First-time boarders find their feet in their new homes

2014-01-22 00:00

THERE was a mood of expectation in the light, homely dorms at Cordwalles Prep School yesterday afternoon, as new boys and their parents unpacked before the rest of the boarders arrived.

“This is a brand new experience for the whole family,” bubbled grandmother Lynn Lott, who had accompanied her daughter Charlene, grandson Kai and six-week-old granddaughter on the 18-hour journey from Zambia. Kai, in Grade Five, looked relaxed as he helped his mother unpack, but she confessed to having “mixed emotions”.

Across the room Aphiwe Ngwenya, “nearly 11”, looked on solemnly as his mother, Nomfundo Ncoyi, fussed over his belongings. “It’s his first time away from mummy,” she said excitedly.

As the last wave of private schools opened, many parents and children were bracing themselves for separation, as first-time boarders went off to their new homes. For most, this means a period — up to three weeks — of no contact at all with home. Some schools allow limited cellphone use but others enforce complete separation as a way of speeding up the settling-in phase.

Cordwalles housemother Sue Warr said she treats any homesickness with “lots of hugs and some Rescue Remedy”. Teary moms have to find their own remedies. One mother of a Grade Eight boy who went into boarding this week described feeling “heartsore”.

“For the first 10 days you spend a lot of time just feeling sad, until you know how they are,” said homeopath Georgina Makris, whose second son started at Hilton College on Monday.

As at many schools with boarding establishments, Grade Eights at Hilton are not allowed any contact with home for the first two weeks. Makris said this was easier to bear with the second child because “you know what to expect”. She said boys’ schools seemed to be stricter about the no-contact rule.

Leanne Jarvel, whose daughter Julia started boarding at Epworth last week, said the family was able to see her at school after a week and she was “fine”, but having an older brother already boarding at Kearsney had made the transition easier. “She knew how things worked so it wasn’t too foreign.”

Having both children away from home was “not nice,” she said. “As a mother you don’t want to do it, but they’re very happy.”

At Epworth and St Anne’s Diocesan School the girls have some access to phones in the first 10 days and they can call home. “We used to take them away completely but we found that was more stressful,” said Joan Mauck, deputy head in charge of boarding and pastoral care.

She said the timeless aspect of boarding is the “letting go of old relationships and developing new ones”, but social media has changed things. “In the old days the boarders lived a life apart, but now they can bring their friends in. At first we restrict access to social media and encourage the girls to use the social structures at school.

“Any change of this nature is difficult,” said Mauck. “Leaving home is difficult, becoming a teenager is difficult.” She said the school devotes a lot of attention to the transition, with a solid orientation programme, mentoring, and talks from the school counsellor and chaplain.

Clinical psychologist Bev Killian said the main preparation for a child being able to cope with boarding school is “having a very secure attachment with their parents, and a full understanding of why they are going. If they feel like they’re being dumped this can have negative consequences.”

She doesn’t like the no-contact-with-home rule.

The best strategy for coping was for the child to be prepared. “It’s hardest for mothers. Not being able to make contact with your child can be very stressful.”

She urged mothers who were battling to tidy. “De-cluttering does make you feel better. It gives you a focus on something else.”

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