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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1999 Issue #56 

What’s in a Name?
By: Lon Woodbury  

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools & Programs (NATSAP) was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico late last January to formally organize a growing self-selected network of educators, therapists and other involved professionals. At the same time, the proposed/adopted name for the organization fanned the flames of a long simmering discussion about what to call this network. The term selected at the meeting, “therapeutic schools and programs,” is the latest attempt to describe this growing network of schools and programs that have been meeting informally for years. 

The assumption upon which the term “therapeutic” is based is that behavioral/emotional problems stem from a disorder or disease that requires treatment. Since the early 1960s when the US Supreme Court ruled alcoholism was a disease more than a moral problem and thus eligible for health insurance coverage, the therapeutic view has dominated American society. Following this Court decision, not only did the mental health industry rapidly expand to offer an array of diagnoses, cures and therapies to cover a wide range of symptoms, but this expansion was to a large extent legally controlled and directed by state legislatures and Congress. The legislative direction is so detailed, for example, that in many states a person cannot use the terms therapy, therapist or therapeutic to describe services offered unless he or she has met stringent state mandated education and certification standards. 

The therapeutic assumption has even penetrated to extensive popular use, such as “A walk in the woods is very therapeutic,” or “There is nothing more therapeutic than a heart-to-heart talk with a good friend.” This has contributed to confusion because in essence, the term “therapeutic” has two common definitions. When used by professionals in the mental health field and by regulators and legislators, the definition is something like what appears in the dictionary, “Of or pertaining to the treating or curing of disease.” In other words, something in the child is broken that needs fixing. In its more general use by the public, however, the term therapeutic seems to mean something more along the line of “Any warm and fuzzy activity that helps children.” The vagueness only confuses, encourages people striving for instant respectability to claim they are “therapeutic,” but still implies something is broken in the child. 

The commonly used term “emotional growth” assumptions are based on the observation that behavioral/emotional problems frequently come from immaturity, that is, the child has not yet successfully “grown up”, or is not age appropriate emotionally. The term originated from what the CEDU schools in the 1980s referred to as their “emotional growth curriculum,” reflecting their perspective that many children were better served by a highly structured whole child education approach, with the school’s curriculum containing academic, emotional and physical education aspects to the curriculum. They claimed that many children with behavioral/emotional problems did not need to be cured of any disease or disorder, but rather mostly needed to learn things related to maturity like deferred gratification, the value of honesty, how to make positive friendships, the relation between cause and effect, etc. They saw behavioral/emotional problems often as an education problem rather than a therapeutic problem. In this view, children with behavioral/emotional problems sometimes just need to hear and be heard, rather than cured. 

The January meeting at Albuquerque was the latest meeting of this network of professionals who in the last few years have sensed they are part of a new developing industry. For years these same professionals have been informally gathering at professional education gatherings like the semi-annual conferences of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the Annual Conference of the Small Boarding Schools Association (SBSA), and even in a few Pacific Northwest “Get-Togethers” called by Woodbury Reports. Through countless discussions over the years, a consensus formed throughout the network that something new, fresh and unique was developing which represented a departure from establishment mental health or education assumptions. This network seemed more comfortable associating with already existing education groups, and never attended existing mental health organizations in any great numbers. Still, a definition of this new network has been very difficult due to the wide diversity of approaches. 

Some, like Island View and Provo Canyon, are obviously therapeutically driven. A whole child education perspective primarily drives others like Cascade School and the CEDU schools. Then there are those like SUWS and Explorations that are based on using the wilderness as a healing tool. Others like Shamrock Acres and Royal Haven emphasize a family style environment. Some places like Brush Ranch School and Stone Mountain School focus on meeting different learning styles (a therapeutic perspective would refer to them as Learning Disability schools). Some like St. Paul’s Academy and Squaw Valley Academy are largely traditional accredited Boarding Schools, but with added elements of mentoring, counseling and structure to work with children with poor study skills and attitudes. And others, like Spring Ridge Academy and Copper Canyon Academy are licensed by the state specifically as emotional growth schools, a separate category with different regulations than therapeutic treatment programs. 

