Deciphering the Path by Dean of Students Marcela Maldonado
Even as we enjoy the waning days of summer, the impending arrival of our students is the chief source of excitement around here, with all the energy and hope they bring with them for the coming school year. Students inevitably return from the summer months refreshed, ready and resolved to get back in the game and exercise their new roles and positions in various clubs and organizations, on the playing fields and in the classroom.
Every student’s path through Nobles will be unique, and each will encounter some challenges and setbacks along the way. Much of what goes awry for teenagers is often based on their perceptions of what may or may not be going on around them. The quest for identity is at the heart of their journey, and most teenagers desperately want to belong, be a part of a pack, and not be considered different or “on the outside.” Social standing is their primary currency, and the need to find their place among their peers can lead to behaviors that might otherwise be unrecognizable to the people who love them most.
But according to new research based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teenagers are, simply put, overestimating the bad and underestimating the good. According to Professor Sarah W. Helms,“(They) think they know how much their peers engage in a variety of potentially risky behaviors such as substance use, sex.... They also think they know how much their peers engage in healthier behaviors, such as studying and exercising. The only problem is, they’re wrong. And…the more wrong they are, the more likely they’ll be to increase their own substance use over the next few years.”
At Nobles, our most effective weapon to push against these misperceptions has always been, and will continue to be, our own connections with students. But the larger culture has taught us that this is an increasingly harder battle to fight without finding clear and direct ways to penetrate the misinformation out there. Even as we remain institutionally committed to tackling these issues, we must do so from different angles. So to that end, Nobles will be engaging this year in its own study of adolescent behavior around the topics of alcohol, drugs and peer pressure.
The Freedom from Chemical Dependency organization (FCD) will be partnering with us this fall by providing their quantitative “Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey” to the entire student body on October 14. FCD provides prevention education services in the area of alcohol and drugs. Our association with them has a long history: it was actually started 38 years ago by a graduate in a classroom in the Shattuck Schoolhouse! The FCD survey has been administered in over 300 school communities, including many of our peer schools in New England. It is a 50-question instrument built to scientifically measure our present students’ actual attitudes and behavior with regard to alcohol and other drugs, as well as their perceptions of the behavior and attitudes of their schoolmates. The end result will be a comprehensive analysis of student use and attitudes within our own community.
Findings in other schools via this survey have consistently proven that students are abusing in far fewer numbers than we think, yet normative behaviors derive from an “impression” of what is going on around them. The results of these surveys have effectively communicated perception vs. reality. And the reason why tackling misperceptions matters, according to the UNC findings, is because the rate of increase in risky behavior is much steeper among those who misperceived the social norms the most.
FCD will meet with various administrators early in the second semester to help us decipher the data, as well as to provide support in communicating this information to students and the wider community. In that vein, student leaders in our Peer Help Program will be instrumental in assisting with this conversation among their peers.
Our hope and intention is that this survey will serve as the catalyst for honest dialogue with our students about their choices and responsibilities, allowing us to engage in a conversation with them that is dynamic, data-driven and, to a great degree, peer-led. What FCD is offering us is a collaborative and engaging learning process, and a real opportunity to see transformative work at play.