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News & Views - Aug, 1995 Issue #35 

From 21 Days to 21 Plus Months:
What is Success and How Long Does It Take?
Part One
A Short-Term Wilderness-Based Program
Outward Bound's Ascent
207-594-5548
by: Anne Lewis, MA, Child Development & Clinical Psychology
Educational Consultant 
Santa Barbara, Calif. 
805-969-9225

In visits from Maine to California and Montana to Georgia, I've looked for the linchpins of special purpose programs. What is the essence of their success? How do they achieve what family and home counseling couldn't? 

I took the parent's point of view. As Andrew Hernandez, hip and experienced high school principal, expressed it, "You may give hope to other people who are going through similar things." Sometimes only a parent can understand what another parent is experiencing. I asked the questions parents want answered: What is the program really about? Who's in it? How long do the kids stay? How much does it cost? Do the changes last? 

Like Outward Bound's standard course, Ascent, a 24-day program for 14 to 17 year-old at-risk students, provides increasingly difficult challenges in the wilderness. 

Jane Rankin, Head of Student Services at the Hurricane Island School in Maine, said Ascent is designed for youth who are experiencing behavioral or relationship problems and making poor choices in their lives. 

The specific profile of a child appropriate for enrollment in Ascent includes those who underachieve, lack a hardy sense of self, run away, are truant, verbally belligerent or chronically late for school. ADD and ADHD are common diagnoses. Some of the students have committed criminal mischievousness, but nothing involving felony charges. Many have had problems sustaining long-term friendships with peers. 

Ascent is a good choice for students with adjustment difficulties stemming from losses such as divorce, re-marriage, adoption, or a family death. Abused students are also appropriate candidates. Ascent is not the place for a person with a pattern of violent behavior or those currently addicted to drugs or alcohol. It's not appropriate for students with severe learning problems. 

Regan Nickels of the Hurricane Island office said many parents want their children to be in the standard program with the "good kids" and don't convey the extent of their children's turmoil. Parents should be forthright. As Regan added, "In both the standard course and Ascent, they're all teenagers at heart." 

For at-risk students 18-years and over, Debbie Lupien, experienced and knowledgeable Ascent Advisor, recommended a standard Outward Bound course which is geared towards a younger age group, perhaps those 16-years and up. This works well because at-risk 18-year-olds are generally late bloomers and can fit in well with the younger students. 

Ascent trips are limited to back packing and canoeing outings in Maine and Florida, canoeing in Minnesota, and desert and alpine mountaineering explorations in California. These settings combine the desired rigor of the out-of-doors with the predictability and space needed by young people already in turmoil. 

I was surprised that Ascent does not include sailing among its choices, especially in light of the success sailing rehabilitation programs have had with at-risk youth. 

Debbie cited the potential difficulty of living with 8 to 10 other students and three instructors on small boats, in fact sleeping on the oars, while learning the skill of sailing. If a student needs personal space for reflection or to cool down, it can't be provided in these close quarters. 

The Ascent teams are a little smaller than those on the standard course: up to 10 students and two or three instructors comprise a team. Most Ascent Instructors have a background in education or counseling, although some are just naturally good with young people. They have experience with at-risk youth and continue in-service training throughout their employment. And they find a special gratification in working with at-risk young people. 

Generally it's not the young people who come up with the idea of spending 24 days of their summer vacation in the wilderness. Calls usually come from parents who heard about Ascent from other parents, therapists, or school personnel. According to Debbie, "Most kids would prefer going to the beach. In the wilderness, there's no music, no electronic gadgets. Going to the wilderness is scary for them." It is a real stretch to say, "yes I'll go." 

Debbie's job is to assess their level of willingness to attend. After receiving completed written applications, she conducts separate telephone interviews with parents and students. In the student interview, she said, "I ask myself,' is there an open door?' If not, if the kid's completely resistant, he or she will be set up for failure at Ascent and avoid any responsibility for it by saying "It wasn't my idea to go." For kids who have a history of failure, another one isn't in their best interest. 

Parents worry about what their son or daughter will say when an advisor like Debbie talks to them. Parents take heart. She doesn't reject students based on one phone conversation. She explains the program, and if a student is unwilling to commit at that time, she calls back in a week or two. Experience has shown her there may be a shift in attitude after students have had a chance to mull over what she's said. But, ultimately, the student must make the choice about whether or not to attend. Making that choice is crucial to the potential success of the experience. 

Debbie also considers the welfare of other students in the program. One student's resistance can sour everybody's experience. Once on the course, instructors work with students to complete it, but if they're really resistant, students are sent home. 

