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Posted: Mar 8, 2006 13:30


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By: Lon Woodbury

Creativity seems to be a major defining aspect of the network of private parent-choice residential schools for struggling teens. The professionals working in this parent-choice network are some of the most creative people I have ever worked with. It seems every time I have an informal discussion with key staff I learn how passionate they are about a personal growth quest or interest. Often, this personal interest is included in their school's programming, or they are in the process of figuring out how to incorporate it into their program to benefit the students.

These staff interests vary widely. One important developing interest includes cutting-edge neuro-feedback research. Recently, this research has become available through commercial fantasy games where instead of using a joystick, the player's progress depends on sensors measuring their changing brain wave patterns. This information provides feedback to help the student learn how to modify their brain wave patterns. Other interests may include yoga exercises, karate, music performance and recording, meditation of all kinds, working with animals, community service, nature and environmentalism, art, scripture study, Knights Templar, archeological astronomy and much more. The patterns of these interests illustrate how an individual with a personal passion can initiate an experimental process to determine how it might be helpful to students. The constant experimentation and incorporation of new ideas is visible throughout the network of private parent-choice schools and programs. The more successful ideas are then adopted by other schools and programs, and often incorporated into more traditional schools and treatment centers.

In a sense, this network acts like an experimental laboratory and filtering system. That is, as each new approach is tried, the results show whether it should be adopted, modified or rejected. Many of the widely accepted approaches were first prevalent in this network, which resulted in the incorporation of these approaches into many different kinds of schools and treatment centers.

For example, in the early 1980s, mental health specialists considered short-term therapeutic wilderness programs an unimportant and questionable oddity. However, as they gained a reputation for effectiveness over the years, they became very common in the parent-choice network of residential programs. Today, they are well accepted through individual community efforts to help struggling teens and as a resource for the clients of many mainstream mental health specialists.

Also in the 1980s, High and Low Ropes courses were first adopted by many of the emotional growth/ therapeutic residential schools and programs. Over time, the evidence of how much these courses helped students overcome their irrational fears and learn self-discipline increased. With this increase in popularity, the High and Low Ropes courses became widely used in all kinds of schools and programs for struggling teens, as well as mainstream schools and programs.

Equine therapy began when a few staff members from various programs within the private parent-choice network began to visualize how their love for horses could be transformed into an opportunity to help struggling teens. This technique became so popular that it has now developed into its own organization, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), with a worldwide membership and certification system.

Some practices have been rejected by this network. The best example is the almost universal rejection of Boot Camps by professionals within the network. A few private programs developed boot camps in the 1980s, and one even advertised itself as a "boot camp for troubled teens." However, due to the punitive measures used by these boot camps at the time, most professionals were very dubious of this approach. Then, after three deaths in the early 1990s in private Utah boot camps, the private sector rejected them not only as being ineffective, but unsafe. At about the same time, the Clinton administration pushed for funding boot camps for delinquent teens in many states because of the public's impression that these military style boot camps were successful and less expensive than typical juvenile hall facilities. Even today, there is a lot of discussion in the media centered around the objectionable use of punitive methods and the number of tragedies occurring in boot camps, (Appalachian Wilderness Camp, Florida Boot Camps, Buffalo Soldiers). The media nearly always focuses its spotlight on boot camp programs funded by state governments and staffed by state employees. The popularity of boot camps within the public sector indicates how deeply the public is locked into a rigid standardization that is resistant to creative approaches. This is based mostly on plausible but shallow sound bite explanations. In addition, the public sector does not appear responsive to the feedback that a truly creative perspective would tend to have with a view toward improving services.

Society and culture never stay the same. The creativity that exists in this private parent-choice network demands a constant fresh look at the needs of students. As our society and the needs of the students change, the ability to maintain quality services depends on the creative impulse of experimenting with new ideas, new understandings and new techniques.

The private parent-choice network of residential schools and programs for struggling teens started as a reaction to an era in the 1970s, when standardization was the rule. Mental Health facilities had frequently become stagnant, and educational visionaries saw many students were not getting what they needed and began exploring new ways to work with these children. They developed new ways that produced amazing results. This network of private parent-choice schools and programs brought creativity back into working with struggling teens, which has also benefited mainstream education and mental health schools and programs.

In January 2006, in his speech accepting the annual award by the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) in Tampa, FL, Jared Balmer, Founder of Island View and Oakley School in Utah, made a very good point on this issue. He pointed out that there is a necessary tension between standardization and creativity. His point, as I understood it, was that a healthy industry would require a balance between the two. For example, if a rigid requirement for standard accepted practices dominates, as happened in the 1970s, then the industry will stagnate to the detriment of the children. This could happen again in any state where legislatures dictate what methods are acceptable. On the other hand, if creativity is allowed to go unchecked and untested, some programs will lose touch with reality and the importance of positive results. Again, that would be to the detriment of the children. Like most things, balance between standardization and creativity IS the best practice for the industry as a whole.

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