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Posted: Jul 24, 2006 14:17


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By: Lon Woodbury

Your teen is making poor decisions and you have decided it is time to find a residential placement. The first question is which one? As you research the hundreds of private parent-choice residential programs both nationally and internationally, you will find numerous choices and some very different approaches. You will also learn that some are very controversial if you use the Internet to conduct your research. As a parent, you want to find a reputable school or program that is a good match for your child's needs, while also being safe and effective. But, how do you decide?

The best chance of finding a good match is to hire a respected, professional Independent Educational Consultant. Note, I said HIRE one, with a professional reputation. That means they work for you the parent and what is best for you and your child. It is just like hiring an attorney or CPA to represent your interests. They work for you, not someone else. I think most of us would run the other direction if an attorney or CPA promised to represent us at no charge, because we would understand that their real loyalty and duty would probably be to protect the interests of whoever IS paying the bill. The same concept applies to those offering to help you place your child at no cost. These people are not respected by the professionals in this field because they usually recruit for one or more schools, and generally refer to schools that pay them money per enrollment (Cash for Kids). A parent has a better chance of getting competent professional advice by hiring a consultant who is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), or one who has a positive reputation as indicated by the annual survey we do to determine who is included in my directory, The Parent Empowerment Handbook.

Regardless of whether or not parents hire a competent educational consultant to ensure their child goes to a school that is a good match, parents still need to understand the wide-range of schools or programs available. For a general understanding of the variety of options, the most helpful and simple tool I have found is what I call the Structure Spectrum. It is oversimplified of course but also easy to understand. Understanding this simple concept will help the parent see through the tendency for all programs to look good at first glance. Too often, the programs marketers will say they provide the exact experience your child needs. Just as your child's needs vary widely, so does the structure offered by schools and programs. Making the right match is crucial for success. Overkill can be just as much of a disaster as under kill.

The Structure Spectrum is a continuum of interventions based on intensity of structure. This perspective begins with the assumption that the longer a child struggles, or the more intensive the struggles, the program's intervention structure should also be more intense with a longer residential placement intervention. On this simple concept, a long-term, secure, residential psychiatric-based program would fit into the high end of the spectrum, while living at home and participating in counseling or a day program would be on the low end.

If a child is struggling, parents should first look into a counseling intervention, or a day school with a reputation for discipline, which might offer extra resources to deal with learning and perhaps motivational problems. A Family Coach could be an excellent source of common sense help while a child making poor decisions is still living at home. Another route might be residential military schools, which are known for using a military format for discipline and academics, or perhaps a boarding school emphasizing a sense of community with character education and/or additional resources to work with individual learning and motivational problems. However, for many children, this has already been tried without success, or the parent is convinced it would not be effective and something more intense might be needed.

The next more intensive groupings are called residential family-based programs. Often these use the group home model, or a couple that takes very few students into their home, and the students become involved in the local community such as attending the local public school. These programs provide a safe, structured environment with staff that might or might not be licensed therapists. These programs get the student away from the temptations of peers and situations back home, while providing structure and support similar to what might be found in a well-managed functional home. Again, however, many children would abuse the freedoms available at this level and would need a more intense intervention.

The next higher intensive groupings are schools and programs that are self-contained communities. Usually using a boarding school format, the terms that often describe them include "Emotional Growth" or "Therapeutic" boarding school. Although the terms "Emotional Growth" and "Therapeutic" are often used interchangeably, there is a still a subtle difference that is derived from the history of these terms. The "Emotional Growth" theory grew out of the perspective that immaturity was the reason for behavior problems in most teens (age sixteen going on four emotionally). The solution was a tightly structured community where consequences for behavior were immediate and appropriate. Thus, the student could learn the consequences of his/her behavior and grow up. These schools also usually have an emphasis on character education. This approach was effective for many children with behavior problems and was less costly than the more clinical facilities because it required fewer highly paid clinical staff. However, it was ineffective for those with deep-seated trauma or serious psychiatric disorders such as bipolar, anorexia, etc. "Therapeutic" boarding schools provided additional clinical elements and a clinical philosophical outlook to provide treatment for students with more serious disorders, while maintaining much of the "Emotional Growth" and boarding school structure. However, some students have such serious problems that they need a very clinical and psychiatric environment, the next higher level of intervention.

This brings us to the most intensive approach in The Structure Spectrum, those programs that emphasize therapeutic and psychiatric interventions. They are designed for children who have internal impulses that require the added help of medication or intensive therapy. These facilities range from Residential Treatment Centers (RTC's) to psychiatric hospitals. They usually are secure facilities that use terms like "patients" (instead of students), "intake" (instead of admissions), and talk in terms of treating disorders. Of course, this grouping includes a wide-range of approaches, but the underlying commonality is the focus to treat mental disorders or disease rather than help the child reach an age appropriate maturity level like the schools or programs that emphasis emotional growth.

The parent's failure to grasp this simple concept can create many problems and mistakes. I have talked with parents who say, "I am looking for a residential program for a troubled teen," as if all troubled teens, and the schools and programs for them, are the same. Until parents grasp the reality of, and reason for, all the different approaches, as explained in part by the Structure Spectrum, their search will probably produce poor results and they will continue to be confused.

I have also talked with parents who were bitterly critical of a program in which they enrolled their child, because the program was not meeting their child's needs. Usually, it turns out the child needed a very intensive emotional growth/ therapeutic boarding school or even a very clinical program, but the parent had convinced the less intensive program to give their child a chance. When I hear from these parents, they are usually pressuring the program to change its methods, rather than recognizing that the enrollment was a mistake because they had been looking at the wrong level of the Structure Spectrum.

Of course, there are so many variations that it is difficult to place specific schools and programs into this spectrum. However, when a parent understands the basic concept of the Structure Spectrum, much of what they hear from schools and programs or independent educational consultants will make more sense.


December 01, 2008

Excellent article - and thank you for including the parent coaching option; one that is too often skipped as an early option on the structure spectrum.

Vicki L. Jones, MS, PCC
Associate Coach, Next Step for Success

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