[Mr. Lon Woodbury is a member of the Independent Education Consultant Association (IECA) and a certified educational planner who has worked with schools and programs for struggling teens since 1984. He offers a nationwide referral service for parents of adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems, writes an education newsletter, Woodbury Reports, and publishes a directory as part of the results of his research into which schools and programs of quality are available for the child who is making poor decisions. You may contact Mr. Woodbury by email at email@example.com or by visiting www.strugglingteens.com. The following article is reprinted from Three Springs Paradigm magazine, Summer 2003,
Vol. 7 No. 2]
Ten years ago, a parent would have walked into a mental health professional’s office and said, “I have a problem with Johnny, can you help me?” Now, parents walk into the office with a stack of research they have pulled off the Internet.
Describing the Internet as a challenge for parents is an understatement. In regards to protecting their children, or filtering valid from invalid information, the Internet provides opportunities, challenges and dangers that parents never imagined a decade ago.
THE OLD AND NEW PARADIGM
Much has been written about how the explosion of the Internet has created a paradigm shift in the way our society communicates and shares information. The Internet now allows parents with special needs children to bypass the societal filters that have developed over the past 100 years to protect citizens from bad information and harmful influences. In the past, centralized media sources and professional associations were essentially the “gatekeepers” that maintained the filters upon which parents depended on. Now, empowered parents are left to their own devises to determine which information is accurate.
WHAT PARENT EMPOWERMENT MEANS
The upside of the growth of the Internet is parent empowerment. When looking for resources for their child in crisis, parents have unlimited access to information. A simple Internet search can reveal the existence of schools, programs and professionals that parents would not have been likely to encounter before the Internet. Not only do parents now have more choices than ever before, but, more importantly, this increased availability of knowledge empowers them to take responsibility for intervening when their child is making very poor decisions. This increased knowledge means that parents are no longer totally dependent on the advice of physicians, mental health professionals, law enforcement personnel or other professionals to intervene or find resources for their children.
The downside of the Internet is that people can claim anything and characterize themselves in any way they wish with no editorial or publication policy or professional standards to restrict what they can say on a web site. This has allowed poorly designed programs to develop slick marketing web pages that can misrepresent the quality of information while not being accountable to anyone. Unfortunately, some parents equate polished advertising with quality programming and are attracted to poor quality programs that look very good on the Web. The filters that parents have previously depended on to screen for quality no longer work in the era of the Internet.
DECENTRALIZED DECISION MAKING
Essentially, the ability to communicate information has been drastically decentralized by the Internet. In the past, one way or another, the distribution of information about schools and programs and placement decisions was controlled, or at least strongly influenced, by centralized institutions. Peer review was a fairly effective way to filter out unreliable information. Accountability was maintained because publicity and marketing depended to a large extent on the approval of the publication running the advertisement or story. In addition, a rigorous system of state regulatory agencies existed to keep an eye on programs in their jurisdictions, and parents depended on these “gatekeepers” to do the screening for them. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did effectively filter out many poor quality schools and programs, which in turn could not attract enough parents to be financially successful.
The filters worked well enough in the past that many parents relied upon them, and now they continue to assume the current information they hear or read is valid because it had been similarly screened. I first encountered this commonly accepted attitude while in high school when I was told that a particular newspaper story “must be true or it wouldn’t have been published.” Another popular attitude was that, “the doctor [professional] knows best!” Although this was a rather naïve attitude, at the time these filters worked at least well enough that they somewhat justified parents having this kind of trust in professionals and the media.
PARENTS ARE BYPASSING PROFESSIONALS
This is no longer the case! The Internet now allows parents to pay attention to any resource that catches their eye while ignoring differing opinions, no matter how well founded. Direct marketing is becoming the rule. Unfortunately, many parents seem to still have the old naïve blind faith that even on the Internet, “someone” will ensure that what they read is true! Every week I hear from upset parents who enrolled their child in the first program they found on the Internet or figured those at the top of the search engines are there because they must be the best. It seems parents who grew up with the old filters are still depending on them to be in place.
PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY IN THE INTERNET ERA
Since an important trend in society is toward empowering parents, one part of the solution will be for all professionals in this field to help parents have access to good, complete and adequate information. Also, parents must fully realize that just because the person on the phone or from a Web site is smooth and understanding, it does not mean that he or she has the parents’ or child’s best interests in mind. In other words, as parents become empowered with greater access to all kinds of information, they enter a more precarious, “buyer beware” environment. The following guidelines can help parents establish their own filters that will serve the same function as the fading societal filters once played, ensuring more reliable information with which to make enrollment decisions for their child.
…as parents become empowered with greater access to all kinds of information, they enter a more precarious “buyer beware” environment.
INTERNET GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS
Always explore in depth at least three unconnected and different types of schools or programs. Then, listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.
Ignore web sites that don’t identify the key people who operate the business, whether a school or referral agency, no matter how perfect it seems.
For referral agencies, always know the background of the people with whom you are speaking, and satisfy yourself that their claim of expertise is justified. While being a parent of a special needs child is helpful, it is not sufficient.
Remember that as a parent you know your child better than any professional. Never forget this!
Ask referral agencies that claim to give free advice how they earn their money. It is naïve to think a person is spending massive amounts of time helping parents without being paid in some way. Whoever is paying them is their employer. If you are not paying them, they are probably working for someone else!
Obtaining a second independent opinion is always your right, and can be very helpful.
Asking about the quality of a particular school or program is the wrong question. The more important question is whether the particular school or program you are considering is best suited for your child.
Remember, parents advising you on placement might have their own personal agenda, which is not necessarily in the best interest of you or your child.
A reputation among peers is a very good indication of quality. Is the referring professional member of the Independent Educational Consultant’s Association (IECA), or is he or she a Certified Educational Planner (CEP)? Is the school or program a member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), a member of some other independent professional organization, or are they included in the Woodbury Reports directory, Places for Struggling Teens? If so, then the consultant or program has gained at least some positive recognition among his/her peers and has met some basic criteria.
It is more important to find the right match for your child than it is to find a place close to home.
A lower cost tuition might mean the program hires minimum wage or improperly trained staff to work directly with your child.
Helping a child to change his or her attitudes and behavior takes as long as it takes. Attempting to do so within a pre-determined time frame is treating the child like a flat tire.
A punishment philosophy, typically found in boot camps, usually backfires and, with untrained staff, can result in abuse.
A school can help you with a placement only when the school and parents are fully open with each other.
Trying to research placement options without experienced professional advice is like representing yourself in court; it is your right, but it increases the likelihood of disaster.
Asking for professional advise is just that, picking the brain of a trained individual so you can make the final decision. Beware of a professional that tells you exactly what to do.
Now that parents are more empowered by the vast quantity of options they learn about on the Internet, it is the parents’ responsibility to filter out inappropriate placements - not to leave it up to professionals. For parents, along with more empowerment, comes more responsibility.
[The following article is reprinted with permission from Three Springs Paradigm magazine, Summer 2003, Vol. 7 No. 2] http://www.onlineparadigm.com