Dr. David Gleason, longtime consulting psychologist at Concord Academy and the author of At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, will speak at St. Mark's on Friday, October 11, at 3:00 p.m. in the Putnam Family Arts Center's Class of 1945 Hall. The event, part of Family Weekend, is free and open to the public. Dr. Gleason will also meet with student, faculty, and administrative groups during the weekend. On Saturday evening, he will participate in the St. Mark's College Counseling program.
The founder of Developmental Empathy, LLC, Dr. Gleason has over 25 years of experience in professional clinical psychology. He provides counseling and consulting services as well as neuropsychological assessments for students in public, independent, and international schools.
Dr. Gleason was drawn to this work while in graduate school. "I was living at the boarding school where my wife was teaching," he recalls. "I was actually quite surprised to realize the brevity of the orientation provided to students transitioning into a residential community at such a young age." For Gleason, who remembered a full week of orientation as a freshman at Boston College—"By the time school started, there was a real sense of 'we' and I felt grounded"—he felt that the boarding school model—"a day or two of new games, a meeting with their advisor, and then right into classes—was inadequate. "These are kids!"
This experience inspired his doctoral dissertation, entitled "Learned Helplessness and the Adjustment to Boarding School." For his research, he found three boarding schools willing to participate in a longitudinal study, and with parental permission he followed 105 students for six months, from July through January.
"In July," he said, "prospective students were at their most optimistic: looking forward to a new beginning at a new school. Then they arrive and whammo—they lose connections with family and friends, they get lost and overwhelmed in a completely new environment." Some thrived, he noted, but it was quite statistically significant that many felt more and more out of control, lost and overwhelmed over the course of those first six months, resulting in what he described as "learned helplessness."
Because of his research for his doctoral dissertation, Gleason realized that he wanted to work in competitive boarding schools. In 1994, he was recruited by St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire.
"I was so eager to jump right into that world," says Gleason. "I wanted to help kids who were struggling, and to also help faculty working with struggling students." He soon began to see that there were even more serious issues than simply student orientation. Consequently, he directed his attention to working with St. Paul's to be more proactive in how they welcomed their newest students: providing leadership training and workshops for seniors, setting positive expectations and standards of healthy behavior. "St. Paul's was very receptive," he notes. "The school took this very seriously, was highly responsive, and things got much better."
The need to examine the deeper roots of student helplessness, depression, and anxiety and to help students deal with all of that has continued to underlie Dr. Gleason's subsequent work with other competitive boarding schools—particularly Concord Academy—over the ensuing decades. "I know that schools are eager to address these issues," he says. Things have improved across the board.
Still, he notes, "the biggest difference that I've observed over almost 30 years of working at these schools is that they've become more competitive. It is all part of a larger system with economic and cultural factors driving schools to compete with each other," both in admission enrollment and in college placement. "Adults—parents—are in this frenzy, anxious about their children's futures," putting increasing pressure on students. "Colleges do play a role in this," he observes, "but it is not essentially their fault. Still, because of the pressures of competitive schools, they are admitting kids already anxious, depressed, exhausted, spent" even as they enter yet another ultra-competitive environment.
"There are plenty of strengths inherent in a residential boarding school," asserts Gleason. "Students are all in one place, surrounded and supported by a vocationally dedicated group of adults—teaching, coaching, advising, mentoring, caring—fashioning a genuine community. This is particularly helpful for kids whose families or home situations are not like that. There is also the healthy exposure to people from different cultures and backgrounds, with different life experiences. Being exposed to such differences is enriching, much like college but earlier. Having said that, I worry a lot about kids for whom this is a culture shock, struggling mightily in an unfamiliar world."
Dr. Gleason will address all of this during his visit to St. Mark's. His goal, and the mission of Developmental Empathy LLC, is to promote developmentally empathic policies and practices in schools that foster competitive excellence among their adolescent students.
"We are so excited that Dr. Gleason will be joining us for our Family Weekend," said St. Mark's Director of College Counseling Eric Monheim. "It is important for this community that we have conversations about these issues."
Dr. Gleason earned a B.A. in Psychology (1982) and an M.A. in Counseling Children & Adolescents (1987)—both from Boston College, and then a Psy.D. from William James College (1993). After several years as a psychologist at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, Dr. Gleason opened his own practice in Concord, Massachusetts, and also joined Concord Academy as that school's consulting psychologist. In addition, Dr. Gleason serves as senior neuropsychologist at Wediko Children's Services in Boston, where he supervises pre and post-doctoral psychology interns and co-teaches an ongoing professional development seminar. Dr. Gleason has taught psychology at the secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels, and he presents workshops and seminars at schools and at national and international conferences. Most recently, Dr. Gleason has become a certified Critical Friends Group coach for National School Reform Faculty (NSRF).
Friday, October 11, 3:00 p.m., in the Putnam Family Arts Center's Class of 1945 Hall at St. Mark's School, 25 Marlboro Road, Southborough, Massachusetts. Free and open to the public.