by Jeffrey Brain, MA, CTS, CEP
Certified Educational Planner
For years, I have worked with parents of troubled teens and struggling teens as they have searched for therapeutic boarding schools. This is one of the most difficult decisions parents must make on behalf of their child and their family. It has significant implications not only for the immediate future, but long into adulthood. Finding the right program can be daunting, given the many options, subtle differences between programs, and the marketing that schools and programs have in place to draw prospective parents. The evaluation process necessarily entails a degree of discernment and care that is often difficult since the decision is often being made in the face of crisis. Parents experience a myriad of emotions -- frustration, fear, disappointment, anger, hopelessness -- none of which are good for making informed, well reasoned and thought-out decisions.
Parents find boarding schools for troubled teens in many different ways: doing their own research on-line, referrals from an educational consultant, psychologist, therapist or physician, or from alumni, another parent or program. Selecting the appropriate level of care is the first important decision. An educational consultant will ensure that you are entering the treatment continuum at the appropriate level. But for those parents not using an educational consultant, it is important to consider level of care when looking for schools and programs, as it will help guide your expectations of the care and services provided. For example, there are components of care that you would expect to find in a residential treatment center (RTC) that would not be found in a therapeutic boarding school and vice versa. A brief summary of the different levels of care is included below.
After reviewing a school's website and admissions packet, and speaking with admissions personnel, parents need to make the all-important campus visit to learn first-hand whether the school is appropriately equipped to meet their child's needs.
My experience has been that many parents are not well prepared for this campus tour, and understandably so. Most parents have not had the experience of evaluating and choosing a therapeutic school environment, and thus do not know what to look for or how to discern aspects of a school that make it right or wrong for their child. In addition, there is usually so much emotion associated with the process that the evaluation is sometimes based on an emotional reaction rather than the merits of the school.
My hope in writing this is to provide parents with a checklist -- a list of important and necessary things to look for, questions to ask, and mistakes to avoid when touring a campus. The list is developed not only from my experience as the director of admissions at a therapeutic boarding school, but also as a clinician who has visited over 100 schools and programs. From both sides of the table, I have experienced the challenge of not only learning and understanding programs, but in accurately representing them as well.
Although this information is copyright protected, permission is granted to parents to copy and use as they begin to visit schools and programs. I hope that it is helpful to you, and that it empowers you to more effectively engage and evaluate the schools you visit. I value any additional items that could be added to make the checklist more thorough. I invite you to email me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Making the Most of Your On-campus Tour
A checklist for parents when visiting a therapeutic boarding school or similar program.
(c) Jeff Brain 2009
1. Be open minded. You are seeking a unique learning and therapeutic environment for your child since he/she has not been successful in traditional settings. Do not define the school by your understanding of what you know works. If that worked, you wouldn't be searching for a specialized environment.
2. Ask questions. Never assume a question is not relevant, appropriate or proper. Take notes and arrive on time for your appointment. It is important not to short- change your time at the school by arriving late. In fact, its always good to arrive a little early so that you are not feeling hurried, and have a chance to organize your thoughts.
3. Ask what the school specializes in and then judge whether the students they accept match their expertise. A good school will only accept students they have expertise to work with. For example, if a school represents that it can address substance abuse, you should be looking for evidence of expertise in this area. How do they address it? How well versed are staff? What is their approach? How many staff know this? And perhaps most important, does anyone have personal experience with it? It is amazing how many schools and programs are treating kids with eating disorders for example, with no one on staff with personal experience overcoming an eating disorder. It's appropriate to ask for their admission criteria, and their exclusion criteria.
As an aside, it is critically important that you be fully truthful and thorough in representing your child's needs, strengths and personality. A school can only help ensure a good match to the degree that you have accurately and fully disclosed the information to them.
4. Ask how similar or dissimilar your child's needs are to the school's typical student. A good school should be able to clearly define for you how closely your child's needs match their student profile, and which of your child's needs are unique, unfamiliar or rare for them. You should have a clear sense of where your child falls on the continuum of students they have at the school. This is important to manage "surprises" later related to expectation of success.
