Weekly Research Roundup

Each week during the 2019-2020 school year, we will highlight current research on topics related to either the year’s theme of empathy and connection, or the book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D. In case you missed any of them, or would like to revisit any, here is a list of the topics we addressed with links to more detailed information and resources.

Week of 11/25: Gratitude

Both the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at Berkeley and Harvard Medical School have conducted research on the benefits of gratitude. This research demonstrates that people who feel and express gratitude regularly lead happier, more meaningful lives and build resilience that helps them manage their responses to challenges they face. As we enter into the Thanksgiving season, it can be reassuring to recognize that gratitude can be daily a practice in our lives. In "Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier" researchers at Harvard observe "gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power." At the Greater Good Science Center, researchers have focused on the value of fostering gratitude in schools. At a "gratitude summit," sponsored by GGSC, two presentations in particular addressed this topic. In "How Can We Cultivate Gratitude in School," Giacomo Bono, Ph.D. describes the Youth Gratitude Project, which documents the practices and benefits of gratitude. In "How Parents Can Foster Gratitude in Kids," Andrea Hussong, Ph.D. outlines steps developed in her research that offer practical parenting advice aimed at making gratitude a part of children's lives. Click on the titles to watch their presentations.

Research Roundup Archive:


11/18: Student Health and Well-being

  • Each year, the students in the Peer-to-Peer program sponsor a week of activities to highlight the importance of mental health awareness. Called "Love your Mind", these activities provide an opportunity for students to both speak and learn about issues that they face as they negotiate the multiple demands of a school like Westridge (see news story above). As psychologist Lisa Damour asserts, managing the inevitable stress generated at school allows students to maximize their learning and increase their resilience. A study conducted at the Laurel Center for Research on Girls identifies strategies for aligning achievement and well-being with recommendations for parents, teachers, and students. At the heart of all these recommendations lies the need for open, authentic, and supportive relationships as a source of strength through the unavoidable ups and downs of school. Read more about the study here.

11/11: Technology and Student Well-being

  • Parents often express concern about the role of technology on student well-being. Tablets, smart phones, and laptops allow instant access to the world of the internet, with all the benefits and liabilities that this access entails. Common Sense Media provides a wealth of information for parents, educators, and students to help negotiate the rapidly changing world of technology, entertainment, and social media. Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, focuses on the health-related effects of technology in her article "How Does Technology Affect Teen Health and Well-being?" Citing a variety of research from the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, Orem identifies some of the beneficial and harmful aspects of access to technology. She concludes, "To harness the good and protect against those unintended consequences that could be harmful to children, leaders, educators, and parents alike need to follow research, engage in active discussions, and develop policies and practices that allow students the room for growth while keeping them safe." Read her full article here.

11/4: How the Arts Build Self-Esteem, Achievement, and Cognitive Skills

  • The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley collects, creates, and distributes science-based research that supports the healthy development of children. In addition to ground-breaking research on mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude, the center reviews factors that contribute to increased self-esteem. A recent study in England used data from a longitudinal project that has followed a group of over 18,000 children from their birth in 2000-2001 to the present. The researchers found that engagement and participation in the arts, including music, visual arts, and reading for pleasure were correlated with higher self-esteem, achievement, and cognitive skills. Engagement and participation, rather than expertise, played a crucial role in building self-esteem among the children. Students at Westridge are fortunate to have extensive opportunities to engage in the arts, and these opportunities are fundamental to the mission and purpose of the school. Read more about the study from the Greater Good Science Center here. Read the study in its entirety here.


10/28: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

  • On Monday, October 21, the entire faculty and staff engaged in a day of professional development with the guidance of Elizabeth Denevi, Ph.D., an expert of issues of diversity and equity, with a focus on independent schools. Dr. Denevi presented a variety of research studies that have demonstrated that all students in diverse schools demonstrate higher levels of achievement in academic performance, critical thinking, and collaboration. She began by helping the faculty and staff gain a common vocabulary and deeper understanding of diversity that includes but is not limited to race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, religion, and ability. Denevi approached the challenging topic of implicit bias as an impediment to student achievement in a way that encouraged self-reflection and exploration of opportunities to create a more culturally responsive curriculum. Since inclusion is a core value of Westridge, the school will continue to seek to identify and implement practices that enhance the achievement of all students. Additional information on diversity, equity, and inclusion can be found in the follow resources: "Diversity in the Classroom" (UCLA), "The Importance of Multicultural Education" (Geneva Gay), and the College Board publication "Researching the Educational Benefits of Diversity" (Emily Shaw.)

10/21: Range

  • David Epstein's new book, Range, argues that generalists, rather than specialists, are best poised to succeed in this evolving world. This premise undermines the value of early specialization as the path to success. As students seek to gain advantage by specializing early, they lose the flexibility of thought required to adapt to new situations. Epstein begins with clear examples where early specialization yields powerful results, including chess prodigies and Tiger Woods. By contrast, the research of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests that experts in a field are often less adept at solving problems than others. Epstein locates the difference between these two perspectives in the domain, rather than the individual or approach. Some domains are "kind" and reward pattern-recognition and repeated practice. Early specialization can be valuable in these domains. Other domains are "wicked" and resist easy standardization. Epstein argues that the domains of the present and future are more likely to be "wicked" than "kind." Breadth of knowledge and flexibility in thinking are better preparation for success in such domains. As students choose courses and career paths, it can be reassuring to know that deferring early specialization can be an asset that benefits them in the long run.

