What is Therapeutic Wilderness?

I have parents ask what is wilderness, and why does it work better than sending my child to therapy?  These are basic questions to answer on some level, although the underlying factors and facts are not so easily answered.  So bear with me as I lead you down a path to understanding.

Let me begin by saying that there are many talented and hard working therapists out there. Their job with adolescents is not easy.  They must compete with many other distractions on an infrequent basis to provide not only an outlet for the child to complain about their environment but to build an individual tool kit to help that child survive and thrive amidst those distractions.  For some individuals, let alone for some children, the therapist becomes the first and best line of defense.

Most of the families we see have tried this route.  They may have already seen a few therapists–one for the child, one for the family, one in school and one outside school, even one for each parent–and perhaps it worked for a while.  But another stumbling block might have emerged, and they found themselves back at the beginning.  Or perhaps they tried to find a good therapist but could not find one that worked for them.  After all, one must like working with one’s therapist and find the relationship rewarding on some level.  But that level is subjective.  That is the human nature of psychology.  While there are never guarantees, we do what we can to effect change.  And that may be why, for some people, outpatient therapy is not enough.

Wilderness programs have been around for many years now, with recent research bearing up that this is, for some students, a reasonable therapeutic alternative with positive outcomes  (https://obhcouncil.com/research/does-wilderness-treatment-work/).  [As a note, I am not including boot camps in this discussion as I consider them to be highly punitive and therefore not therapeutic.]  Anasazi began as an experiment some 50 years ago through a university program to help turn around the lives of young people by removing them from their current difficulties and rerouting their thinking.  Formally launched as a nonprofit in Arizona in 1988 by Larry Olsen and Ezekiel Sanchez, Anasazi still runs a traditional wilderness model in which students live in the desert for 8 weeks.  Food and shelter are provided (and field staff carry satellite phones for emergencies), but cell phones, television sets, and iPods are not.  Since then, many other wilderness programs have come along (and some have gone).  There is a wide range of programs now, including high adventure models with intensive exercise, base camp models in which students sleep in dormitory style cabins and venture out on two or three days hikes, campuses with dormitory type accommodations in which students only go out during the day, to those with farm-like settings.  The basic premise that separates wilderness from other therapeutic settings (such as boarding schools) is the intense experiential work and the short length of stay (typically 6 to 10 weeks).

Many children and adolescents who are placed in wilderness are angry, defiant, scared, depressed, anxious, oppositional, shut down, engaging in risky or harmful behavior, and/or in general are not doing well at home and/or at school.  They may or may not be using drugs, engaging in sex with multiple partners, hurting themselves, refusing to eat or to speak, sneaking out at night or disappearing for days on end.  They may or may not be failing in school.  They may or may not be hiding in the basement of their parents’ house.  In any event, many have been seeing one or more therapists, and things are either not improving or are getting worse.  Most do not want to go to wilderness, or anywhere else for that matter.  Not surprisingly, this is the point at which critics of the industry suggest that children should be able to drive their own therapy.  Unfortunately, many of them have been, and it has not been successful.  It is at this juncture that parents have to exert control and decide–is this step right for my child, and if so, which program do I choose?

Understand that the basic premise of wilderness is to remove a child from their current environment.  The idea is that by removing all distractions, the child will be forced to confront their issues and/or their concerns, and will do so in a structured way in an unstructured environment (we cannot control whether or not it rains, but we can control whether or not to put up a tarp to keep us dry).  They will have the opportunity throughout the day and the night, 24/7, to discuss or to explore their feelings and the factors that have led them to this place.  In a good program, they will work with carefully trained field staff and therapists to find their “genuine” self, to build self-esteem and self-efficacy through self-care, to understand how big the world really is and yet how much one person can have an impact on it, to appreciate the importance of relationships to survival and to joy, and to rebuild those relationships that were almost destroyed.  For families, it can serve as a break, but families also need to take part in their own therapeutic work if only to better understand the child who is now living in a tent.

I liken wilderness to a honeymoon.  The participants might be a bit nervous or anxious at first, but once they “figure things out” they don’t want to leave.  It never ceases to amaze me how often my clients leave wilderness stating that beyond wanting a shower they did not want to leave the field.  It can be and often is that powerful an experience.  And some do move on to become field staff or therapists themselves.  They loved it that much.  Still, it is only the beginning, and most students need additional therapeutic work when they return home.  After all, the honeymoon is only the beginning stage of a marriage.  Wilderness is the kick-start or beginning stage to an emotionally healthy life.

