Parents ask me many questions about how to determine the best fit for their child when searching for a Therapeutic Boarding School or Residential Treatment Facility. I specialize in placing kids for whom it is more difficult to find placement, transfer cases, or long-term options, so I am taking this opportunity to offer some general guidelines for determining if a school or program is the right one for a troubled teen, pre-teen, or young adult.
Does the Program Accept Unwilling Students? Is Your Student Willing to Go?
Some programs do not accept a student who is unwilling to enter a program under their own power, or who may need restraint for anger or aggression toward himself or others, or who present a high risk for running away. Once a plan is in place to enroll your child in a therapeutic boarding school or residential treatment program, will they attend willingly? How resistant to attempts for treatment will he or she be, once enrolled? Is he or she currently a runaway risk? If so, how do you plan to get them to a program?
Some programs are more equipped with staffing and services and able to accept those who are unwilling, or who come by transport services, or against their will. A teen does not necessarily need to be willing in order to enter some programs, so make sure the program you choose is staffed for what your child needs, and understands his level of resistance to being placed.
How Does the Program Handle Academic Progress for Your Student? Is the School Accredited?
Are academics a high priority for you? Be careful about letting your fears regarding your child’s academic progress get in the way of seeing his or her immediate needs clearly. You will need to keep at the forefront the more pressing problem of your child’s current emotional and behavioral health, at least for the short-term. Many parents are concerned about their child’s academic progress, but fail to recognize that their child’s current inability to manage their emotional stress will most likely prevent them from succeeding in any academic progress at all until it is properly addressed. Therapy gives teenagers the tools they need to manage their emotional stress and think more clearly, after which they will most likely see academics in a more positive light.
That being said, many programs do offer excellent academic programs that will allow your teenager to succeed once they are in a better state of mind. In general, a therapeutic boarding school approaches academics by offering a flexible style of coursework that allows a student to recover credits if they are behind, or work ahead if a student is academically gifted.
Schools often use a combination of curriculum options –including online coursework supplemented by teacher assistance and tutoring, a self-paced workbook format, traditional classroom instruction in an on-campus school, grade forgiveness for subjects already studied, experiential learning credits, or graduation by success with the GED. Most therapeutic boarding schools offer open or semi-open enrollment periods – which allows for more flexibility in placing a student in a program.
Be sure the program you choose can offer accredited academics, and that the coursework will be accepted in the high school from which your student will graduate, if not completing high school while in a program.
What are the General Grounds for Dismissal in the Program?
Programs that do a better job of sorting out who they can and cannot help are, in my opinion, better programs. Asking a program what a student must do in order to be dismissed from their program may help you understand where the line for unacceptable behaviors in their program is drawn. Do they dismiss a student who runs away once, twice, more often? What if a student simply refuses chores or schoolwork, displays aggression, or exhibits inappropriate sexual behavior. And if your child is at that line already, or over it – it’s probably not a good fit.
Find out what level of behavioral disruption a program is capable of managing well, and ask them to describe situations in the past where a student has been dismissed. Ask how many students have left in the last year without completing or graduating their program.
In general, a higher level of student to staff ratio and ongoing staff training means a program can accept a child needing a higher level of supervision for problem behaviors.
Does the Program Offer Experiential Therapy or Outdoor Activities?
Many programs provide extra experiential therapies as part of their offerings. Hiking, kayaking, climbing, camping, horseback-riding, and other outdoor activities may play a central role in the therapy your child may receive. If you think your child will do better in an outdoor experiential program, then you’ll want to look for programs that incorporate therapy into their daily outdoor activities. Ask what your child will do outside of schoolwork and daily chores, you may be pleasantly surprised!
Since treatment is more the focus than anything else, many therapeutic schools do not provide organized sports as part of their program, but some do allow your student to participate in organized sports. More often, students participate in an intramural-style program, using sports and activity as a focus for physical and mental fitness, for learning teamwork, and building character.