Why Your Child Might Need A Therapeutic Boarding School

Making huge decisions in times of trauma is never an ideal situation. Alternatively, finding the time to be prepared with potential options and solutions for children struggling within the confines of their current educational setting isn’t always the easiest thing to do either.

Many of you know the tell tale signs that your child’s needs are not being met in their current educational environment. Whether they are in a least restrictive setting or a most supportive setting either within the classroom, often times what is demonstrated is a more rageful, dysregulated child at home when, at school, it takes them more and more effort to keep it together. Perhaps the school tells you things are fine in your IEP meetings and that you need more family therapy but you know in your gut that your child’s needs are being placed second to the underlying financial woes of your district.

If your child is especially disruptive in class, the district may place them in a “behavioral intervention” setting when the origin of your child’s behavior might actually be organic and not premeditated or purposely oppositional. In that setting, the academics come secondary to the behavioral management and so the child often falls behind the learning curve of their skill abilities.

If there is any safety matter, whether it is for your child’s safety fueled by depression of how difficult they find school, the social or emotional demands of it or the pressure of performing all day in an environment that doesn’t support their needs, or the safety of others (your child’s outbursts are violent and dangerous and there is liability towards you, those at school, and others your child may come into contact with) you must take immediate action, whether or not the school supports it.

So, you start looking. But the question is…where do you start? And, harder still is determining what you are looking for. If your child has been hospitalized for their mental health, there are often a bevy of resources with the social work team that staffs the ward. Sometimes the special education resources within your district will provide some help, but oftentimes parents are left to look for alternatives outside their school system on their own.

Start with a clarified understanding of what needs are and aren’t being met by the school the child attends. Work with your family pediatrician, educational consultant, child psychologist or specialty therapist (Occupational, Physical, Developmental) to create a comprehensive list of the ideal criteria to be met by an environment that would equally support your child’s special developmental, behavioral and educational needs.

The best resource I have found for credible and validated information on the varying types of schools and programs is through the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. Membership in the association covers programs in 30 different states, serving ages ranging from 12-25. Some programs will accept younger children based on individual needs.

Understanding the difference between school and program options is integral to choosing the right program for your child.

Here are the program descriptions as determined by NATSAP.

For Australian boarding schools, check out ABSA.

Boarding Schools (Emotional Growth, Therapeutic)

These schools generally provide an integrated educational milieu with an appropriate level of structure and supervision for physical, emotional, behavioral, familial, social, intellectual and academic development. These schools grant high school diplomas or award credits that lead to admission to a diploma granting secondary school. Each school will vary in their approach to the emotional and behavioral needs of the child and we urge parents to review this approach with the professional that has been working with their child to ensure appropriate placement. Placement at these boarding schools can range from 12 months to 2 years depending on the program’s therapeutic components.

Outdoor Behavioral Health (Wilderness Programs and Outdoor Therapeutic Programs)

Subscribe to a diverse treatment model that incorporates a blend of therapeutic modalities, but do so in the context of wilderness environments and backcountry travel. The approach has evolved to include client assessment, development of an individual treatment plan, the use of established psychotherapeutic practice, and the development of aftercare plans. Outdoor behavioral health programs apply wilderness therapy in the field, which contains the following key elements that distinguish it from other approaches found to be effective in working with adolescents: 1) the promotion of self-efficacy and personal autonomy through task accomplishment, 2) a restructuring of the therapist-client relationship through group and communal living facilitated by natural consequences, and 3) the promotion of a therapeutic social group that is inherent in outdoor living arrangements.

Residential Treatment Centers

The focus of these programs is behavioral support. Medication management and medical monitoring is generally available on-site. These facilities treat adolescents with serious psychological and behavior issues. Most are Joint Commission (JCAHO) accredited. These facilities provide group and individual therapy sessions. They are highly structured and offer recreational activities and academics.

Small Residential Programs

Are designed to serve fewer than 30 students in nurturing, often family-like settings. Small residential programs offer a holistic therapeutic milieu which is based upon the relationships formed and the social dynamics created in small, intimate environments. These programs offer appropriate levels of structure and supervision for the emotional, social and academic development of their students. These programs often incorporate life skills training, academic instruction, outdoor adventure, recreation, and family involvement into an experiential living environment. Small residential programs often maintain an area of specialty for the students they serve.

After assessing what program option might be best for your child’s personal needs you must layer the special needs criteria that have to be met over any of the target program’s specific age, sex and diagnosis requirements. From that, a list of schools and programs can be culled to compare side-by-side. Much like college tours, NATSAP suggests site visits, ideally with your child, but if necessary parents can make the visits on their own. On-site visits give families the “real deal” in flavor and disciplines, not to mention direct access to clinical staff and administrators who can answer questions and provide custom consultations to support a potential placement.

So now you have done your research, found the best programs in the country to meet your child and family’s needs and prioritized your top choices. The next step is in securing the funding, if you aren’t otherwise able to pay it out of pocket. One must keep in mind that varying programs have different time spans including what might be a 3 or 6 month boot camp, a 12 or 18 month rehabilitation-centered program, or a full secondary education from grade 7-12. So much of the program is focused on the intended outcomes that each one is as individual as the child who enters into it.

So, again, who pays? The first place to check is with your medical insurance company. The recent reform in mental healthcare coverage has opened the door for some companies to cover at least a portion of some of the rehabilitation and treatment center programs. It doesn’t take long to make the call and you will have an answer without having to jump through a lot of hoops.

The second place to look is your local school district. If you have an advocate or educational consultant, ask them what the possibility is of approaching your school district to pay for the program and if there is any precedent for them paying. If the school has decided they will outplace into a therapeutic day on their own, they pay for the program automatically. The tricky part with them paying is that they often get to choose the program. Stand hard on this point and make sure you are on the same page regarding the goals and outcomes of the outplacement. The therapeutic outplacement can cost the local school district up to 6X more than keeping your child in their public setting. Make sure there are safety precautions in the transportation and regular meetings to assess the child’s IEP as it shifts in the new environment.

Often times, it costs the local district less to place your child in a residential program than it is to have them in a therapeutic day program. Any residential program costs are remitted back to them from a state and/or federal level and in the end, the district is out of pocket exactly what it would have cost them to keep your child in their public school setting.

If the school district is refusing to support your child’s outplacement into a program you have chosen, then another option is to turn to the state programs and potential grant money that exists for support of those under 18 with disabilities. Certain states have grants, others have agencies with specific requirements for accessing federally mandated funding. Uncovering the funds can be arduous and feel overwhelming in addition to the difficulties you are facing with your child.

The last ditch route is to hire an attorney to push either of these areas (your school district or your state agencies) to pay for your child’s care. No one wants messy, public court cases, but neither does anyone want the responsibility of sending a young child to a Residential Treatment Center either. When getting your child the care they need to have the best chance of growing into a successful and functional adult comes down to squeezing the money out of the coffers of those agencies that are there to protect your children’s rights to have those services, it can be very disarming and shift all of your paradigms as a taxpaying parent.

Having your research done and feeling empowered by the resources you gather before you implement your plan is key. The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) can serve as a fantastic resource because they are required to visit dozens of the existing programs each year. Additionally, the NATSAP website updates their list of accredited members annually with their free and easily accessible online directory. Lastly, NATSAP has an unparalleled list of books, articles and websites to support this part of your journey.