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Opinion & Essays - Jul, 1999 Issue #59


FAX (413)528-5662, PHONE (413) 528-9800

Because of its impact on their future quality of life, one of the five most crucial decisions a family ever makes is the selection of a program for their adolescent who is engaging in defiant, self-destructive behavior. The term, ‘program,’ is deliberately general, referring to college preparatory therapeutic or emotional growth schools, voluntary or involuntary residential treatment centers, or of course, wilderness programs. Because there are hundreds of such programs, it is almost impossible for a family to thoroughly research them. While there are knowledgeable specialists, not every educational consultant is qualified to make program recommendations.

The National Independent Educational Association could provide a valuable consumer-friendly service by listing those who possess this expertise. A family would be advised to consult Woodbury’s “Places for Struggling Teens” for a partial list of qualified and certified educational planners. Generally most professions require their members to take continuing education credits to ensure they remain reasonably current with new developments in their respective disciplines. Incredibly, the IECA has rejected this model, for reasons known only to them. There is no annual requirement for Consultants to visit a specific number of educational and treatment programs, in order to maintain certification. All too often consultants rely on dated, hence obsolete information. Families should check their certified educational planner’s files for accuracy. Because program personnel changes affect its direction, staff morale, and quality, it is imperative that the program information is current. Nothing is more important than talking with the students, the staff, and families to gain different perspectives.

Presumably consultants know more than the family about a plethora of programs and can make relevant referrals, thus justifying their fee. However, the family needs to inquire as to how recently the consultant visited the programs being recommended, since, like the yellow page advertisement for phone books, essentially the families are paying the consultant to “do the walking.” Many consultants are not informed. They rely instead on monthly informational updates with program descriptions of 100 words or less, supplied to The IECA Newsletter by the schools; hardly a credible source. To supplement, or instead, they may read descriptions in Peterson’s Guides, Bunting & Lyons, and Woodbury Reports. While it is permissible for their consultant to check with other colleagues who have visited the program more recently, the family is, however, entitled to know the source(s) and the date of information being supplied. More significantly, the family should learn details of the relationship their consultant has with the program being considered, in terms of financial arrangements, the number of adolescents referred, and how their referrals are doing after leaving the program.

Some programs compensate consultants, for example, by referring other families for college advisement, which can create a compromised quid pro quo relationship. The John Dewey Academy does college advisement, which deprives the referral source of charging for an additional service. It is essential to decide whether the consultant is motivated by self-interests or is primarily concerned with the client’s interests. Parents are advised to ask the educational planner to supply names and phone numbers of families and, better yet, students, who have attended the program, rather than relying only upon the information the planner has supplied.

Many independent consultants lack expertise in working with special populations and special needs schools, so their advice can be worthless in this area. Ask about the consultant’s prior professional experience, which can reveal a potential conflict of interest or a bias against a program, especially if the consultant had been an employee or a relative had attended. Inquire about the strengths/weaknesses, the types of adolescents best served, and the credentials of key program personnel. The John Dewey Academy welcomes referrals from those few consultants who understand the unique problems of gifted, angry, oppositional, self-destructive adolescents. Some educational planners make referrals without first contacting The John Dewey Academy to discuss the specifics of the case. This often places not only the adolescent, but also the school in a “lose-lose” position. At the very least, the family needs to demand that the educational consultant contact the program before making a referral.

Unless the consultant can explain a good reason for recommending only one program, the family should expect several recommendations, request that the consultant compare and contrast them, to ascertain the sophistication and qualifications of each. The John Dewey Academy, for example, is unique, since all its graduates move on to attend reputable colleges. This year’s graduates have been accepted at Brown, Clark, Columbia, two Cornell Universities and Vassar College, making it indistinguishable from the most elitist prep schools in the country. John Dewey does not pretend to help all adolescents. It is important to consider its high dropout rate, since this program is voluntary and has a stressful environment, due to the continually escalating expectations placed on its students.

No family should delegate the decision-making to the consultant. The best way to utilize the consultant’s services is to request the names of several programs that have had success with the type of student-profile most closely matching the child in question. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the consultant, before submitting a list of recommendations, should spend and document a significant amount of time interviewing the adolescent, the family, and other professionals who have interacted with the student and family. Parents are advised to discuss the adolescent’s reaction to the consultant, to determine whether the professional is knowledgeable. Assuming that the adolescent dislikes and mistrusts the educational consultant does not warrant disregarding the recommendations. There are times when the educational planner needs to be tough by advocating residential placement, which will anger the adolescent, so it is valuable to understand the reason(s) for a negative reaction.

Finally, the consultant should be asked questions about the program, such as the drop-out rate, faculty turn- over, what happens to adolescents after they leave, and whether its graduates attend college. The consultant should supply not only the names of institutions of higher education that admit the program graduates, but also what percent chose to continue their education. When speaking with the program personnel, the parents should ask identical questions to confirm the credibility of the educational planner.

The family should visit as many programs as possible before making the selection. The next installment of this article will discuss the questions families should ask the program staff, and how to obtain the information they need when to do visiting a program.

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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