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News & Views - October, 2001 Issue #86


By Rebecca Plona, M. Ed, Marketing Consultant
Nephi, Utah

Several years ago, when I was working as a teacher at an emotional growth boarding school, I was part of a special group meeting called to discuss the unsafe behavior of one of the newer boys. We sat in a circle, students and faculty alike, and the young man was asked to describe what had happened and why he had chosen to act as he did. I don’t remember the offense, or even the name of the boy, but what I do remember was the mature and thoughtful way his peers handled the situation. As the faculty sat quietly, the students asked for explanations, offered suggestions for ways he could have handled himself differently, and posed the all-important question, “What can you do to fix this situation?”

The young man leaned back in his chair and scowled at the assembled students. “Don’t you guys see what’s happening here? You’re brainwashed. You’re so brainwashed by all of this stuff they feed you here!”

Then, from the quietest young man in the school, came a sly grin and the best explanation of the results of emotional growth education I’ve ever heard. “No, man,” he said softly. “We’re not brainwashed. We’ve just decided to grow up.”

Therein lies the beauty of a school or program that uses an emotional growth curriculum: it gives teenagers tools and ideas to help them to grow into emotionally healthy young adults. It operates on the premise that students who are appropriate candidates for an emotional growth education are not ill, disturbed, or bad, but rather, are young people whose emotional development has not proceeded at the same pace as their physical or intellectual development.

Emotional growth education in its purest form has been around for thirty years or more, with its roots in the original CEDU High School, founded in the 1970’s. It started as an alternative to the medical/clinical model that was effectively used with young people who needed to be inspired to make changes, but did not require medical or psychiatric treatment. Over time, the architects of emotional growth education incorporated recognized child development and family systems theory into their model, expanding upon the writings of Erikson, Piaget, Bowen, and others. The approach was extraordinarily successful for the right students. Other schools with an emotional growth curriculum began to open: Rocky Mountain Academy, Boulder Creek Academy, Cascade School, CEDU Middle School, Mount Bachelor Academy, and the King George School. For many years, emotional growth education was the only alternative schooling option for struggling young people – regardless of whether it was appropriate for that child’s needs.

In the 1990’s, it looked for a while as if the pendulum would swing the other way entirely. As it became clear that many students had psychological needs that could not be met by a purely emotional growth approach, schools and programs with a clinical focus began to open. They called themselves “therapeutic” schools and programs in order to differentiate themselves from the “emotional growth” schools and programs. This clinically-based model was better suited to work with the students who needed psychiatric treatment in order to resolve their difficulties. Parents began to be confused. What was the difference? Did their child need emotional growth, or therapeutic treatment? How did you know? Some professionals began to advocate for one approach over the other, saying that one was “right,” and the other “wrong,” that one “worked,” and the other did not.

Today, there are hundreds of specialty schools and programs in the country. Some use primarily a clinical/therapeutic approach, with licensed clinicians and psychiatrists directing the healing process. Some use primarily an emotional-growth approach that creates a healthy environment and offers guidance from mentors to help students direct their own growth. Some use a hybrid of both methods. In all cases, the success of the school or program for the individual student depends on the match between the student, the program, and the family.

This variety of options for students in crisis intensifies the importance of determining the optimum method for providing a child the best opportunity for healing and success. Some students require a clinically-based treatment model. For a significant number of adolescents, however, a clinical or medical approach is not the best method to address their difficulties, as they have no organic cause. In many cases these adolescents have no psychiatric diagnosis at all, or their diagnosis originates from environmental stressors rather than a brain-based disorder. A purely psychiatric approach for these students will not cause the degree of change that everyone might wish.

More and more families are returning to the concept of an emotional growth program as the best choice for their children. Young people in an emotional growth program find themselves living and learning as part of a community. They have healthy role models among the adults in their community. They clearly understand their jobs within the community and know how to perform it adequately. They have the example of peers – healthy peers – to emulate and follow. For certain types of students an emotional growth school or program can help to make the difference that is so needed in their lives.

Skyline Journey is an unique outdoor program that offers a fully actualized emotional growth curriculum along with the support of a licensed therapist. Like its relatives among the emotional growth boarding schools, Skyline Journey provides a place for students to live and work each day within a structured community designed to foster realizations and inspire change. Students work through a full, written emotional growth curriculum that is broken into eight one-week “Trails.” To succeed in the program, a student must walk at least four of the Trails to completion.

The first Trail focuses on the past. During the students’ first week, they explore the truth about themselves, their choices, and their histories that preceded their arrival at Skyline Journey. They learn that only by fully understanding the events and the choices that make up their own foundations, can they begin to build and to grow.

As the students at Skyline Journey discover, it is hard to go forward without fully understanding and acknowledging one’s past, with its successes and failures. In the realm of specialty schools and programs, historically we have embraced, at various times, both emotional growth education and therapeutic treatment as the “right” and the “only” way to help children in crisis. However, the truth is that both philosophies have merit for particular students; neither philosophy is more “right” than the other. When we try to advocate that a particular is the only good option, then we do a disservice to the students who might be better served by other approaches. It is important for us to reflect on the roots of the specialty schools and programs and learn from the past so we can be even more successful with our students and their families in the future.

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