When Stars Fall…at Independent Schools

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Graham had not anticipated how difficult school would be. Graham’s middle school advisor had recommended Graham as “a star student, a skillful athlete, a talented musician and a trusted friend who was even voted Most Likely to Succeed by his peers.”  It was for these reasons that Graham couldn’t have been happier when, on March 10th, he had received an acceptance letter from St. Paul’s School where he was to begin the next fall as member of the School’s 3rd Form.

By late-October at St. Paul’s, Graham’s academic “star” had begun to fall.  He had already received several grades that were lower than any grade he had ever received in middle school.  Further, not only was he struggling to keep up with the constant homework demands but Graham had also just received a failing grade on a Humanities paper.  Graham was distraught.  By now, Graham’s parents were really worried, too, because Graham had recently complained to them, “Nothing I do here seems to work!”

In the interest of full disclosure, Graham is not a real student.  While his profile resembles many students who have attended St. Paul’s School, I assure you that this “Graham” does not exist!  However, this fictional Graham reflects countless students who are admitted every year not only to St. Paul’s, but also to Concord Academy, Deerfield, Milton Academy, Middlesex, Groton, St. George’s…and to most competitive independent schools throughout the country.

I met several “Grahams” when I worked at St. Paul’s from 1994-98.   Since leaving that position, I’ve been working at Concord Academy, have consulted at numerous other independent schools, and have operated an independent practice of providing psychological and neuropsychological assessments.  Over the past decade, I have evaluated hundreds of independent school students, many of whom have presented with Graham’s familiar profile.  It is not uncommon for these “Grahams” to possess solid verbal and perceptual abilities that hover around the 95th percentile relative to their peers.  With such keen cognitive abilities, these “Grahams” often cruise through their elementary and middle school curricula without ever needing to work too hard.  Further, “Grahams” frequently and unwittingly develop a mindset that they’re cognitively talented and that most academic material comes easily to them – because it does – UNTIL they arrive at schools like the ones mentioned above.  Once admitted to these competitive schools, however, “Grahams” face new curricular demands that are simultaneously more complex and rapidly paced.  Further, many of the conditions by which these “Grahams” have thrived in the past, such as flexible time limits, easier homework assignments, extra-credit opportunities, fewer exams, etc., simply do not exist!

Troubled by this precipitous decline in academic performance, many “Grahams” – referred by teachers and/or parents – seek comprehensive neuropsychological testing and discover profiles characterized by well-developed verbal and nonverbal reasoning skills AND by less well-developed capacities in working memory and processing speed.  This profile, common to those with attentional and executive functioning difficulties, makes it very difficult for “Grahams” to access their exceptional reasoning skills “on demand,” or as quickly as necessary to meet the challenges of their new academic environment.  As a result, “Grahams” feel like their “academic stars are falling.” They feel lost and helpless…and in desperate need of study skills help.

Have you known some “Grahams” at your school?  How have they come to your attention?  What resources are available…or do you need…to support these “stars” before they fall too far?

I welcome your stories and your questions.