Preparing for Boarding: A Psychological Perspective

When parents prepare their children for the big step of sending them overseas for the first time, it is usually approached pragmatically and instinctively.  At BESSA, we decided to take a look from a different perspective: The Psychology of Human Needs.

As a parent, we find great comfort in watching our children grow – from the day they take their first steps, to kindergarten days and finally when formal schooling starts. We follow closely who their friends are and monitor their progress in school for reassurance that our guidance is moulding them in the best way we know. But their growth need not be home-bound. Your child could reach their potential in a foreign or unfamiliar territory. Boarding school offers them this, but it is a bold and intimidating move for many forward-thinking parents.

The term “self-actualisation” was used first by the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, to describe the realisation and fulfilment of a person’s talents. Maslow studied the lives of some extraordinary people and propounded his theory of “The Hierarchy of Needs”. This was a five-tier model of human needs, depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Taken from the base, these needs are stacked one upon the other: physiological, safety, love and belonging and esteem, leading finally to self-actualisation. Let us look at Maslow’s ideas and how they may be relevant to boarding school and preparing your child to maximise their potential.

Physiological: Are basic physical needs being met in school?  The physiological needs are the most basic essentials – food, water, sleep and warmth. Take a good look at the boarding provision in school and check your child has comfortable pillows, blankets and linens that promote rest. Are the school buildings sufficiently heated? Pack a water bottle together with school supplies such as stationery, a laptop and a planner. These important tools encourage a smoother fulfilment of work assignments. In the boarding house, younger students are supervised at bedtime with a routine of “lights out” and handing in of computer devices. Prepare your child by starting similar sleep habits at home.

 Safety: How safe and secure does a student feel in school?  In a boarding school environment, Maslow’s safety needs would revolve around health and well-being. Personal hygiene is the first step to avoid falling ill and prepare your child to be independently going about daily washing, teeth-brushing and other self-care initiatives. All schools have medical centres, but students may find it useful to keep a first-aid kit handy. Eating well is another key ingredient. You may like to pack your child off with healthy snack options rather than sugary sweets and inculcate them from a young age with correct eating habits. Dietary supplements and vitamins are useful to stave off an impending winter cold. Safety needs must also include financial planning and careful budgeting. Students should think about how much money they will use at school and have sufficient funds at hand. It may be necessary to open a bank account or have access to a credit card.

Love and Belonging: Does the student feel included in school  Being away from home can be difficult for adults, let alone a child. They can take photographs of loved ones with them to help relieve loneliness and be reminded of family and friends. Boarders often decorate the walls of their dormitories with posters and pictures that make them happy. Other mementos from home may also be brought – even soft toys!

Before finalising your choice of school, make a few visits and get a feel for whether the community is warm and close-knit. Most boarding schools have a tutor system in place. There should be no shortage of adults or older students that a child can turn to for support, whether on academic questions, spiritual matters or social and emotional issues. Remind your child that they are not alone and help is always at hand if they need to talk to someone. Going to chapel and joining a religious group may be explored. Alternatively, an individual secular approach like meditation could also provide an anchor for the need of love and belonging.

Self-Esteem: Does the student feel good about himself?  The clothes that teenagers wear are undoubtedly the first source of esteem, regardless of age and gender. Observing protocols and dress codes at social events within or beyond school grounds help you decide what formal clothing may be required. For casual wear, respect your child’s dress sense if their choices are a reflection of their personality rather than “dressing to impress”. These are the first steps to self-confidence and thus, building stronger self-esteem.

All schools are now required to report on academic performance, but many go the extra step, articulating particular strengths of a student to guide them in making further education or career decisions. Peer to peer assessments would be good opportunities to share positive thoughts between friends. By giving and receiving feedback, your child will start to appreciate how their contribution to school is being valued. Eventually, the need for respect from teachers and classmates and the work they do will be fulfilled.

Self-actualisation: The Pinnacle  

Boarding school is a place to pursue academic interests and jump through the hoops of necessary examinations. But it can also be much more – an environment of opportunity and exploration, where not only existing interests are pursued but new ventures begin. When parents choose boarding for their children’s education, they know it could be the optimal path to develop potential and discover passion.  Set out to satisfying all of Maslow’s needs we have written about above, and you could well be facilitating the journey for your children to reach the pinnacle of self-actualisation. Now it is time to go shopping for the best fluffy pillows!