Kindness Wins

By Steve Salvo, Head of School

I believe our world could use more empathy right now, and we are determined to do our part here at St. Mary’s. As you probably know, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else's feelings. This trait or characteristic can be incredibly challenging for any human to develop and consistently utilize, let alone an adolescent with limited life experience, a brain still developing, and a rapidly changing body. Add in external influences such as the ever-expanding online universe, a polarizing political climate with widely varying views and perspectives, and uncertainty stemming from unprecedented experiences related to, let’s say, a global pandemic, and you have the recipe for a childhood journey that is sure to be rooted in periods of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety.

We are still working to unpack the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on our children, and this work will continue to take place for the foreseeable future. While we can Monday morning quarterback decisions that the federal, state, local government, and others may or may not have made related to this global event, we must acknowledge that life was already getting more challenging for kids before this intense two-year stretch. I believe social media and the online world are much to blame here. You’ll often hear me reference one of my favorite books of all time, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, which highlights the author’s belief that we are making certain decisions that are setting this generation up for failure. For example, he specifically attributes the launch of Instagram as directly correlated to the mental health crisis of teen females in particular. His concerns are valid, as the CDC recently released data showing that the stress levels of teenagers have catapulted over the past decade, particularly among teenage girls. In fact, 2021 CDC data cited that 57% of teenage girls reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” up from 36% of the same surveyed population a decade prior. Just as alarming was the research from the same study that indicated that nearly one in three teenage students surveyed had reported seriously considering suicide at one time. This figure was up 60% from the same survey in 2011.

I am very concerned. And this concern evokes even more of a commitment to my previously stated mantra.

While I don’t view St. Mary’s as having challenges with teasing or bullying (which are defined differently by people)  more so than other similar-sized schools across the country, I am unwilling to accept anything but a concerted, multi-pronged effort to eliminate behavior and culture that isn’t rooted in our Episcopal ideals of kindness, goodness, and our Baptismal Covenant – which states that we see the goodness in each and every living thing. We regularly collect data by observing students throughout the school campus, listening, and educating students on how to navigate this journey of growing up with the pressure they feel to connect with others.

We are going to do our part. We recognize, for example, that school lunch tables can be a prime location for conversations with negative connotations or elements of gossip. We also understand that lunch table seating dynamics can be a source of stress for students, as a friend group of 10 may be unable to sit at the same location every day due to space constraints. Think back to when you were in middle school. Wouldn’t you agree that this would likely be something you may have “stressed out” about well before you made that mad dash to the lunch seating area to hopefully claim your prized seat? Our administrative team has been looking carefully at how lunch is carried out on every level, from staffing to set-up, structure, and rules/expectations for students. I believe we can revamp lunch in ways that enhance certain elements of “safety” (predictability and support for students regarding the lunch space) while still allowing students to experience aspects of independence that will undoubtedly include awkward social moments and experiences. And these experiences can be GREAT for developing core social skills that will benefit students later in life…they just don’t need to be persistent and most certainly don’t need to create “toxic” stress levels.

You will see us roll out more programs and initiatives in the coming months that aim to take a stance on celebrating kindness. We’re going to double down on our longstanding commitment to making it “cool” to do the right thing, to advocate for and elicit goodness, and on the rare instances where slip-ups occur, to acknowledge and learn/grow from these mistakes.

We need your help as well. Here are some thoughts and recommendations that I view as both relevant and practical:

1) The Anti-Snitch Culture Needs to Go

We find there is often a reluctance to share details, as some fear social retaliation. This drives me crazy, and we need to end it. Our goal is to create upstanding citizens who care for themselves, each other, and our community. Retaliation is not and will not be tolerated. We need to celebrate the individuals who stand up for what is right, even when it is a challenging thing to do. Expect to see more celebrations of “strong character” from us next year; powerful moments that will be preceded or accompanied by proactive and age-appropriate learning opportunities for students in the classroom. Developing emotional intelligence in our students ties directly to key attributes related to grit, resilience, and empowerment that are highlighted in our Qualities of a Saint and linked to research-based indicators of success in academia and beyond. Let’s eliminate the word “snitch” from our students’ lexicon. I’d much prefer “upstander.”

