than our differences.” The other students nodded energetically.

In adolescent shorthand, we have had “gamers,” “preps,” “geeks,” “goths,” “hipsters,” “outsiders,” “emos,” “jocks,” and a host of other teen categories that likely don’t have names. Our students have come from elite traditional boarding schools, public schools, and therapeutic programs. They come to us having succeeded, and struggled, in widely varying ways. But for all their differences, students who thrive at Oliverian have some important things in common. They are bright and college-capable. Many are quirky, out-of-the-box thinkers (we love quirky!). Most have had difficulty finding their place in more traditional settings. They are sensitive, relationally motivated, and open to adult guidance and support.

Most importantly, though, successful Oliverians are at a point their journey where they are ready for an experiential approach to college preparation and personal growth. We entrust our students with relatively high degree of freedom, personal choice, and autonomy. That’s because Oliverian’s mission “to help young people find their place in the world” is only achievable when our school is a part of that world. So we provide an open campus and encourage a high level of community engagement in the form of frequent outings, internships, and community service. We tend to favor support over structure and influence over control when working with our students. In this way, we create enough space for them to make independent choices — good ones and poor ones — while providing the support they need to learn from both. When a student is ready for it, this “supportive-experiential” approach is the best way to truly prepare for the imminent realities of college life and young-adult independence.

Some students, of course, are not yet ready for the Oliverian approach. This has less to do with the specific nature of their struggle, though, than with the current status of that struggle—i.e. where they are in their personal journey. Students who are currently at a high risk level for violence, relapse, self-harm, or other serious behaviors, for instance, generally need a highly structured therapeutic intervention rather than the supportive experiential approach that Oliverian provides. But if and when they do get the help they need, even these students will eventually benefit from experiential preparation for the academic, social, and practical realities of college and young adulthood.

Oliverian does phenomenal work with students who have struggled, but who are now ready to learn from both their successes and mistakes. Like all who ultimately succeed, true Oliverians possess the courage to fail…forward.


 

Oli’s New Recruits

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
August 2015

Spring is an exciting time for any school that wants to shape or evolve or build its faculty—it’s school recruitment season. This March, I was asked by Oliverian’s leadership team what we should be looking for in student life director candidates. My answer left them a bit stunned. Keep Reading…
“That’s easy,” I said. “Extensive traditional, therapeutic, and alternative boarding-school leadership experience. Gifted with smart, quirky kids who have struggled in traditional settings—the outliers who do so well here. Must understand our balance of support and freedom. Needs the breadth and depth of experience to effectively implement everything from a life-skills curriculum, to a safety program, to a restorative-justice process, and so on, while also having a deep understanding of college preparatory academics and clinical services. We need someone who combines the warmth of a loving parent with the presence of an Army sergeant…”

Yada yada yada. I went on like this for another five minutes or so and ended with, “how does that sound?” Abby, Barclay, Shalen, Aaron, and Janice just stared at me.

“Okay. I realize this person doesn’t exist,” I said. “But let’s look anyway.”

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from Barclay, who serves as our recruiting contact for Carnie-Sandoe and other head hunters. “Will,” he said, “you know that student life director we’re looking for that doesn’t exist?”

“Yeah?”

“I just found her.”

When I first saw Cindy Efinger’s resume, I suspected a practical joke. It was as if someone in on our leadership meeting had turned my ridiculously ambitious recruitment diatribe into a resume—just to tease me. I mean, it was almost verbatim. This make-believe applicant was supposedly dean of academic and residential life at Philips Andover (traditional), director of residential life at The Academy at Swift River (therapeutic), and director of residential life at Bard College at Simon’s Rock (alternative). She was certified in restorative justice. Clinically savvy. An academic leader. The loving mother of three adult children. And then, at the very bottom of the resume, almost as an afterthought, were the following words: “Sergeant, United States Army.” That’s when I knew it was a fake. I suspected Shalen, of course.

When the team finally convinced me that Cindy Efinger, M.A., was a real applicant, the “too good to be true” part of my brain started talking to me. Maybe she’s mean. She probably doesn’t even like teenagers. I’ll bet she got into education for the money. Something must be wrong with her.
But after dinner, several phone calls, reference checks, and a full day of on-campus interviews, it was clear that nothing was wrong with her. In fact, everything was just right. Cindy is warm, smart, and calm. She loves order but knows how to go with the unpredictable ebb and flow of boarding-school life. She loves quirky, alternative kids. She is confident. She hugs!

Now the “prepare to be disappointed at the last minute” part of my brain piped up. Maybe she didn’t like us. She probably wants a more traditional school. I’ll bet we can’t afford her. Something is bound to go wrong.

