Head of School Matthew Gould delivered his annual back-to-remarks as parents gathered on September 14 (Middle School) and September 21 (Lower School). His focus this year was on the continued theme of "rediscovering community" and supporting children not just academically but by helping them to develop key executive function skills.

Welcome and good evening! It is great to see everyone and officially “kick off” another year. On a personal note, I am so honored to be launching my tenth year as Norwood’s head of school. I continue to find incredible joy in this work, and find great pride in this community that works so hard to provide the very best education and experience for the children in our care.

Over my years working in schools, I know that no two years are ever the same and, after living through the COVID-19 pandemic at Norwood, I can say that is sometimes a good thing. While we navigated through that year and a half with some dexterity, it is fair to say that the pandemic had a pretty profound effect on our school, our teachers, our families, and, of course, our children.

Rediscovering Community

That is why last year, the first “normal” year following the pandemic, we chose the theme of Rediscovering Community as our North Star for planning and prioritization. Rediscovering Community will continue to be a huge priority for us this year as we head into the 2023-2024 school year. Because what we learned from the years of social isolation is that there has been a deterioration of social skills muscles. As we emerge into a fall that seems far more normal than in recent years, we continue to need to relearn our social skills together.

I’ve heard more than one friend say that they have lost the art of small talk. Like any muscle, this is one that needs to be exercised or it will atrophy. We all understand the value of human connection, but we had to be creative over recent years with our social interactions – cocktail-hour Zooms, long text chains with our friends, and engagement in more isolating activities, like hiking, reading, and binge-watching Netflix series in our living rooms. But the value of face-to-face interactions can never be replaced.

Certainly, in-person relationships involve many inefficiencies: hanging out for hours on end; buying and preparing food and drinks for people we may not click with; travelling to unfamiliar places or homes at appointed times, even when we’re not in the mood. But it is clear that human connection is the key to both mental and physical health.

As educators, we know this. We struggled mightily during the summer of 2020 to ensure that students could return to campus in the fall of 2020. But that fall, that is exactly what we did – we brought our community back! We moved classes outside, we invested in new HVAC systems, we lined up weekly COVID testing, we wore our masks, we measured the distance between desks. We did this because we know that human connection does not thrive in a virtual world. Those were hard years, but we made it through.

So, now, even though the pandemic is farther in the rearview mirror and becoming a more distant memory, my message to all of us – faculty, families, students – let’s not undervalue the power of community. We thrive in community. Let’s use this year to celebrate where we have arrived together.

Goals for the Evening

Shifting gears…I want to talk about my goals for this evening. My goals for the evening are two-fold. On the one hand, I want to provide a broad, philosophical perspective on the value of a Norwood School education. On the other hand, I want to illustrate how that broad philosophy gets put into practice in the classrooms each and every day at Norwood School. Hopefully, this broad perspective will prove informative as you move into the classrooms and hear from our teachers about specific grade-level curriculum, procedures, and programs. After my talk tonight, you’ll have the opportunity to visit with your child’s teachers. This, of course, is where a Norwood School education unfolds – in that critical relationship between our teachers and their students.

Educational Vision

As tonight is an education night, I really want to talk to you a little bit about what’s on my mind educationally and about some of the things that will inform our work with your children this year. Of course, providing an exceptional academic program for each and every student at Norwood School is a huge priority of us. That means challenging every student to stretch in their academic abilities and to make sure our students are excelling in all areas of their curriculum.

While our goal is always to provide a top-notch curriculum, we never forget our whole-child philosophy in which students are not only stretched in their academic abilities. Norwood School is, and will always be, a place where the social, emotional, physical, and character development of children are considered critical. Norwood is a place where kids can be kids, where they can be comfortable in who they are, and where they can find joy in the learning process. The marriage between CHALLENGE and SUPPORT is the hallmark of a Norwood School education.

Executive Function: Teaching Children How to Learn

In addition, one of the things we want to do at Norwood is teach children how to learn. In many ways, teaching students the skills of how to learn is as important as the content itself. One of the things that has been on my mind of late, and perhaps it’s a by-product of the pandemic – I am worried about our children’s executive functions skills. I think it’s something worth addressing as a school.  I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole here, but I am going to get just slightly technical.

So, what are executive functions? One definition is that executive functions are the directive capacities of the mind. I prefer the notion that executive functions are the “CEO of the Brain” – they tell all the other parts of the brain what to do.

