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Posted February 28, 2005

By Loi Eberle, M.A., IECA
Educational Consultant,
Woodbury Reports Associate

The theme of the 2005 NATSAP Annual Conference in Tucson, AZ, focused on "Working Together." I observed the reflection of this theme throughout the presentations and various conversations between attendees. Both the "program people" and educational consultants, who attended, appeared to be very serious about continually assessing and improving the quality of the work they do. They expressed the idea that this work is larger than the individual participants are, and were grateful for the opportunity this conference created to improve what we do.

Prescott College President, Dr. Daniel Garvey, delivered the conference's opening keynote address. He stressed the importance of ethical action, a theme touched upon repeatedly throughout the various sessions. Garvey acknowledged that working with therapeutic programs is like being in the "mental marines." In other words, the experiences are so intense that it is hard to articulate them to people who have not been part of them. In that sense, it is similar to what Marines experience when returning home from war.

Garvey asked the audience why they felt the work they did was important; he summarized their activity as "creating a positive impact on the world, one student at a time." After establishing this common goal, he pointed out that no research shows a correlation between people with high self-esteem and how others view their actions. Garvey emphasized that if you only focus on improving a student's self-esteem without changing their moral structure, it only makes them more unscrupulous. The challenge of our work is to encourage students to not only feel more at peace within themselves, but also to motivate them to care more about benefiting others.

Ethics and morality are essentially the same, Garvey explained, and differ from religion, which deals more with belief systems. He quoted James Rest's definition of ethics, as "the process of determining that one course of action is better than another course of action in a particular situation." Rest further elaborates, "The function of morality is to provide basic guidelines for determining how conflicts in human interests are to be settled and for optimizing mutual benefit of people living in groups."

"What does ethical behavior look like?" Garvey asked the audience, pointing out that it involves action, perception and intellectualization. He said that often, the real work is occurs internally rather than externally and involves changing one's attitude about what one is doing.

Garvey explained that ethical behavior has four characteristics, which include:

  • " Recognizing when an ethical problem exists. (It is impossible to intervene unless the problem is recognized.)

  • " Determining an appropriate and feasible method for resolving the dilemma. (The response has to directly apply to the activity and not be a substitute.)

  • " Valuing being ethical more than being unethical. (One needs to willingly forgo instant gratification for the long-term feelings of being ethical. The challenge is that ethical behavior is done for intrinsic reasons. Motivating ethical behavior is difficult because people often get what they want in the moment by being unethical.)

  • " Following through with the plan designed to resolve the ethical dilemma. (It is necessary to actually do the right thing when the problem has been discovered and not postpone taking the necessary actions to resolve the dilemma.)

According to Dr. Garvey, the task of those who wish to inspire ethical behavior is to actually help the students do the right thing, rather than feel the right way. The teacher/mentor needs to directly connect the activities and their consequences. The challenge is to instill the intrinsic reasons for ethical behavior, because being unethical does get what one wants in the short term.

Later that day, Dr. Michael Gass continued these essential themes in his workshop by urging us to instill hope and provide compassion. He explained that one way to initiate this is to bring attention to the optimistic solutions in client's stories. Another way is to only perform actions that exemplify the highest degree of moral integrity and become known by the empathetic path one walks.

Amidst a rousing standing ovation, Rob Cooley, PhD, Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions received the 2005 NATSAP Leadership Award. Later, he addressed the group on two occasions. He spoke about NATSAP's past and future directions, describing the "spirit of NATSAP," as a willingness to share our personal lives and participate in teamwork for the public good. According to Cooley, this also includes learning to find the best treatment for our clients and placing their needs above everyone else.

Dr. Cooley discussed the question, "What has research accomplished for the public good?" He cited some studies that showed wilderness therapy to be more effective than standard treatment for some psychological disorders, and standard medical/psychiatric treatments to be fairly ineffective for most adolescents. He emphasized the need for further study, some of which is currently underway by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Cooperative (OBHIC).

Conference attendees were encouraged to strive for excellence in their programs so that they can help give the gift of successful, fulfilling and meaningful lives to their clients. Part of that, Cooley cautioned, involved avoiding dual relationships between programs and consultants, because it puts clients and the industry at risk.

Sessions on admissions and program/ consultant communication further addressed this issue of dual relationships. A great deal of the discussions went into the challenge of creating ways for consultants to learn about programs, without creating conflicts of interest. Such as, the challenges faced by programs and consultants on what is appropriate to accept from a program in terms of travel and accommodations, and how smaller programs with fewer resources can compete for visibility. Program personnel and educational consultants examined the various ways these issues were handled in the past, giving examples of guidelines and problems that have occurred in other fields. They acknowledged the large amount of time and financial expenditure required for learning about the growing number of programs. Since Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA) guidelines are in place to address these issues, the outcome of this dialogue is that the IECA will share their guidelines with NATSAP.

NATSAP's creation of guidelines for its member programs reflects the general direction it has taken over the last year. The current status of this work was presented during a NATSAP panel discussion led by John Mercer from Mission Mountain School, and included Pam Neilson, M.Ed. from Cedar Ridge, Dr. Sid Parham from the Family Foundation School, and Laurie Laird, M.Ed. from New Haven. Each panel member described issues addressed in their newly drafted document, "Best Practices in Education in Therapeutic Schools and Programs." They explained that a large part of their focus is on ways to integrate the curriculum into the school's milieu, while also satisfying high school diploma requirements.

Part of the panel's work has also been developing standards that would satisfy, and in some cases exceed, those of regional, state and national accrediting bodies. Areas of concern included mission driven education, program improvement and long range planning, curriculum, educational services, staff and professional development, teacher qualifications, and budget/ finance issues. Once created, it is also necessary to determine how to assess whether a program is meeting these new standards.

The panel indicated a need for guidelines to integrate curriculum and therapy, define the mission statement and clarify a school's goals. They questioned whether the therapeutic vs. emotional growth distinctions are only theoretical at this point. The panel is also in the process of creating a definition of NATSAP schools and programs that clearly differentiates them from normal schools and treatment centers.

In the future, this panel plans to consider upgrading NATSAP standards to help NATSAP schools and programs become accredited as special entities. The recently drafted "NATSAP Principles of Best Practice" helped to create the new licensure standards proposed for therapeutic schools in Utah. Since NATSAP's accreditation standards exceed those of many accreditation groups, the panel expressed the need to teach other accrediting agencies about the NATSAP accreditation standards. According to the panel, "NATSAP is raising the bar."

Indeed, the goal of creating excellence was reflected in the high quality and wide variety of sessions presented at the 2005 NATSAP Annual Conference. This continuing goal is reflected in their call for ideas for the 2006 Annual Conference, (due June 15, 2005), and in their plans to launch a new professional journal.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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