Finding the perfect school is only part of the battle in preparing your child – and yourself – for the boarding school experience. Now you need to ready for the transition.
The first steps when embarking on the boarding school journey include researching the school to ensure it’s a good fit, knowing your expectations and understanding your child, says Laura Franks, head of boarding at all-girls Havergal College in Toronto.
If you have selected a number of schools that you are interested in, next get in touch with the admissions department, which is the first point of contact for most parents, and pose questions about the boarding school experience. Enlist the school to help you.
“One of the biggest challenges for the parent and child is to understand that this will be a break from both of their lives as they knew it up until now,” Franks says.
The Canadian Accredited Independent Schools has an excellent website full of information that includes a section on the boarding school experience.
School websites, social media and word of mouth, especially from parents of children who have gone to the school, can help you get started to make the right decisions, Franks says.
Homesickness, which includes not just missing family and friends but a bedroom or traditional foods, is one factor to consider. Havergal has a weekly blog, emails and a newsletter for parents and students, and even uses Facebook Live to broadcast some performance events and concerts. Digital connectivity can help, but it can’t cover everything.
For Georgina Shaba of Kirkland Lake, Ont., one of the hurdles preparing herself and her teenage daughter, Hillary, for boarding at Havergal was letting go of parenting at home in a well-known setting. Her family’s experience can be instructive for anyone considering a boarding school.
“Here in Kirkland Lake, it’s a small community, so if she asks to go to a party, you know the family,” Shaba says. “That’s all out of my hands now. You have to learn to trust your child’s instincts and have confidence that they will continue to follow the values they’ve learned at home.”
Shaba reached out to other parents with children at the boarding school and got feedback on an event that their children would be attending, which she found helpful. It’s another example of a way to parent at a distance, maintaining a watchful eye while being respectful of a child’s newfound independence.
Parents must also trust in the boarding school staff when situations arise, whether it’s medical or otherwise, Shaba says. When Hillary got a concussion playing basketball, Georgina and her husband, Lad, rushed to Toronto but learned the school staff has an excellent concussion protocol and “we didn’t really need to worry about anything.”
It was Hillary who asked her parents if she could go to boarding school. They gauged her level of seriousness and learned that their daughter had definite goals. First, she wanted to attend a school with an excellent academic program. Second, she wanted a good extracurricular program. They all decided that Havergal offered both.
“A key question for us was whether the school was interested in developing well-rounded students and finding that fit,” Shaba says.
Initially, adapting from a public school to a private boarding school that offered a stronger course load was a challenge, but Shaba is pleased with her daughter’s academic progress and sees the boarding school experience as a plus.
“At Havergal, they have mandatory study periods, but no one is standing over their shoulder, so they learn to manage their own time and be self-motivated,” Shaba says. “The other thing that is really good is that they are in an environment where they all get together and help each other, so there is a strong community and support.”
Another question parents might ask is how the day school experience differs from boarding.
“One of the rumours that Hillary was hearing was maybe the boarders were seen as outsiders, but in fact they are very much integrated into the school,” Shaba says.
Hillary has returned home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as a one-week break in November, and the Shabas have visited their daughter by travelling to Toronto. Of course, parents who live in countries other than Canada face more difficult challenges. Students living further afield generally go home twice a year with a two-week winter break and a two-week March break at Havergal, Franks says.
The boarding school mix of international students with students who live in Canada provides all with a world view and education that might not be acquired if they stayed closer to home.
Stephanie Jean-Paul, dean of boarding at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, says boarding school offers a deep sense of belonging that is fostered through shared experiences, meaningful opportunities for leadership and building a comprehensive international network of friends.
“Like parents, we wish to see their daughters learn how to cultivate effective study habits, acquire valuable life skills, build and repair relationships, and respect the needs of others,” Jean-Paul says.
As the Shabas have learned, the first steps in preparing for the boarding school experience are actually the beginning of a rewarding journey.
Our Kids tip: Investigate your chosen school’s wellness program
“Many boarding schools have gotten serious about their wellness programs. Ask schools what they do specifically in this regard. Then, when preparing for the transition to boarding, have your child commit to availing themselves to these resources — before they feel they ‘need’ to.”
— OurKids.net, Canada’s Private School Guide
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