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Posted: Oct 11, 2007 09:03


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By RJ Cohn & Lon Woodbury

For old friends and new acquaintances in what is often called the “struggling teens industry,” the Second Annual Northwest Get-Together was both a reunion and an orientation of sorts for those involved with private parent-choice residential schools and programs. Over 60 people attended, representing quite a variety of therapeutic boarding schools, wildness programs, residential treatment facilities, parent coaches, counselors and independent educational consultants. Woodbury Reports hosted the gathering, which was held at the Sandpoint Community Center in Sandpoint, ID, September 14, 2007. Although the parking was an issue, those who attended enjoyed a day of informative and interesting presentations revolving around business and industry trends, with plenty of time for individual networking.

The day began with a light breakfast and greeting, then jumped into a first-hand report on how the Internet influences parents — both positively and negatively — regarding residential treatment programs and facilities. The proliferation and ease of creating websites on the Internet has both helped and hindered the struggling teen industry. Parents have trouble knowing who to believe.

Several websites, such as, provide objective information about various programs and residential treatment facilities as honestly and professionally as possible. They are open about whom they are and emphasize their professional credentials and experience. These sites empower parents by providing them with more information than was ever possible in the past.

Other sites (most being anonymous with no indication of who is behind the site or their experience or credentials) use slick marketing techniques to gain parents trust and then sell them on specific schools that will be advantageous to the site’sowners. Often these sites are are experts at telling parents what they want to hear, but make their money on some variation of “cash-for-kids” schemes. One concern is that from an analysis of web visits of various sites, there appears to be more traffic to anonymous sites than there is to sites openly identifying themselves, their credentials and experience.

Then there are some sites who only talk about the bad experiences, and accept only negative comments, accusing all other viewpoints of being on the take, naïve, or dishonest. Not knowing who to believe, parents are obviously going to be confused as to whose advice they should follow, and the whole industry is being smeared with an image of people who are only preying on desperate parents.

After a networking break, the sessions reconvened for a discussion by Woodbury Affiliate Larry Stednitz, Educational Consultant, and Paul Clark, Director of Galena Ridge Wilderness Program and member of the Montana Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs Board (PAARP). This discussion of the Montana Legislature regarding regulation for private parent-choice programs, and the process the state has undergone over the last few years generated much interactive discussion from the attendees.

The major issue is whether regulations of private programs should be developed by the state or developed by programs collaborating with the state. Paul explained how Montana and private child care providers in the state are in the middle of a difficult struggle regarding licensing. The process started in 2003 from legislation to explore requiring registering and licensure of all unlicensed alternative adolescent programs in Montana – including boarding and vocational schools, wilderness programs, faith-based and residential treatment programs.

The entire industry watches because out of this struggle could come an approach different than simply following regulator and legislative generated dictates. The state’s point of view is it has the primary responsibility to protect children being cared for within the state. But the providers assert that creativity and uniqueness is vital to be able to adjust to the real needs of the students, which can be done only through regulations that have provider input.

After the session on Montana Legislature, we broke for lunch. Some left the Get-Together to tour area programs, others left for lunch away from the group. (For those who left early, you really missed good one.) For those who stayed, Jonathan Mack and Joel Smith presented a hands-on demonstration titled “Technology and Neurobiology; Practical Applications in the Treatment of Children with Regulation Difficulties,” representing Linda Zimmerman and the Sandhill Child Development Center in New Mexico, which was founded by Linda. At Sandhill Center, staff interventions treat behavioral and emotional problems using a therapeutic milieu integrated with neuro-feedback and clinicians.

“Before you can do the work with young patients prone to aggressive, emotional outbursts, you have to calm the brain,” explained Jonathan. “That’s the first priority.” Jonathan briefly summarized what Linda had spoken of at the First Annual Get-Together, then described how patterned and repetitive sensory input can produce a calming effect on adolescent’s “functional brain map.” He explained how specialists use computerized neuro-feedback as a tool for helping young patients who have been affected by early trauma or a confluence of painful events.

In neuro-feedback, the goal is optimal brain function by getting the brain to work more effectively and providing a workout for the brain. The neurofeedback practitioner looks for a quieting of the nervous system. When patients calm down, they gain a sense of mastery over emotion. It’s not a replacement for other therapy. In a neuro-feedback session, it’s a way to get some kids to calm down so the rest of the therapy can take effect.

To demonstrate, Joel wired a volunteer from the audience to equipment that monitors brain waves, which was relayed to a screen. The audience could watch subtle changes in his brain wave patterns at various states of relaxed tension.

I felt quite relaxed while listening to different rhythms of sounds,” said the volunteer.

To conclude the discussion and demonstration from Sandhill Center’s clinicians, Jonathan and Joel asked volunteers from the audience to help them demonstrate the effects of repetitive sensory input through “Dance Dance Revolution,” (DDR Therapy). DDR Therapy is a music video game, first introduced in Japan, which is played on a dance pad with the eight primary directional arrows, four arrow-panels in a cross-formation and four arrows in a plus formation with a circle in the middle to rest. The panels are pressed by the feet in response to arrows that appear on the screen, which are synchronized to this gives the brain a workout in processing visual stimuli into physical actions, as well as being a lot of fun for all ages.

The Northwest Get-Together has become an annual event, and we are already looking forward to the Third Annual Get-Together next year. Partially based on the feedback we received, we are already exploring a number of important issues to present for next year, as well as alternate locations allowing time to network in an attractive north Idaho environment. Those who attended the Northwest Get Together — some from as far away as Vermont, Wisconsin and Florida — came away with new ideas and understandings from an industry that is continually evolving. Thanks to all who attended.

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