2) Kids Need to Know: You are not your online profile (if you have one)

I know many of you disallow social media or have committed to not gifting your child a phone until “at least” 7th or 8th grade. I’m here to warn you that they still find ways to engage with classmates and others online. Chat groups have been a regular source of drama at every PK-8 school I have ever served at – with these conversations typically taking place off campus (usually on an iPad) but frequently having carry-over effects to school-day interactions. A chat group of 12 males that excludes two other males in their class is often received by the absent players in the same fashion as a slight for a birthday party. Parents regularly ask me what they should do about their kids and devices. My advice is routinely consistent, “Teach them to use it appropriately and teach them about what is happening to their brain (the dopamine loop) as they navigate through likes, comments, and content that is being posted by others, often in desperate need of the same adrenaline rush.” If we can teach our children to understand how they are wired, how their brain works, and how to observe and watch their feelings and emotions without judging, they will develop mindfulness-related skills that will enhance their ability to self-regulate, another proven indicator of success in both educational and real-world settings.

3) Birthday Parties

Seriously…think hard about these. We are a relatively small school. I don’t have a magic planning formula for you, but there does come the point when your event is becoming more exclusive than inclusive, and again, these experiences can become a hotly discussed component of school day chatter.

4) Mental Health – Remove the Stigma

I’m going to share something personal. Two of the key members of my own Personal Board of Directors are mental health professionals. I swear by their guidance and wisdom through good times and bad. Many of you know that my wife and I lost our son, Sean, almost five years ago at the age of 8. It was the most traumatic experience I have ever endured, and I am still enduring it. I am fortunate to be old enough to know who I am, how I am wired, and to be totally OK with the fact that I sometimes need to ask for help as I navigate this difficult journey. From this experience, I have learned that grief and pain exist in many ways, and these emotions/feelings can only truly be defined by the individual experiencing them. We must respect everyone’s unique journey, especially that of a child or young adult who has not had the opportunity to work their way through complex feelings and emotions. Mental health professionals can be amazing resources for many. And there are also many excellent books available related to stress and anxiety management for kids and adults alike. 

5) Kindness has a close relative who is just as cool…Forgiveness!

I’ll just drop a quote here:

Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart; one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”

― Marvin J. Ashton

6) Don’t be afraid to speak up off-campus.

We’re going to offer age-appropriate programming on campus. We are not looking to supervise your children or assess your parenting styles, particularly off-campus. We recognize there are often different behavioral expectations for different households and that perhaps the most challenging time for our students in social settings is during “unstructured” time off campus where supervision is limited or non-existent. That being said, our leaders are ALWAYS able and willing to listen and provide ideas or suggestions, and we would encourage you to recognize (and embrace) the inevitable social highlights and pitfalls that accompany such events as the Christ the King Carnival, Under Armour football gatherings, Gasparilla parades, and so much more. These can be high-impact events and experiences in your child’s world, and the effects of a negative social experience at such events can have increased effects on one’s psyche. If you see your child or another SMEDS classmate exhibiting behavior that does not align with our mission and values, I would implore you to consider how you and other adults can play a role in stopping and addressing such actions. Use our vocabulary, remind them of the values we teach at SMEDS, and model “grace” for them. We don’t all have to be perfect, but we can and should learn from our mistakes.

If you made it to this part of my message, thank you for your kindness! You demonstrated many of the same traits (grit, resilience, etc.) we hope to instill in our students as they matriculate through our program and ideally enter into a world where they will not only be positive contributors to society but doers of good who take care of themselves, their fellow humanity, and this wonderful world we live in.

Let’s hear it for Kindness!


Coddling of the American Mind book cover
hugging friends
2nd grade boys
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