To my blessed relief and joy, Cindy accepted the job because, as she put it, “these are my kind of students,” and “this is my kind of school.” I should not have been surprised. Oliverian has a way of seducing, capturing, and keeping amazing people. So Cindy is really just one more remarkable Oliverian. As I say that and think of my team, I have to pinch my arm to make sure I’m awake. Yep.

Our success recruiting Cindy convinced us to be equally audacious in our job postings for a new science teacher, nurse, therapist, dean of student life, and dorm parents. Our audacity paid off. Please check out faculty and staff—new and returning—for the 2015/2016 school year. Prepare to be amazed. On paper, these people are impressive. In person, they’re spectacular. With our kids, they’re miraculous.

I just pinched myself again.


 

Oliosophy: The Purpose of School

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
May 2015

As my fellow Oliverians know, one of my favorite questions is “why?”  I always want to know why we do what we do. What ends drive our actions.  What purposes inform our decisions, large or small, from curricular philosophy to disciplinary decisions to the color we paint our offices.  One of the “whys” I’ve been asking recently is sort of a big clumsy one: “why school?” Why go through all this effort and hullabaloo? School is hard.  It’s a lot of work and time and expense. So school begs a big and inspiring why.

Recent discussions of this question with my fellow Oliverians have yielded a wide range of answers such as, “to teach a love of learning,” “to prepare students for college,” “to give young people the skills they need to be productive members of society,” and so on.  Those are pretty good answers.

Recently, though, I came across a very different answer to this question while reading a book by the economist and philosopher, Nassim Benjamin Taleb.  Himself the product of extensive formal education, Taleb claims that the chief benefit of school is simply to “make more polished dinner partners.”

That’s worth thinking about.

After all, what kind of person do you want to have dinner with?

I want to dine with someone who’s curious, engaged, present, likable, considerate, interesting, funny, opinionated, respectful, informed, passionate, reasonably well-mannered, and capable of wide-ranging conversation.

Clearly, that doesn’t just describe the best dinner partners. It also describes the best college students, employees, friends, and life partners.

By this deceptively simple definition, we’re having good success at Oliverian.  Christian, Chris, Hannah, Megan, Gabe, Dylan, Steven, Dan, Mackenzie, Haley, Nate, Kevin, Richard, Raynna, and Sarah are all people I’d gladly have dinner with.  In fact, when you’re in town, my little monkeys, please call ahead.  Because dinner’s on me.

And now, on to the business of graduating you!


 

The Value of a Good Nap

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
March 2015

Oliverian is a place of spectacular motion, emotion, celebration, grief, love, disruption, friendship, hurt, healing, hugs, comings, goings, laughter, wipeouts, and recoveries.  Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but for us Oliverians, it’s exhilarating…and sometimes a little tiring. So on a particularly draggy Tuesday in February, I decided to use community meeting to sell the concept of napping to our students.  I droned on about polyphasic sleep, biphasic sleep, adolescent sleep research, REM, Roman “sextas” (naps), Dr. William C. Dement, blah, blah, blah.  All of this was my meandering and pedantic attempt to encourage naps.  Ironically, the speech nearly put everyone to sleep.

So when I finally got around to asking if anyone would like to give napping a try right then and there, there was a unanimous, “yes!”  We all grabbed a patch of floor, closed our eyes, and conked out for fifteen very quiet, very sweet minutes. One of the only things more vulnerable than napping with another person is napping with a bunch of other people.  It requires enormous trust to lie down, close your eyes, and breath your way to sleep or near sleep with others right there next to you.  But we all did it.  Except for my dog, Liam, who quietly walked from person to person, gently swiping his tongue across their faces to check for consciousness. Other than the occasional giggle from that, the only sound was slow, quiet breathing.  It was, in my opinion, Oliverian at its best—comfortable, trusting, safe.

That intimate sense of home is a testament to the incredible work our faculty do with these students every day, patiently connecting and making them feel smart, valuable, and part of something.  So rather than list student activities, strategic initiatives, or programmatic developments, I thought I’d just tell you about that fifteen-minute nap.  Because, really, that’s about as Oliverian as it gets.


 

The Art of “Yes and No”

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
November 2014

With days getting shorter and fall quarter drawing to a close, Oliverian’s staff and students are getting to know each other in new ways.  Students are beginning to trust us enough to test us.  To the trained eye, teachers and dorm staff are showing faint signs of perplexity and fatigue.  Parents are making demands.  In other words, our work has begun.

Now that polite September has passed, we’re seeing that these students are not here by accident.  They’re beginning to struggle with the same tangles that have long caused them-and their teachers, counselors, peers, and parents-enormous frustration and pain.  These tangles may be simple social awkwardness or an entrenched emotional disorder; they may include trauma, anxiety, adoption, or addiction. The real frustration for Oliverian students, though, is that they’re so nearly “normal.” But they just can’t quite pull normal off.  They’re quirky and sensitive; they “think different” and don’t yet know how to turn that to their advantage.

