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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1997 Issue #45

by Lon Woodbury

What is a Transition School? 
Why are they needed? 
Who are they for? 
What would be unique about them?

These were some of the questions bandied around at one of the sessions of the recent Small Boarding Schools Association (SBSA) meeting at Lynchburg, Virginia, March 13-15, 1997. 

The discussion began with a question about where graduates of long term high structure, high intervention Schools (referred to as therapeutic boarding schools at SBSA and as Emotional Growth Schools in this newsletter) should go to continue their education. 

Several boarding schools represented at the session said they had tried enrolling some of these graduates. Most of the rest did not feel they could meet the needs of “this kind of kids.” Of those who had tried enrolling some of the graduates, some failures were mentioned. In many ways, I think the discussion was very healthy. Although there were no real answers or consensus developed, the issue was joined by representatives of both traditional boarding schools and of emotional growth schools and programs. I hope the discussion will continue, in future issues of this newsletter as well as elsewhere. 

The idea of transition schools/programs for these graduates is not new. Emotional Growth schools and programs have long searched out schools for their graduates which seem to have more structure and more nurturing than most. This selection has been for those graduates who are not quite ready for home or the freedom of traditional schooling. In addition, many Emotional Growth schools and programs have developed their own programs to “transition” graduates back to mainstream society. 

That the issue of transition schools is still being discussed and debated is proof to me there is as of yet no generally accepted solution(s). And, a solution(s) is more important than ever due to the increased number of emotional growth school graduates needing a school with less structure than an emotional growth school, but more structure than is found in typical schooling, both public and private. (Cont. next column) Although the issue of “transition” schools was joined at Lynchburg, in my view there was little meeting of the minds. It seemed to me this was due to a loose definition of terms which virtually everybody fell into. I’ll use two examples. 

“These kinds of kids.” In the context it was used at Lynchburg, this term suggests there is something inherently “different” about these graduates as compared with other kids While this might be true with some of these children, in my experience it misrepresents most emotional growth school graduates. Sometimes the only difference is whether or not the parents intervened. For example, the child who is a substance abuser in high school and gets away with it, is not likely to be any different than the child who abuses substances and is sent to a program by his/her parents for an attitude adjustment. One possible difference, so far as the more traditional boarding school’s perspective, might be that the child of the parents who intervened will be more likely to stay away from drugs. 

“Therapeutic boarding schools.” In my view, the use of the term “therapeutic” was over-expanded at Lynchburg to include almost any school that deals with children with virtually any kind of inappropriate behavior. A couple of dictionary definitions (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., 1993) might help bring the discussion back to some precision. Therapeutics: a branch of medical science dealing with the application of remedies to diseases. Therapeutic: 1. Of or relating to the treatment of disease or disorders by remedial agents or methods. 2. Providing or assisting in a cure. Therapy: therapeutic treatment esp. of bodily, mental or behavioral disorder. 

The dictionary emphasis is on disease, cure and treatment. When “therapeutic” is used with this very broad definition, everybody gets confused because it lumps the addicted kid in with the one who only does social substance abuse, in with the kid who has a chemical imbalance, in the with the kid who is confused by a dysfunctional family, in with the kid who is full blown bi-polar, in with the kid with an attitude. The terms “these kinds of kids” and “therapeutic boarding schools” hides the wide diversity existing in the graduates of those intense and highly-structured schools we were discussing. These children deserve more individualized attention and decision- making on the part of adults. 

It is a truism that half the solution to a problem is a well- defined problem statement. When the problem is ill-defined, by over-generalizing terminology, it is difficult, and perhaps virtually impossible to develop a solution(s) that is effective. The actual kid gets lost in the label.

In this newsletter, I use the term “Emotional Growth” because in these speciality schools, the common theme is that at one time their graduates needed help in “growing up!”, and that is why they were enrolled in the first place. Some needed formal “therapeutics” to accomplish this, but many others just needed the structure to learn consequences and learn how to make positive decisions. For these kids who did not need “therapeutics,” the main problem is they didn’t learn the lessons they should have while growing up, and have a distorted view of how the world works. Their education in “character” did not take for whatever reason. In many ways (but not necessarily all), they are emotionally immature and need to be guided back through that growing up process by a highly structured environment. In other words, they need to be “re- parented”, rather than cured. 

As a friend of mine once said, “Some children just need to be heard, not cured.” Staff in all schools need to sharpen their skills in listening to these children, and recognize their needs and problems are very diverse. Failure to transition any one kid is more likely to reflect a listening problem, than it is any general inability to work with “these kinds of kids.” 

Copyright © 1997, 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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