Inside: Jane Carmignani is a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in children in boarding schools. In this interview, she discusses the benefits of boarding school.
Currently, in Australia there are 25000 boarding students. In many parts of the world, the decision to board would be about prestige, here it is about opportunity. The scarcity of population in rural Australia means that many kids have to go away for secondary education. Their towns simply don’t have high schools or the schools aren’t equipped to offer specialised education.
My interest here is not the short fallings of rural education, but what these decisions do to rural families and the impact on children. My two brothers both live in the country and have school-aged children. They are having to make decisions about their kids’ education and the stress of that decision is obvious and has been since their children’s birth. Do you send your child away and break up your family or do you keep them at home and not offer them the opportunities you feel they should have?
Armed with these concerns, I talked to Santa Maria College Psychologist, Jane Carmignani, about boarding and the surprising upsides of the experience for the child, parents and their relationship. Jane has plenty of background in this area. Her Masters’ thesis was on boarding and particularly the transition to boarding. Santa Maria College is a girls’ school, so this study pertained to the experience of girls, but many of the experiences apply equally to both genders.
What drew you to study the experience of boarding students?
After having worked for a few years at SMC I was fascinated by boarders and how well they seemed to navigate their world. They are approximately 10% of the SMC secondary community but they are always over-represented in academic and extra-curricular fields. They are often in leadership roles and they display these amazing positive and mature outlooks on life.
One would be forgiven for thinking boarding students, so far away from their folks and their homes, would fare far worse than their day girl counterparts. But to me, this never seemed the case. This was part of my motivation for using boarding participants in my research, specifically, what were the experiences of boarding students as they transitioned into their first year of boarding? Did they really transition to this new environment as easily as it seemed? And what I generally found is… yep, they do.
What are the main concerns of boarding parents?
Boarding is a decision that many parents deliberate and worry over for years. They may worry that their child won’t like it, they will be homesick, they won’t have people to talk to, they won’t know their child’s everyday life and the problems they’re having. They worry about their happiness. Do parents of day students worry less? Probably not. But they know they are able to see them each afternoon and feel connected to their child’s daily life.
Boarding parents may feel they do not know what is going on at times, they will long to give their child a hug when they are sad, to help them with their homework when they are struggling, to cook them their favourite dinner to celebrate something special. Yes, these things are real and they will be hard, parents will miss them but what I found in my research is that the vast majority of students thrive in their boarding environments.
What are the positive aspects of boarding?
When talking to students, the positive aspects of boarding they discussed fell into four categories: Boarding Environment, Academic Environment, Friendships and Opportunities.
All students, even the girls that were having great struggles agreed that boarding was a really great place to be. They all recognised the opportunities provided to them and most were very motivated to make the most of it.
Boarding has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. There is a strong focus on meeting students’ needs. This is seen in the employment of staff who are empathetic and appropriately trained and the strong awareness of boarders’ rights and responsibilities. There is also a big emphasis on the importance of family involvement.
The boarding environment is a huge plus in the eyes of boarders. Having this ‘second home’ gives boarders a different opportunity for development and growth. They have extra peer and staff interaction compared to non-boarding students. They have access to tutoring, development of self-care skills, routine and structure. These ecological factors provide a stability not always achievable in some home/rural settings.
The boarding environment also gives boarders an extra sense of belonging which is important for our young people. A sense of belonging protects them against mental health issues, improves learning and produces happier, more relaxed and adaptable people. Sense of belonging is enhanced by environments where kids are given the opportunity to feel connected, where they know they are listened to, valued and supported. Modern boarding houses do this so well. Boarders also tend to develop very close and supportive friendships. Yes, they have their ups and downs, like all friendships, but generally boarders report strong bonds.
Boarding further enhances a sense of belonging with its rituals and traditions. Even something as simple as sharing meals together brings boarders a sense of togetherness and connectedness. This embedding of social ties has many benefits for boarders during their teen years and beyond. Most interestingly, boarders report high life-satisfaction and a greater sense of meaning.
There is evidence that suggests there are negative effects of boarding such as homesickness and a lack of privacy. Unfortunately, that is a reality. Boarding communities are well aware of these issues and work hard to help kids adjust. Gone are the days of cutting off contact with home so that a child can ‘harden up’ and get over it.
When students talked about opportunities, this usually involved academic and extra-curricular opportunities. Students recognise how ‘lucky’ they are to be at a school that has so much to offer and will help to prepare them for higher degrees or employment. They also recognise the value of their boarding friendships, which are often life-long. An understanding of group dynamics and life skills, particularly independence, were also perceived as important.
Boarders are consistently involved in extra-curricular activities. This involvement has generally positive effects including that sense of belonging, strong academic outcomes and social outcomes. Extra-curricular allows students to identify with and feel part of their community.
Some parents acknowledge that boarding school is a way of protecting their kids from problems in their home community or bad influences in their local peer group. So in some cases the advantage is in the bad experiences they avoid as well as the positive experiences and opportunities they gain.
Research has shown that compared to day students, boarding students are more academically successful. At first they may struggle with the dramatically different demands of school and homework, but in time they become more cooperative learners and have more developed self-discipline. They are generally better prepared for post-school study. They tend to be mature, independent and critical thinkers. They also demonstrate greater adaptive motivation and academic goal setting ability.
Whilst not part of my research, some families report more positive relationships when their child is boarding. The general busyness of day-to-day life is avoided; there are less school runs, rushing to get to sports, juggling the kids varying activities, nagging, arguments about rules etc. Boarding school takes care of all these parenting logistics and allows mum and dad to just be there for their child.
Kids really miss their parents. Nothing will change that. It will be hard. But parents do continue to play the dominant role in their child’s life. Partnership and communication is encouraged between parents and boarding and this allows the child’s needs to be adequately met, though everyone acknowledges that parents and kids may still feel a bit wobbly upon occasion.
The big question…
The one obvious thing about having a child who boards is that you are not physically close to them. Is this a negative thing? Yes. And no. Once upon a time, children who went away to board would go weeks without seeing or talking to their parents. Today, seeing and talking to your parents is only an iPhone away. Can it replace a warm cuddle? No. But it can give families the reassurance to know that all is well and the opportunity for the answer to the daily question, “Did we do the right thing? Yes, you did.
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Carmignani, J. (2007). The experiences of female students transitioning to boarding school. (Unpublished)
Martin, A.J., Papworth, B., Ginns, P., & Liem, G.A.D. (2014). Boarding school, academic motivation and engagement, and psychological well-being: A large-scale investigation. American Educational Research Journal, 51(5), 1107-1049.