When describing the optimal setting

“It’s a way to make sure that we are not letting any student slip through the cracks,” says Dr. Bob Gillingham, Head of Lower School. “It can be extra academic support like reading, it could be social- emotional support, or all the above. But most importantly, it’s a nice safety net for our students.”

When students reach Middle School, they are developmentally ready to be more independent than they were in Lower School. However, they are met with new social and emotional challenges such as the stresses of multiple classes, clubs, and experiencing changes in friendships.

“The student brain in Middle School is changing more than it has since they were little,” says Head of Middle School Dan Lang. “That, along with all of the other changes happening in their bodies, means that when you ask them, ‘Why did you do that,’ or, ‘How are you feeling,’ and they respond, ‘I don’t know,’ they are telling the truth.”

for learning, one might imagine a student

that is alert, attentive, motivated, and clear- minded—qualities that help students not only receive information but properly retain that information for later learning and retrieval. There is a vital connection between physical activity and wellness, and recent scientific studies show that regular aerobic exercise positions the brain for optimal performance.

At Parker, significant emphasis is put on student wellness. The combination of Parker’s student support services, invested faculty, class deans, advisors, and coaches work in combination striving to create the optimal environment for student learning and wellness.

Behind every student is an incredible team comprising classroom teachers, healthcare professionals (including a school nurse, clinical psychologist, and clinical counselor), deans, advisors, and learning specialists who know students personally and are sincerely excited to see them grow and succeed.

Dan continues, “Middle School is a unique developmental time, and the faculty who work with our students are experts with this age group. We know that they are going ‘sideways’ most of the day, and our job is to lead them to the path of learning.”

The student support team at every division meets weekly to discuss students who may benefit from additional help (academically, socially, or emotionally) and work to develop an action plan to help students overcome their obstacles.

Rob Campbell, Middle School social studies teacher, found through his postgraduate research that students learn best when lessons are facilitated as focused activities in small segments.

Students Learn to Appreciate the Value of Healthy Behaviors.

“Developmentally, students need transitions and have to move. Not many students can sit at a desk for hours on end. A lot of problems in the classroom are a result of an unmet need like physical activity, especially sixth graders, and their need to move,” says Rob.

Rob started using physical activity as a transition between small lessons. He will ask students to stand up if theyare finished with their work—providingthat cognitive break a student needs to refocus and move on to the next task.

“When rotating partners, a fun activity is to get them up and dancing. I will say, ‘Okay, whoever has the best dance moves gets to rotate clockwise,’” says Rob. “My students don’t do a lesson segment [that is longer] than15 minutes, and I try not to have them sitting more than 15 minutes at a time.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children andadolescents ages 6 to 17 who engage in at least 60 minutes or more of physicalactivity a day tend to have higher grades, better attendance at school, and improved cognitive performance(e.g., memory and concentration)1.

From the Junior Kindergarten (JK)program to Grade 12, Parker’s P.E. andathletics departments have created a curriculum with age-appropriate activities that teach students how to practice lifelong healthy behaviors. Lessons on respect, teamwork, and positive thinking are taught in even the basic lessons with the JK students.

“With our students, we discuss how we speak to each other,” says Mae Powell, Lower School associate P.E. teacher. “We talk about how it feels when your teammate says, ‘Good job!’ versus, ‘That was awful!’ Sometimes students don’t realize the power of their words, so it’s crucial that we teach them, and model positivity.”


In the Lower School P.E. curriculum, students learn the power of goal setting and what it is like to persevere to achieve their goals. Cecile Santini, Lower School P.E., teacher says goal setting is a valuable life lesson that will help now and into the future.

“Every student has to set a personal goal. For example, they have to say how many push-ups they think they can do. Every student gets to experience what it takes to achieve a goal. It takes practice, it takes dedication, it takes positive thinking; they learn it doesn’t come easy,” says Cecile. “It’s so exciting to see a student do that one last push- up to reach their goal and seeing that, ‘Wow! I did it!’ in their eyes.”

“Physical activity has a tremendous amount of positives for the brain, period,” says P.E. Department Chair Jarrad Phillips. “Our ultimate goal is for our students to find something they like and will keep them active for the rest of their lives.”

The Middle and Upper School physical education curriculum is structuredto providestudents in Grade6 theopportunity to try a number of sports including volleyball, soccer, flag football, and basketball, so when they reach the Upper School they are readyto play in any of the 25 varsity andjunior varsity athletic teams.

“There is so much social and emotional work built into being a part of a team such as working through problems, whether it is a disagreement between two teammates or working out a strategy on how to get through an opposing team’s defense,” says Jarrad.

“We talk with students on how they should deal with conflict and give them skills that they can use so that they can have solutions to the stresses that will come their way,” 

Students take part in what Jarrad calls“guided discovery”—where the coachposes the question, “What do you think went wrong with a play?” and “How do think we can we fix this?” and students must work through problems together and learn to give constructive criticism.

In addition to P.E. and athletics, the life skills curriculum at Parker is dedicated class time and age-appropriate activities that address social and emotional wellbeing and practices.

In Grades 3 to 5, a life skills class isintroduced that covers topics such as bullying, mindfulness, gossip, anger management, and self-regulation.

“We talk with students on how they should deal with conflict and give them skills that they can use so that they can have solutions to the stresses that will come their way,” adds Bob.

In the Middle School life skills class and advisory, students revisit topics that were touched on in Lower School and dive deeper into the themes to discuss suicide prevention, cyberbullying, gossip, and more. The programming allows students time to discuss these topics, ensuring they will be better prepared for the realities of young adult life.

The Grade 9 life skills program is a graduation requirement; students learn to appreciate the value of healthy behaviors through both classroom experiences and physical activity.

“Students are in the classroom a lot during the day,” says John Morrison, Upper School life skills teacher. “Two days out of the week we get to go bouldering, kayaking or other fun activities outside of the classroom. We also don’t assign homework. So it gives students a time to relax. All they have to do is be willing to participate and be in the moment.”

Learning to be in the moment is a way to practice mindfulness and cope with stress. Stress is a significant topic for Stacey Zoyiopoulos, Upper School teacher, in her life skills class. Stacey helps students not only think about their own stress, but also how to be mindful and find ways to help reduce the stress of their friends and family members.

“We discuss that the most stressfultime is from 5 to 6 o’clock at nightbecause everyone wants everythingat the same time—food, homework,etc. So we talk about how students can be helpful, being conscious that their parents or others might have had a bad day too, and thinking about what they can do to be helpful,” says Stacey.

“Parker believes that maintaining a balanced curriculum that focuses on mental health, physical well-being, and support of lifetime fitness, gives students the opportunity to achieve their full potential and go on to make lifelong habits they will carry with them through college and beyond.”

Students learn from each other and find it is the little things that can make a big difference in someone’s day.

“When we have group discussions students get to hear the different family values that each share. They begin to hear the different perspectives that make up our community. It comes out in a way where they can appreciate one another,” says Stacey.

Authentic engaging experiences are key to creating a culture of care in which students are at the center of learning. Providing students the skills to cope with stress as early as Lower School will only pave the way to a better academic experience in the upper divisions. Creating a safe forum where students can speak openly about health topics and life changes with trusted faculty and staff reduces the stigma of reaching out for help when they need it. Implementing physical education that emphasizes teamwork and perseverance helps students as they meet the new challenges that come their way in college and their careers. 

This article was originally featured in the Winter 2019 issue of Parker Magazine. Click here to read the full issue.