Can School Be Home?

One of the primary functions of our mind is to filter out information. To sort through the infinite amount coming in from our senses, our thoughts, from others, and decide what is relevant and should be considered consciously. We would be quickly lost and overwhelmed without this function. In a similar sense, oddly enough, I think this is the purpose of home. A good home filters out most of the world, leaving us with the sense that what's left is the world. A safe and understood world. We yearn for this place, a comfortable perch from which we peer out into the unknown.

Adolescents need this as much as anyone, but as with so many parts of their lives, things have become a little more complicated. The safe confines of their family home begin to feel stifling, a natural result of their psychological and neurological development. As the social parts of their brains become activated, they turn toward peers, utterly fascinated, repulsed, attracted, curious about what others do. They see the fallibility of adults much more clearly, and mistakenly jump to the conclusion that they understand them. Yet the adults seem not to understand the adolescents, seem not to appreciate the social focus they have, and so these adults start to seem out of touch. And in any case they are far less interesting than peers. So for all of these reasons, an adolescent's focus starts to shift away from their family home, whether they want the change or not.

Adolescents need a new home, or more specifically, a place that feels safe and familiar where they can explore their evolving identity. I don't mean they have to physically move out of their family home. But they will grow stronger and with less conflict if they have another place in their lives where they can safely explore their identity, examine inner and outer worlds, and wonder what on earth is happening, with guidance from other thoughtful adults who "get" adolescents. School has very rarely been this other place; traditional schools seem to understand adolescents even less than their parents do. As a result we lose adolescents, in dramatic and subtle ways, by not having a home for them. They are literally without a place in our society.

Could we evolve school to be a real home for adolescents? Is that a laughable goal, given how most feel about traditional school? Maybe. But it's possible - I've seen enough examples of middle and high schools that exude the feeling of home, of a place that adolescents feel deep membership in and ownership of, a place they are happy to be and consider a safe harbor in the world. So what does it take?

First, I believe it takes a small school. Institutional scale creates an institutional feeling; there's no home I know of that has 500 peers (at which scale most become effectively strangers) wandering around you. School should be small enough that you know everyone around you, which from the Dunbar research and other sources likely means a maximum of 100-150. This could be a subset, if carefully contained, within a larger school.

Second, it takes a school that shows that it "gets" adolescents, for example in the importance it visibly places on social time and exploration (by allowing unstructured time for it, teaching with those motivations in mind, and specifically teaching tools to understand social lives, conflict, attraction, etc). It takes adults who appreciate the messiness and confusion of adolescence and can tolerate it, even relish it, rather than reflexively back away from it, as happens when we haven't come to terms with our own adolescent journey. It takes a school that sees development as not only cognitive, but rather values and works toward development along social, emotional, somatic, ethical and other lines of growth, as all of these are very actively at play for adolescents. It takes a school that aims to transfer more and more responsibility, trust, and independence to adolescents as they show readiness, honoring their growth and showing that the community sees the changes they're experiencing.

For most people I know, and for me as well, middle school and high school did not feel like home. Instead of a tribe of peers questing to figure out the world, it was more like a rush hour of half-familiar faces. I desperately wanted to know how to be with and around them, wished for more mentorship or guidance. I was not at home at school (not even close!), and I was not at home in my family’s home. I needed a place - ideally school because the majority of my time was spent there, though it could also be a club, a sports team, a religious group. I needed somewhere that filtered the world for me, a base camp from which I could venture out and look forward to returning, that understood the journey I was on. This is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle. We'll raise healthier adolescents when we expect that they'll need to leave their home of origin and when we're ready to receive them in a new place, a new home, suited to the next stage of their development.