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Opinion & Essays - Jul, 2000 Issue #71 

By Lon Woodbury

Over the last ten years that I have published this newsletter, I have emphasized a very specific group of professionals who work with residential schools and programs for ‘at-risk youth’ or as I prefer to call them, ‘struggling teens.’ This self-selected group, or network, consists basically of the schools, programs and educational consultants that work with these adolescents and attend the semi-annual conferences of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Many of us who attend these IECA meetings intuitively recognize there is a difference between the networking at IECA conferences and the climate at the other educational and mental health conferences we attend. Arriving at a commonly accepted definition of this network, however, has been difficult.

Referring to the network using terms such as “therapeutic,” “treatment center,” “counseling,” and “therapy” is objected to by some well-respected schools and programs in the network, as they feel these terms do not adequately describe them. Other terms like “emotional growth,” “special purpose,” and “specialty programs” are considered to be too general or vague. There is really no consensus as to what distinguishes this network. Using any of the popular terms to describe the network usually requires further elaboration to explain the original definition, showing these terms to be of little use in helping communication, especially when talking with parents or the public.

Perhaps the intuitively felt difference between this network and the others can be more clearly understood by comparing the basic philosophies of human nature held by groups of professionals. It is especially illuminating to examine how each group perceives the causes of problems in life, and how they feel people, especially at-risk teens, can best be helped.

As a result, it is possible to categorize the different worldviews held by various members within these professions. One is the clinical view, that has as its underlying assumption the belief that many, if not most, human behavioral problems are caused by a disease, or in a mellower incarnation, a ‘disorder.’ This viewpoint is often expressed when the question becomes: “What’s the diagnosis?” This is the dominant philosophy in the mental health profession, shared by most therapists, hospitals, and residential treatment centers.

Another popular worldview is the punishment perspective, based on the idea that if pain is imposed for specific behaviors, the child will stop the undesired behavior. It is often expressed by the directive: “Teach them a lesson,” and is one of the main tools governments have used to impose desired behavior on its citizens. It is prevalent in our own legal system, specifically in juvenile corrections facilities, community services, and probation courts.

Another worldview might be termed Child-Centered, and is based on the belief that children are born good, but are corrupted by their environment, such as parents. It sometimes has been expressed in the phrase “A child would not lie” and frequently is expressed by social workers, especially those working for state child welfare agencies.

The last important view might be termed the “intellectual” worldview, found mostly in our education system. The view originated during the Age of Enlightenment in the Middle Ages, when reason was considered to be the main instrument of progress. Those who share this worldview consider social problems to best be handled through the use of reason and intellect. When a problem is identified, such as unwanted pregnancies or drug use, their solution is to organize a class and give the children the facts.

None of these philosophies adequately explain the network with which I have been working and writing about. Some schools and programs in this network are obviously clinical in their approach, enrolling only the children who appear to need treatment. Others screen out children with pathologies and only accept children with behavioral problems. Some programs have the viewpoint that excessive use of diagnoses becomes overly simplistic, resulting in labeling that can even interfere with the healing of a child when used too excessively.

Punishment for the most part is rejected by these schools and programs as being a crude tool that more often than not backfires with this modern generation of children with behavioral/emotional problems. Instead, the concept of ‘Consequences’ is applied, often using nature and the outdoors as the agent, within a tight structure designed so that a child’s behavior and attitudes very quickly bring about natural consequences.

The Child Centered philosophy, expressed by those who believe “a child would never lie” is rarely used because it is seen to give almost complete authority to a child who is already using their considerable power to make self-destructive decisions and disrupt and damage their families.

All schools and programs in this network use the “Intellectual” perspective, but only as a part of the program because “getting an education” is seen as the job of every child in our culture. However, none limit themselves to this perspective because the problem requiring placement in the first place is almost always something else, such as a Learning Disability, disruptive behaviors or attitudes. Some modify the intellectual approach by using the “whole child” concept, focusing on English, Math, Responsibility, Accountability, Honesty, etc. Others use cognitive approaches to re-frame the beliefs that instigate certain behavior. In any case these programs expand their approach to include more than purely “intellectual” considerations.

To find the commonality of the various professionals working in this network, you have to look to what might be called the Personal Growth movement, or what others call “popular psychology, ” “positive youth development,” “character education,” or “human potential.” These ideas are found in the publications, workshops and seminars that help people who want to improve themselves or others. This perspective has always been important in this country. An earlier generation referred to Norman Vincent Peal’s Power of Positive Thinking and Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People. Any bookstore will now have a full shelf of books like Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents, William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or Life Strategies by Phillip McGraw.

I tried an exercise during a recent staff retreat by Woodbury Reports. I circulated summaries of all these book’s main points, and asked which aspects are commonly taught in the schools and programs with which we work. The answer was, all of them, including even the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and The Twelve Steps from Alcoholic Anonymous.

So, the best way to define this specific network of professionals who work with children making poor decisions might be to recognize that the hybrid of existing philosophies they are beginning to use is a new and different approach for working with at-risk children. It is an approach that differs from a primarily clinical, punishment, child-centered or intellectual approach. Instead, this network seems to primarily apply principles from the Personal Growth movement to the specific problems of at-risk teens. Many of these schools and programs are now more influenced by, for example, Covey’s Seven Laws of Highly Effective People, than they are by the clinician’s DSM-IV or Freud’s analysis of human nature. They are using Personal Growth principles with a strong overlay of clinical techniques when appropriate, combining them with an Education perspective influenced by the alternative education ideas from the education reform movement.

The strong influence that principles of Personal Growth have on this specific network of professionals who work with at-risk children is the major reason I have used the term “Struggling Teens” rather than evoke the clinical connotations implied by the term “Troubled Teens.” It is also why I think “Emotional Growth” is a more accurate description of this network than the term “Therapeutic Boarding Schools and Programs.

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