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News & Views - Jun, 1997 Issue #46


by: A. Michael DeSisto, Ex. Dir.
Stockbridge, Massachusetts

An important thing to know about The DeSisto School is that it began as a traditional third-rate boarding school and evolved over time into what it is now. We had no model; our School was never meant to be what it has become. We looked for answers to what we recognized as problems within our program, and one of the most important solutions we came up with is a very strong parent program. Though other schools also have parent programs, we believe ours to be unique from several different perspectives. 

Participation in our Parent Program is both required and essential and provides an opportunity for parents to work and grow in a positive peer group atmosphere, to learn how the School works experientially, and to become familiar with the philosophy which informs our approach. We came to the realization that the only reason children get terminated from institutions is that they, the children, make the institution feel impotent. One of the more serious crimes a child can commit is to cause adults to feel impotent. If school administrators felt comfortable dealing with troublesome student behavior, then they would do so and move on; however, the typical response is: “We can’t let you get away with that because all the other kids will do the same thing.” Of course, it wouldn’t matter if the administration knew how to handle the situation; however, because they don’t, their only recourse is to get rid of the misbehaving child, an act tantamount to capital punishment. 

We believe it is absolutely necessary that the School be a place where the child can experience his/her own internal discomfort and unhappiness without having a means of escape. Once the kids realize that acting out against the School will not get them expelled, they quickly decide that perhaps their only chance to get out of the Program is by manipulating their parents into withdrawing them. Most of our students are here precisely because they have become very good at conning and manipulating; therefore, it is essential for us to: a) train the parents to be stronger with their kids, and, b) help them acquire a clear and complete intellectual and experiential understanding of how the School works so that the child’s manipulation will not be as effective. 

We seek to develop a firm working partnership with all of our families. We currently have ten regional parent support groups across the United States, and all parents are required to attend monthly meetings in their local area. Each group has a chairperson, elected by consensus in the spring for the following fall. Chairpersons meet during the summer for a training weekend at DeSisto School. Each group is also supervised by a liaison who facilitates the transferential relationship between the chairperson and the group. It’s not unusual for group members, especially at first, to act out against the Chairperson’s “have to” authority (you have to attend the meetings, you have to be on time), and it’s the job of the liaison to help improve the dynamics within the group. In a very real sense, the parents go through a process parallel to the one their children are undergoing on campus. 

We also have a program in place for parents who do not live near an area which has an established support group. These “Space Parents” participate in regularly scheduled conference calls, are required to be at the School four times a year, and attend meetings with their chairperson and liaison during special events on campus. To remain in the Program, all parents must ask their group for a vote of confidence every year at re-enrollment; similarly, a family can be terminated from the Program only by consensus of their parent group. 

When we stop expelling students, we diminish their power to manipulate us. When we start educating and supporting parents, we lessen the children’s power to manipulate them. Children and parents, despite strains in their relationships, are inextricably bound. Our goal, among many others, is to help families strengthen these bonds in healthy and productive ways. When children realize that there is no way out of the Program, they become frightened. By giving parents the strength to help their children accept that the only way out is through graduation, that the only way to improve their lives is to change their actions and reactions, we are taking positive steps toward helping the entire family. 

If a student is to carry the progress s/he has made at the School into his/her post-DeSisto life, it is essential that the family dynamics change. No matter how well a student does here, if s/he returns home to conditions identical to those that existed (and resulted in problems) previously, further conflict is inevitable. The only alternative would be for the child to separate from the family, and that would certainly be a sad and undesirable outcome. At The DeSisto School we believe the best way to help the child is to involve the family in a mutual quest for self-understanding, growth, and emotional well-being. 

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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