In my fifteen years of involvement in this network, it has become clear the network evolved primarily out of interactions between educators and therapists, each bringing their perspectives to bear on unmet needs of many struggling students and patients. The result has been something new, arising from the synergy of these two disciplines, and often succeeding with young people where mainstream educators and therapists failed. 

If this network indeed represents a developing new industry, it needs and deserves a name that publicly reflects its uniqueness, acknowledges that the character education needs of these struggling teens are at least as important as any therapy needs, and one that welcomes every residential school and program of quality that successfully works with children with behavioral/emotional problems. There are several terms suggested over the years. 

“Therapeutic” of course is the one that was adopted by the original self-selected board of NATSAP meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, last November, and Executive Director John Reddan tells me was re-confirmed in Albuquerque last January. Several schools and programs have already expressed their concern with using the term “therapeutic.” Some schools in the network stayed away from the Albuquerque meeting because they disagreed with using this term. Others since have worried if associating with NATSAP would invite problems from their state regulators, and others have no interest in even associating with this organization because they consider themselves non-therapeutic schools. In my personal view, it is a term that tends to divide the network by hinting at a favored general model (curing of a disease), instead of bringing educators, therapist and others together under a common banner. 

“Special Purpose Schools and Programs” is a term that has been used to describe this network. Actually, this is the term Woodbury Reports used in its first few years of publishing in its attempts to describe this embryonic industry. It has the advantage of few objectors, and does suggest uniqueness to this network that is trying to organize itself. The weakness is that it is so generic it doesn’t tell much about the schools and programs involved, and almost requires a subheading to further define it. However, this might still be the common denominator and if selected, the organization’s name could read National Association of Special Purpose Schools and Programs. 

Another possible term is “Character Education.” This is another perspective that is common to all the schools and programs in the network, and is somewhat unique to them. All the schools and programs in this network emphasize character development as an important goal. Many supplement that with some counseling, and even those that are heavily therapeutic (in the precise sense) still spend much of their time helping their patients/students deal with character issues. The down side to this term as a name for the association is there already exists a national movement dedicated to character education that seems to be primarily involved with supporting character education classes to public and various other schools. However, if this term were selected, it might read something like, National Association of Residential Character Education. 

Perhaps “Schools and Therapeutic Facilities” would work. Since schools are most closely associated with education, this term has the advantage of recognizing and accepting the synergy of both education and mental health contributions to this network. And, it gives some idea of what the organization is all about. If selected, this idea could read National Association of Schools and Therapeutic Facilities. 

“Emotional Growth” has been a somewhat common term to describe the network and Woodbury Reports has been using it in this way for the last several years. Its meaning is very similar to “character education,” in that it says a major emphasis of the schools and programs in this network is to help the children learn how to grow up, thus emotional growth. The term distinguishes this network from traditional schools and programs (whose focus is mental growth) and therapeutic schools and programs (whose focus is curing of a disorder) but still includes both perspectives. “Emotional Growth” has the advantage of telling something about the network and its uniqueness, and has the further advantage of being a term that has spontaneously arisen from the ranks of this network, rather than a term like “therapeutic” that was “rather imposed on us.” It has wide application because even quality treatment centers spend a lot of their time on character or emotional growth issues in addition to therapeutic interventions. And, it not only says something this network has in common regarding processes, but also describes the growing societal problem that brought about and funds all these schools and programs in the first place (young people that are alienated for a wide variety of reasons, including lack of maturity, self- centered, mental disorders, unstable homes, etc.). If this would be adopted, the organization’s name could read the National Association of Emotional Growth Schools and Programs. 

So what’s in a name? A lot! The name of this Association will influence it’s future because in our society, words represent ideas, and ideas have consequences. What the Board decides is the proper name will strongly influence whether this association is seen as a sub-set of the mental health establishment, or seen as a force looking for better ways to help struggling teens. 

Copyright © 1999, 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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