Whatever their underlying struggle is, it has to show up in all its messiness for us to begin addressing it.  That’s the irony of this work.  In order to help our kids conquer their struggles we have to first let them struggle.

That’s why my favorite times of the school year are fall and early spring, when those of in the boarding school business start feeling a little thin and all the funky stuff is boiling to the surface.  It’s when our students start demanding clear answers to the two main questions of childhood and adolescence: “do you love me?” and “can I do whatever I want?”  This is when we’re forced to practice the Zen-like art of saying “yes and no” in a single breath.

Just before starting this note, I ran six miles by headlamp on dark forest trails with a normally silent, sullen, 16-year old student whom we’ll call Seth. Running with me is part of an on-campus suspension for a run of behavioral moguls he’s been bumping through.  For Seth, it was a “consequence.” For me, it was a treasured opportunity to join my faculty in practicing the art of “yes and no.” Along the way we did pushups.  Seth managed to bang out 320.  I’ve never seen this kid smile like he did after our run, standing in the school cafeteria, steam rising off his shoulders, eating peanut butter. “Was that really six miles?” “Yep. You are an animal, Seth. I’m proud of you.” “Yeah.” He may not be able to walk tomorrow, but it will have been worth it.

Our work is hard and complicated and sometimes a little messy.   It depends on kids showing us their worst so that we can show them their best.  It’s wonderful work and I’m immensely grateful to be doing it with such a passionate team and supportive board.  Three months in and I feel like I’ve been here forever.  Like I’m home.  We have great good things to do together.


 

Heart is Where the Home is…

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
August 2014

For truly well-adjusted adults, home is an internal thing.  It’s that confident sense of identity, voice, and purpose that allows them to find their role in any group, their place in any situation, and their home wherever they happen to be.

Achieving that portable sense of home is what developmental theorists call “individuation” and is the most important, and difficult, task of adolescence.  Individuation is hard work.  It’s scary, lonely, embarrassing, and disorienting.  If you have the courage to remember your own adolescence, it was probably like that for you at least part of the time.

For the smart, quirky, sensitive adolescents who call Oliverian home, it’s like that a lot of the time.  That’s because many of our students haven’t really felt at home anywhere for quite awhile.  Not at school. Not with their peers.  Not in their own skin.  And since they’re in the ragged throes of individuation and identity formation, they often don’t even feel at home…at home.  These adolescents are, in a manner of speaking, emotionally homeless.

Oliverian provides a home for the emotionally homeless–those internalizing, over thinking, avoidant, deep feeling, socially awkward, fearful, creative, anxious, square-peg, precocious adolescents who quietly ask, “why?” and really, earnestly, seriously need an answer!

We provide these remarkable young people with a safe place to emerge, engage, play, learn, experiment, fail, recover, and connect. We give them the room to try on identities until one fits and feels like home.  That’s when home starts to become an internal reality, a state of the heart, a unique way of thinking, seeing, believing, engaging, and contributing.

When home becomes truly portable, it’s called “growing up” by those who are not developmental theorists.  Providing a safe place to do that is what Oliverian does best.

Will Laughlin, MA, M.Ed., (wlaughlin@oliverianschool.org) joined Oliverian School on July 1, 2014 as our third Head of School and CEO.  Will has more than 20 years’ experience running schools, writing, and teaching in both traditional and therapeutic settings.


 

 This Place is Home

Message from Will Laughlin, Head of School/CEO
May 2014

Over the past several weeks, Oliverian School’s Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, and students have made me feel not only at ease, but very much at home. It is that profound feeling of home that makes Oliverian such a special and powerful place.

In fact, the most common and eloquent description of Oliverian I’ve heard repeatedly from students is simply: “this place is home.” The fact that many of these same students describe their past school experiences as uncomfortable, alienating, or lonely makes their description of Oliverian all the more potent.

After a decade of serving students, Oliverian has a strong sense of its core purpose and its realized value- i.e. its “magic.” But like any worthy institution, it is also aware of critical opportunities to evolve and improve. Having now met most of the school’s extremely talented and deeply invested board, staff, and faculty, I’m quite confident of their- and now our- capacity to achieve the great things we envision.

All this is to say, I’m very happy to be joining the Oliverian adventure! In fact, I’m kind of giddy. I can’t wait to meet the rest of the community. I can’t wait to learn everything I can about this unique school. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and help Oliverian discover and ascend its next “peak.” Mostly, though, I just can’t wait to come home.

Thank you for this fantastic invitation to do so.