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Getting Back in Shape
Letter of the Week

Throughout this semester, we have made significant steps toward getting back to normal. All students and employees have returned to campus; we are 99% vaccinated, 7th through 12th Grades; the Upper School no longer requires masks outside; athletics and performances are happening at their regular cadence, albeit with slight modifications. And, with almost 60% of our Lower School students already fully vaccinated, we are in great shape to make more modifications come January.

One of the most significant adjustments, however, has been internal and barely visible to most. As background, think back to 1972 and the famous Marshmallow Experiment at Stanford University. That experiment measured a group of 4-year olds' ability to delay gratification by not eating the marshmallow on the table in front of them and managing to wait 15 minutes, when they were given a second marshmallow and allowed to eat both. When they followed these children longitudinally, they learned that those able to delay gratification all fared significantly better across the board. According to the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear:

“The children who were willing to delay gratification…ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. (You can see the follow-up studies here, here, and here.)”

I imagine the ability to delay gratification as a muscle that needs regular exercise, which happens in a productive way during students' years at Brentwood. However, one of the most damaging results of an almost full year of virtual learning at home is that our students' “delayed gratification muscles” atrophied. That is, at home most of us gave up on monitoring screen time, and with more screen time our children were able to act on almost any impulse as it came up. Check on Instagram, click the mouse. Follow the Dodger game, click on the website. Check traffic, click on Google Maps. Watch "Money Heist," click on Netflix. Talk with a friend, open a chat, or write a text. You get the picture. And this was also happening during school, while some were in their virtual classrooms.

Pragmatically, this means that over this first semester, we’ve had to intentionally work to get our students “delayed gratification muscles” back into shape–and it isn’t just our students either. I’ve watched this happen organically, with a few stumbles along the way. For example, when younger students are required to control their impulses, they often get squirrelly and act out in unexpected ways–often regressing to younger behaviors. For our older students, while they do not act out as often, they instead become much more nervous, which comes out as both anxiety and depression. And for our teachers, these are not the typical behaviors of our students so they have adjusted by learning some new skills and approaches as well.

The above, taken with this week’s Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis by the Surgeon General, gives us a glimpse of what our children are facing as they come out of the pandemic. Moving forward in improving our children’s mental health requires compassionate and firm expectations from us as educators and you as parents and guardians. Deeper, this means regularly exercising their “delayed gratification muscles.” In this regard, looking back on my childhood, I recognize the wisdom of my father, who when shopping always insisted that we stand in the longest line and park the car as far away from the entrance as possible. From his perspective he was teaching me patience, which, as it turns out, is great exercise for our  “delayed gratification muscles.”

Have a wonderful weekend, and take your time.

Dr. Mike

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