5. Ask the admissions staff directly why the school would be successful with your son or daughter. Also ask whether anything about your child concerns them, or suggests that they may not have a successful outcome.
6. What the school does especially well -- what its strengths are -- will be evident. What is often not as clear is where its weaknesses are. It's good to ask the admissions staff what they feel are the weaknesses. All programs have them, and are continuously working to improve in one area or another. Knowing and understanding these weaknesses is important for a prospective parent. How well does the admissions staff know these organizational issues, and can they speak to how they are being addressed?
7. You should always have access to students alone. If the admissions personnel or staff will not leave you alone with students, assume they have something to hide. You should always expect to be able to speak to current students. Make sure you speak to students who are most similar to your son or daughter. This will give you the best sense of how the school will respond to your child's specific needs. It is often interesting to speak to new students. Many schools will not allow this, but if you can, new students usually offer interesting insight.
8. Most schools have specific times that are optimal for on-campus tours, and this is appropriate. You should also feel free to ask to see the school during times outside of the scheduled tour times, like on a weekend, or at dinner time. This may not always be practical for you, but even just asking the question and seeing if the school is open to that is telling.
9. When you visit a school, try hard not to be influenced by the weather. You generally will have a more favorable impression of a school you visit on a beautiful, sunny, spring day than a school you visit on a rainy, damp, cold day. But, of course, this is no indication of the quality of the school or the match for your child. Try not to be influenced by these types of external circumstances. The view may be beautiful but the view will not be the agent of change for your child.
10. When on campus, spend time just observing. You will want and need to be talking to students and admissions staff, but do take time to just "hang out." Watch students change classes, observe an activity such as a gym class or sporting event, casually walk around campus. Don't allow your time to be completely scheduled.
11. Talk to non-admissions staff during your visit. Get a sense of the staff, ask them about who they are, what they do, what the school does. Does the staff represent the mission of the school?
12. Be aware and sensitive to the spirit of the school, or the overall "feel" or "tone" of the environment. Be aware of your gut instinct: Does the school have an overall positive feel to it? (This is different than your own emotions, which may be fear, anxiety, etc.)
13. Ask about the ownership of the school. Is it owned by a parent company or is it privately or family owned? Is the owner on campus? Does the owner have regular involvement with the students? Are you able to speak to the owner? It is important that the ownership of the school be connected to the daily operations and, more importantly, to the students.
14. Ask about the financial condition of the school. How long has it been in operation? How is it equipped to handle difficult economic times? Has it ever filed for bankruptcy?
15. Be aware of how well the admissions staff know the students. Do they address students by name and do students know them? It may be unrealistic to expect the admissions staff to know all the students' names (depending on the size of the school), but they should know most. (If you'd like to have a little fun with the admissions staff, ask them to identify by name the students' pictures they have in their admissions packet or marketing materials.)
16. Is the school appropriately accredited or licensed? Ask who it is accredited or licensed by, and what the accreditations mean. Look up the accrediting organizations; they are in essence the independent auditors and regulators of the organization. There are often different accreditations for academic and therapeutic components of the school or program.
17. Is the school a member of any professional organizations? Which ones and why? Look up these organizations online to learn more about their mission. Are they members of professional groups? This shows a spirit of collaboration and involvement in the larger field of education and therapeutic services for youth.
18. Will the school refer you to other schools, programs, services or professionals that will help you determine whether you are making the right decision? You may opt not to use those resources, but it's important to evaluate if the school is just interested in filling a spot or if it is committed to helping you find the best matched program.
19. Does the school provide help and assistance to parents even if you do not enroll? As a therapeutic school, it may be meaningful to you if the school makes attempts to help parents even if an enrollment is not the outcome.
20. A good school is active in and contributes to its community. What is its involvement/relationship with the local or regional community and with the local school or school district?
21. Who makes the acceptance decision? In a therapeutic school, someone with clinical knowledge, experience and expertise should be the one deciding whether or not to enroll a student. It is appropriate to ask credentials of the person(s) who make these decisions.