In just a second, I am going to run through what neurologists consider the 11 key executive function skills. And, again, I don’t want this talk to be overly technical or academic, but it turns out that these skills are really important. The research is definitive on this: these 11 executive function skills are critical for school success. In fact, the research shows that these skills are way more important than IQ and way more important than standardized tests.

So, what are they? I will run through them quite quickly, but I think you’ll get the gist.
  1. Response inhibition – the capacity to think before you act. This is what preschool is all about. Our PK and K (and, often middle school) teachers are masters of helping our students work through this.
  2. Working memory – holding onto one thought as you are processing another. For example, as emerging readers sound out a long sentence, remembering what the beginning of the sentence was all about by the end of the sentence while, at the same time, sounding out the words in the sentence.
  3. Emotional control – the ability to manage emotions to achieve goals.
  4. Sustained attention – Can you pay attention even when it’s boring? It’s an incredibly important skill that we use all the time when we encounter new or complex information.
  5. Task initiation
  6. Planning/prioritization
  7. Organization
  8. Time management – the capacity to estimate how much time one has and how to allocate it.
  9. Goal-directed persistence – I wanted to pause on this for just one second because it may be my favorite, and it’s something I believe is so important for life success. I have also found, personally, this has been an area of challenge for me as a parent as I have worked hard to manage my own emotions as I’ve watched my own children struggle with something in their own lives. But what I’ve learned is that while it’s painful to watch our own children struggle; helping my kids help themselves are some of my best parenting moments.

    I read an interesting study this summer about “grit” – essentially the idea of persistence. The study was done with first-year students at West Point Military Academy, which graduates about 25% of the officers in the U.S. Army. Admission to West Point depends upon something called the Whole Candidate Score – a composite of SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability, and physical aptitude. In this study, first year cadets were given a grit questionnaire meant to measure the cadet’s performance on certain tasks. Amazingly, the grit questionnaire was a far superior predictor of graduation rates at West Point than the Whole Candidate Score. So, to me, more and more, it’s clear that success comes to those who hang in, who get back up after getting knocked down, and who try harder and try longer.
Finally, wrapping up the executive function skills…
  1. Flexibility
  2. Metacognition - being able to think about one’s own thinking.
As I think about these executive function skills, what I know is that there are things we can do at school that are helpful. Because executive function skills can be learned as long as kids are given strategies:

- How to begin to tackle a reading comprehension passage or really tough math problem
- Utilizing specific study skills such as note-taking, outlining, and organizing
- Time management (use of planners; calendars; schedules; and regular, predictable routines)
- Regular feedback on work
- High expectations with a growth mindset; helping kids internalize, “I can do it!”

It’s an exciting time to be an educator because we know more than ever how to support kids in these areas.

Are executive function skills diminishing in our students? The research is unclear, but since the pandemic it seems to me that they are. I think we should be worried about this. So, if it’s true that these skills are diminishing, a question could be, “why?” I don’t know, but I worry about…

Screen Time and Social Media Usage
I am worried about the amount of screen time and social media access our kids have. We know that time in front of screens changes the brain chemistry of children. That’s a fact. Whether this is okay or not, I don’t fully know, but it makes me worried.

Sleep  – I also worry that our kids are not getting enough sleep. The Mayo Clinic recommends 10-11 hours of sleep/night for elementary aged kids. I know for myself that when I’m tired, my executive skills suffer. I’m less organized; I’m less able to manage my emotions, etc.

Unstructured Play/Free Time
And, finally, I’m worried that our kids aren’t getting enough time for unstructured play. I think there is a lot to be said for free play in the development of executive function skills. As kids negotiate their free time, they learn important executive function skills.

So, these are just some of the ideas on my mind this fall.

Final Thoughts

It's going to be a great year. We are going to provide a top-notch academic experience for your children. We are going to put a premium on connection and community.

I meandered through several topics tonight, but mostly what I want to say tonight is “thank you!” Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting Norwood School and, in turn, supporting your children. Thank you for your trust. I, of course, believe that students are very fortunate to receive a Norwood School education. However, I also believe that we are so lucky to have you, our parents, as part of our school community. You bring so much to us.

Thank you and enjoy!

    Located in Bethesda, MD, Norwood School develops students in grades PK-8 into confident lifelong learners who have the academic, character, and leadership skills to succeed in high school and beyond. Recognizing that children are multi-faceted, Norwood provides many opportunities for safe risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and growth in a nurturing, supportive, and inclusive school community.