10/14: Transcending Limits in Learning and Life

  • Jo Boaler, Ph.D., author of Mathematical Mindsets and expert on mathematics education, has expanded the context of her research to include learning in all disciplines. Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live without Barriers, her recently published book, builds on the growth mindset research of Carol Dweck and identifies six keys to unlocking the potential in every learner. According to Boaler, these keys "create opportunities for people to excel in the learning of different subjects, but they also empower them to approach life in a different way." Beginning with advances in neuroscientific research, she outlines the importance of mindset, making mistakes, approaching content through multiple lenses, thinking flexibly, and collaborating. Boaler's revolutionary research shatters the notion that minds are limited and offers strategies for achieving any goal. Watch her TED talk on learning math here.

10/7: Parenting as Gardening

  • At the end of Candide's journey pursuing truth and enlightenment, Voltaire's Candide concludes with the simple sentence "Il faut cultiver notre jardin"–we must cultivate our garden. Alison Gopnik, psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied child development and parenting throughout her career, would agree. Her research has led her to construct two models of parenting, the carpenter and the gardener. The carpenter believes that "if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult." By contrast, the gardener seeks to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem." Gopnik links the carpenter model to increased levels of stress and anxiety in both children and parents. Like all dichotomies, these models oversimplify a complex process, but schools can also learn from the distinction. Schools can also be carpenters or gardeners in providing educational opportunities. Read an article/interview with Alison Gopnik here, or dive more deeply into her research by reading her book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children.


9/30: Developing a Sense of Purpose

  • Research on adolescent development has demonstrated the benefits of having a sense of purpose. Purpose, in this context, has both an internal and an external dimension. Purposeful work leads to both personal satisfaction and the accomplishment of a goal beyond one's own individual pursuits. Developing a sense of purpose contributes to both psychological and physical health. A recent study found that having a sense of purpose differs by age group. For middle school students, for example, this study found that a sense of purpose involved forming connections with others and being empathic. High school students, by contrast, searched for a role to pursue their sense of purpose. These findings provide important direction for schools and parents as we seek to support the development of purpose at each stage of growth. The research also tracks the development of purpose for later adolescents and young adults. Read the study "Adolescent Purpose Development: Exploring Empathy, Discovering Roles, Shifting Priorities, and Creating Pathways" here.

9/23: Making Caring Common

  • Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor concluded her convocation remarks by highlighting the goal of "making caring common." Her words echo the name of a research project based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education committed to "raising kids who care about others and the common good." Empathy forms the basis for perspective-taking and connection, crucial factors in equipping students with the disposition to do good, while acquiring the skills to do well. In its original research report, "Turning the Tide," Making Caring Common recommended key changes in the college admissions process that highlight character as well as achievement. In its most recent report, "Turning the Tide II," the researchers have turned their focus to the roles of schools and families in advancing these goals. Read their recommendations for helping schools create a caring community founded on empathy here. To read the report on how schools and parents can "cultivate ethical character and reduce distress in the college admissions process," click here.

9/16: Active Learning

  • An ancient Chinese proverb says "I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand." A variation attributed to Benjamin Franklin says "Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn." Both proverbs emphasize the value of what is now called "project-based learning." A recent study at Harvard tested the wisdom expressed in these sayings in an introductory physics class. The experiment led to two significant, yet distinct findings. The same material was taught to two groups, one using the traditional lecture format and the other using project-based learning. As the proverbs would have predicted, the students scored higher on assessments if they used the project-based approach. Perhaps the more important finding was that the students reported feeling that they had learned more in the lecture format. So, the perception of learning in this case is contrary to the actual learning. Hearing a well-delivered lecture creates a perception of learning, but doing an experiment leads to greater understanding. Appreciating the value of project-based educational strategies must also overcome the false perception that lectures are the best route to learning and understanding. Read an article about the study here, and read the full study here.
9/9: Empathy and Connection

  • In her convocation address, Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor highlighted the importance of empathy and connection as key factors contributing to the development of children. As themes for the year, these concepts will help shape the direction of Westridge throughout the year. Educational and psychological research, especially recent research, has documented the benefits of empathy for students. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and parenting expert, writes, "Empathy—or the ability to understand others' feelings and needs—is also the foundation of a safe, caring, and inclusive learning climate. Students with high levels of empathy display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, and better communication skills (Jones et al., 2014). Empathy reduces aggression, boosts prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg, Eggum, & DiGiunta, 2010) and may be our best antidote to bullying and racism (Santos et al., 2011)." Dr. Borba's book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, documents two decades of research on the benefits of empathy. Watch her TED talk "Empathy is a verb" here.

9/2: Back to School Tips from Challenge Success

  • Challenge Success, a research-based program at Stanford University takes a leading role in helping teachers, parents, and students redefine success in ways that reflect the importance of reflection, balance, and student well-being. Moving beyond a narrow definition of success in purely academic terms, Challenge Success seeks to foster practices and policies that create meaningful and enduring learning experiences for developing children. Part of their mission statement reads, "We all want our kids to do well in school and to master certain skills and concepts, but our largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life—the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical, and engaged critical thinkers. Our work helps to foster learners who are healthy, motivated, and prepared for the wide variety of tasks they will face as adults." At Westridge, we seek to negotiate the challenges of supporting students' academic achievement with an awareness of the importance of social and emotional development through programs such as homeroom, Council, advisory, and human development. Challenge Success has compiled a set of recommendations for getting the school year off to a good start. Read their recommendations here.

An independent, forward-thinking
day school for girls, grades 4–12

324 Madeline Drive
Pasadena, California 91105
Phone: 626-799-1153
Fax: 626-799-9236
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