If the kid says "no" after the second telephone interview, a medical rejection is recommended. Ascent does not accept students brought in with an escort or under false pretenses. Debbie said, "Ascent is a program at a school and not a treatment center." 

If you're working with a child who should benefit from an Ascent program, who doesn't want to go, Debbie recommends having the parents stand back and take a look at the possible sources of the resistance. Where is the worry coming from? Don't try to persuade students to go by making the program seem something it isn't. Parents, counselors, and consultants should be honest. Debbie said incentives can help, but they should be appropriate. It's not uncommon for children to ask, "What will you pay me to do this?" 

Debbie says this is a part of a 1990's mentality, but it's couching incentive in the wrong terms. The point is, "What can you earn?" 

Parents might let their kids earn back privileges. Or they could consider granting privileges the kids want, but haven't demonstrated the maturity to handle. Driving is a prime incentive. If the student can show commitment and follow-through by completing the course, driving privileges could be re-instated or parents could reward the child with a driver's education course. 

If a student starts the course and doesn't complete it, there should be consequences. Delaying driving privileges have proven especially effective. 

Sometimes incentives slip into coercion. Although not advocated by Ascent, parents actually have offered cars: "My folks are giving me $3000.00 to buy a car if I finish the course." 

Whether or not there are tangible incentives at home, every student who completes an Ascent course gets something more valuable than any material reward. Twenty-four days in the wilderness is long enough for students to focus on themselves. When they finish Debbie said they have an experience which they: 

1.)  Learned to do themselves, no one did it for them. 
2.)  Can't be minimized 
3.)  Won't be forgotten It's theirs forever 
4.) Was accomplished by giving strength to others and gaining strength in cooperation with others. 

Back home, Debbie described a period of 2 or 3 days after completing the course as being on a "pink cloud." Students feel confident and a renewed sense of self worth. 

If they return to the same family dynamics which existed before Ascent, the new behavior is unlikely to stick. In order to get their basic needs met, the kids will pick up the old behavior. "If there are no changes, there will be no changes." Family support after completion of the course is crucial. 

To provide a bridge between Ascent and home, the program ends with a mandatory 2-day parent-guardian seminar. First parents receive an overview of the experiences their children have had on the course. Then they hear ways to support their children at home. As Debbie said, "If the parents don't change and give support, it's too difficult for the kids to maintain their changes." Regan added, "If the students return home and are judged by the same people and told 'you haven't changed enough,' it's twice the blow for the student it would have been without the Ascent intervention, and may be worse than if they hadn't gone." 

At the end of the seminar the child's instructor facilitates a mediation session between the child and parent. Instructors are advocates for the children, but the mediation sessions are not one-sided. Students are told if behavior parents described as causing problems in the family was observable on the course. Honest instructor feedback helps students and parents see themselves accurately. 

Parents and students each state how they want things to be when they get back home. With the help of the instructor, compromises are reached and a contract is written which incorporates the child's goals for the future. This meeting can be growth-producing for all. 

Enrollment in a structured boarding school immediately following Ascent may effectively minimize recidivism and give the student a genuine fresh start. 

And, yes, students can have too much of a good thing. Regan said some families are so inspired by their children's progress , they immediately enroll them in additional Outward Bound courses. Don't. Once a summer is enough. "This is intense." 

Many families haven't made such a large emotional and financial investment in a child as the one required by Ascent's tuition of approximately $2,400 or $100 per day. While it is a lot of money, Ascent is among the least expensive interventions I've explored. According to Debbie, because Outward Bound is a non-profit corporation, between 20 and 30% of expenses are paid from contributions. 

Scholarships are available. Families should apply for financial aid if they cannot afford the tuition. Debbie stressed that families considering Ascent have already borne more financial burdens than average families. Students have required counseling and often medication. Few are only children, so the parents must consider how they allocate family finances among brothers and sisters. 

One last thought from Debbie: "We're running out of wilderness." Students in Ascent and the standard Outward bound Course focus on themselves, but they also become stewards of a finite wilderness. 

So what is success? Regan Nickels said the instructors at Ascent consider the program a success if it "gives students tools for self-reflection which they can use when they return to their homes." Students complete something they never thought they could and are part of the same thing for others. Small successes on the course give confidence for tackling larger challenges. The process translates into "I can do it". Students finish with a swim and a marathon which leads to the waiting arms of their families. From here on, the family helps their child transfer Ascent's success to life at home and beyond. 

Copyright 1995, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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