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Posted March 25, 2003 

Executive Perspective on Oakley
Jared Balmer, Ph.D., Executive Director
Oakley, Utah

[Reprinted from the “Oakley School Update”, by permission of Jared Balmer, who states: Many of you are aware that everything that I discuss here has been implemented and is currently operational. Please feel free to discuss additional questions with the Oakley staff.]

From the inception of Oakley, referring professionals and parents alike inquired about the nature of the school.

  • Where does it fit in the continuum of care?
  • What is the target population?
  • Is it a transitional school or a therapeutic school?
  • How does its purpose and philosophy compare to other schools in the same general genre?

The following article is an attempt to answer such questions. In particular, I have attempted to draw attention to the major building blocks, making Oakley distinctive in the continuum of care.

Has the complexity and pathology increased over the last decade and how is the continuum of care responding to it?
Every professional working with children would agree that the overall complexity and pathology of adolescents demonstrating maladaptive behavior has increased. At the same time, long-term psychiatric hospitalization has virtually disappeared, resulting in the fact that many residential treatment facilities are treating kids that, during the eighties and nineties, would have been treated in psychiatric hospitals. In other words, a contemporary, clinical residential treatment center is treating many children that heretofore would have been hospitalized. This same shift has taken place up and down the continuum of care. Today, therapeutic programs and specialty schools are dealing with a more involved child. They are enrolling children that 10 years ago would likely have been treated in a more restrictive setting. Recently, a director of an emotional boarding school related to me that over 80% of their current population is treated with psychotropic medication. Clearly, the pathology and complexity is on the increase and beckons for a more differentiated approach in addressing the psycho-social needs of this population.

Is the industry tooling-up to meet this shift toward a more involved child?
In the sixties, a ski racer competing in the slalom event, was using a 195 cm ski. Today, Jean Claude Killy, arguably the best ski racer of his generation, would come in dead last. Why? Because the revolutionary technique of lateral projection invented by the French is a dinosaur compared to the new techniques which utilize a radical, short, parabolic ski, improved ski boots and a whole new way of attacking the gate. I cannot speak for other facilities and specialty schools. However, I do believe that some of the treatment models of the sixties, designed to deal with substance abuse and oppositionality, are no longer adequate to meet the clinical needs of many of the contemporary adolescent population. For example, what we are often seeing today is an adolescent that presents with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and/or substance abuse, but has an underlying issue with bi-polarity or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What parents see on the surface is drug abuse and defiance, but the underling cause is often hidden from the casual observer.

Specifically, how is Oakley meeting the needs of this shift in complexity toward more maladaptive behavior?
When we started Oakley, we intended to combine academic excellence with therapeutic savvy in a setting that is less restrictive than residential treatment. We have never deviated from that commitment. However, in an effort to demonstrate that superb academics can stand shoulder to shoulder in a therapeutic setting, we failed to communicate to referring professionals and parents alike, that Oakley is also a place where therapeutic sophistication stands equal with the well-known reputation of academic excellence. Professionals and parents are well aware of the superb curriculum and the high credentials of our teaching staff. However, they may not be aware of the depth of our therapeutics.

How then does Oakley see itself in the continuum of care? Is it a step-down school? Is it an emotional growth school or is it a transition school?
None of the above. Besides psychiatric hospitals and wilderness programs, virtually all programs and schools are “stepdown” and/or transitional in nature. Largely based on the Synonon Model developed during the sixties, emotional growth schools apply therapeutics typically through a group milieu approach, utilizing paraprofessionals. Oakley is different from all of those. Perhaps, Oakley could be best described as a Clinical Boarding School.

At Oakley, how is the clinical component operationalized?
During the first four weeks, each student undergoes an assessment where academic and psycho-social strength and weaknesses are evaluated. A recreational assessment provides Oakley with the direction of how leadership and recreational activity may be strategically used in the process of promoting healthy, pro-social goals. After the assessment period, an individualized treatment plan is developed that addresses the academic, psycho-social, recreation, leadership and student life goals. In addition to a therapeutic milieu, Oakley engages all of its students in weekly individual therapy, multiple group therapies and weekly sobriety groups. Upon admission, family therapy may take place twice a week and taper off as the child moves through the level system. In addition, the TRAILS program was developed to re-focus students who have strayed from their healthy goals. Parenting seminars and workshops further augment the Oakley experience. In short, therapeutics are delivered in a customized, individualized format, taking into account the etiology and maintenance variables of maladaptive behavior patterns.

How is Oakley different from a residential treatment center (RTC) or other more restrictive settings?
After a child has spent time in a “tight box” such as an RTC or wilderness program, the time will come where that child can “step-down” into a less restrictive setting, where the exclusive focus on therapeutics is shifted and greater attention is placed on academics. Oakley is a setting where both therapy and academics share the stage. In that respect, Oakley represents a shift towards reality, where the child is faced with increased independent decision-making. To accomplish this, the child is placed in a “larger box,” where the learned skills from the previous setting are field-tested.

Referring to the “box” analogy, how large is this box at Oakley?
When a student enters Oakley, the “box” is relatively small with restricted access to parents and friends, and staff supervision is greater. As the child demonstrates impulse control and internalization of acquired skills, the student is placed in an increasingly larger box with fewer external controls.

In the past, you had some problems with students violating the honor code. What are you doing about it?
I have always found it interesting that in a traditional boarding school the presence of drugs and sex is a thinly veiled secret and is understood as going with the territory. At Oakley, if a student takes an excessive amount of over the counter medication or cheeks his prescription medication to later share it with his roommate, some may label Oakley as “loosey goosy.” The difference, however, is that Oakley does not tolerate any such behavior and aggressively engages in a process to uncover and apply consequences for such inappropriate behavior. If a child must be prevented at all costs from engaging in such behaviors, it stands to reason that the child must remain in an RTC or wilderness program forever. With regard to this issue, the Oakley mission is clear. A child must be given enough space to practice and apply prosocial skills, while at the same time not setting the youth up for failure by placing him in a situation where the calculative risks clearly supersede the child’s abilities to cope with such stressors or temptations. With this objective in mind, Oakley utilizes a number of program elements designed to provide the child with the ability to field test improved pro-social skills, while at the same time providing therapeutic support services to refocus a child when he/she has strayed from the stated goals and objectives. Such program elements include, but are not limited to, the form system, off-form programming, TRAILS, and specialty focused groups and group therapy. In short, the child must learn to swim on his own. In that process, it is likely that the child will swallow a bunch of water along the way. Oakley stands on the side of the pool and ensures that the child does not drown by throwing a life jacket or diving in to pull the child to safety.

How can parents support this learning and change process?
Every parent will become concerned if their child “swallows water.” Many Oakley students come from therapeutic settings. There, after a period of struggle, significant improvements have been noticed by all parties involved. Some parents are under the false assumption however, that when the child arrives at Oakley, all struggles are a thing of the past. After all, the child had a psychological epiphany in the previous setting. Therefore, some parents reason, any relapse into old maladaptive behavior is the fault of the “swim coach.” Other parents want to swim in behalf of their child. Could it be possible that the child is temporarily suffering from a case of “the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak?” The best way a parent can support their child in “learning how to swim” is by supporting the school. After conducting a number of outcome studies, it is overwhelmingly clear that healthy changes in the child are forthcoming when parents embrace the programmatic structure of the school and follow the guidance of the staff.

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