22. What relationship does the school have with its alumni? How does it handle/respond to disgruntled alumni (who usually have a presence on the internet)? Most schools who deal with at-risk or troubled youth have some negative press from alumni. Expect this and feel open to ask the admissions staff about it. Rather than take what is said online as truth, discern the accuracy of the reports when you visit campus and talk to students.
23. Ask to speak to staff who direct, organize or coordinate the activities that you think your child will be most interested in. For example, ask to speak to the soccer coach, or the dance instructor or the art teacher.
24. Ask to receive student-produced material, such as the student newspaper, yearbook or student handbook. Different than marketing or admissions materials, these give a more current and focused glimpse into student life at the school.
25. Ask about the school's short- and long-term plans. Are they planning to grow in size, or downsize? Are there building plans or campus improvement projects underway? Are there program changes anticipated during your child's enrollment?
26. Ask about costs and fees. Get all costs and fees in writing. Ask if the tuition will rise during your child's stay.
27. Ask about significant incidents at the school: running away, suicide, fire, death. What you are looking for is a direct, straightforward discussion of this. Suicide can (and does) happen anywhere. You are looking more for the school's preparation, readiness and sensitivity to these tragedies.
28. Be clear about intervention techniques. Ask about them and especially observe any interventions in action during your visit. Ask to speak to a student who is currently dealing with a problem. The school will necessarily need to be selective and careful in this regard to safeguard the integrity of the student's consequence, but it should be open to you speaking with a student who can talk to you about their experience. The school should have clear rationale as to why the interventions are used. Arbitrary or capricious interventions should not be used.
29. If the school has a psychiatrist on staff or in a consulting role, ask about the psychiatrist's involvement with the clinical/counseling team and his/her involvement with you as parents. A psychiatrist should be an active, involved member of the school's treatment team and be in contact with you directly about treatment.
30. Ask about the screening and training of staff. Are employees screened before being employed and what type of on-going training do they receive? Staff training is a significant component of a quality program. You could request to see recent topics of staff training.
31. Ask about health services. How well is the school or program equipped to address any existing medical conditions or illness/injuries that may arise?
32. How do parents communicate with staff and with their child? Ask about the school's communication policy and procedures. They should align with the mission and scope of the school as well as with the issues of the students. Some programs should have liberal communication and others should have restricted and monitored communication based on the needs and issues of the students. Any good program will ensure that someone who knows and works with your child has regular communication with you.
33. Ask about the role the school anticipates or expects you to have in your child's treatment. Most good programs include family counseling and parent education.
34. Ask about recreational opportunities, weekend structure and activities, security, and what a typical day is like.
35. Do not hesitate to ask if you have a specific concern, such as how the school deals with bullying, homosexuality, trauma, abuse, adoption, etc.
36. Always ask for a parent reference list. You may think they will include only parents that will give a positive reference. That may be true, but you can tell a lot from the list itself. Does the program have such a list? How current is it? How diverse and long is it? Does it include both current parents and alumni parents? Does it say that parents are not expected to report back to the admissions office if they hear from you or what you ask about? Does it specifically say that parents are not receiving anything in exchange for being on the list? It's always a good idea to call one or more of the parents on the list, to hear first hand of their experience.
The following are good, objective, informative websites that can provide you with helpful information about your therapeutic school search.
The information below is collected from various sources, the main source being the 2009 National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) Annual Directory.
I have found it helpful to think of these categories or levels of care on a continuum from more restrictive and intensive treatment to less restrictive and support services. Within each category, there is variability as well. All therapeutic boarding schools, for example, are not the same. Some are more structured, some less. Each program you consider for your child should be able to clearly define where on the continuum it lies, based on the needs of the students it serves and the services it provides.
Adolescent Psychiatric Hospitalization or Drug Rehabilitation Treatment Centers
Residential Treatment Centers (RTC)
Therapeutic Boarding Schools
Outdoor Behavioral Health (Wilderness Programs)
Transitional Independent Living/Young Adult Programs
Traditional Boarding Schools (including LD and character-based)