So here are some things to consider when making this very difficult and very personal decision:

  • If your child is regressing and/or you feel helpless to help them, you likely need outside support.  If outpatient therapy has not worked for your child and/or is not making a difference in their behaviors or attitude, you may need to think about alternatives, which could include wilderness.  Speak with someone who is familiar with such programs, though, and do not rely on the Internet or your friend’s cousin’s sister’s step child’s experience.  Your child is unique and may have very different needs from someone else.
  • What work are you willing to do or have you done?  A family system needs work when anyone in that system is struggling, regardless of the reason.  Perhaps you have been too distant, perhaps your child needs their own space, perhaps everyone in the family shuts down when there are strong feelings expressed, or perhaps everyone expresses their feelings so strongly that nothing is solved.  If a child is doing their therapeutic work, the family needs to do theirs as well.  Positive change can only continue if things change at home–even if the change is small it can be powerful.
  • If you are looking for a “quick fix” wilderness is not going to help.  Often students who attend a wilderness program take part in additional therapeutic work after they leave.  This might include returning to their home therapist or attending a therapeutic school.  Wilderness is the kick-starter, not the cure!
  • Some families might not want to spend the money for wilderness.  There are a variety of programs out there and the costs range widely as well.  I cannot tell a family how to spend their money.  What I can suggest is for a family to consider where they are now and where they think their current course of action will lead them.  If that action is leading to a good place, then keep your child home.  If things are not going well, wilderness should be seen as an investment towards change.
  • If a child is making progress in therapy, then there is no reason to send them away.  On the other hand, a short-term summer program might be a nice break for everyone, but it should be agreed upon with the child if they are in fact making progress (and therefore the right program will be essential to prevent “undoing” all that good work).

For more information on whether or not wilderness is right for your child, please find someone who is knowledgeable about such programs and what they can or cannot do for your family.  Independent Educational Consultants who specialize in working with therapeutic programs (http://www.iecaonline.com), the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (http://www.natsap.org), or the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (http://www.obhcouncil.com) are good places to begin.

What is Therapeutic Wilderness?

The Challenges of Seeking Test Accommodations

As we come into the standardized test season (think SSAT, SAT, ERB, ACT, etc.), some parents of learning disabled and ADHD students worry that their child’s accommodations from school will not be recognized or accepted by the College Board or other testing service.  This concern is justified.  One cannot take for granted that services received in any educational environment will automatically transfer to other situations.  Parents need to understand that there are no guarantees.  Still, successfully receiving accommodations is possible if you follow these guidelines.

First, a student must have received accommodations in their current educational setting for at least 6 months.  If your son or daughter has never been evaluated before but his/her teachers have provided what they felt was appropriate for the student to achieve success, they may still be eligible with the right paperwork.  Just remember that the College Board will not honor a last minute request for test accommodations if your child has never received them in school before.  There can be exceptions, such as if a child recently suffered a medical condition that is well documented.  Still, that means she/he has also received those accommodations at school, and there will be information on that as well.

Second, make sure you have appropriate documentation.  The school guidance counselor has paperwork to fill out to request your child’s accommodations, and that will include evidence that the school has honored your requests in the past based on data, such as a psychoeducational evaluation, a doctor’s evaluation, etc.  If your child has been tested in the past, make sure the testing is no more than 3 years old.  If your child has never been formally evaluated, get the testing done as soon as you are able.

Third, and this leads to a critical piece of the puzzle, the College Board requires 6 week minimum to review the paperwork submitted by the guidance counselor.  Most evaluations take several weeks because the professional must conduct testing and write a report.  Then the report must be given to the guidance counselor, who needs time to incorporate this information into the required paperwork.  Thus, working backwards, a parent must allow 4 months (and in some cases more than that) before the actual expected test date to get the appointments needed for any evaluations to be conducted.  I cannot stress this enough.  When making appointments, please be realistic, or you will frustrate yourself, your child, and the professionals with whom you work.

Fourth, even if you submit all necessary information, your request may be denied.  There is an appeals process.  I always suggest to parents with a strong case (even if the documentation is not strong) that they take advantage of the appeals process.  This may include getting some updated testing, but it can be worth it.  I have even had parents hire an attorney in situations that seemed particularly unfair (such as a student who suffered a head injury and needed time to read test questions).  It is not that the College Board is deliberately trying to sabotage your child’s future–they are concerned that students might take unfair advantage of the situation and get an “edge” over their peers.  Philosophically, I can argue with them about that forever, but realistically I have to accept that position.  If you believe that your daughter or son really needs the additional time, a quiet room, the use of a computer, or whatever accommodations you feel he/she needs, then appeal.

I will conclude by reminding parents that there are no guarantees.  The College Board or other testing agencies have the final say in how they administer their products.  However, that does not preclude success.  Many schools and colleges recognize that not all students perform well on standardized exams even if their classroom grades are very good.  These tests are only one piece of a very large puzzle.  Your child’s application success also rests on teacher recommendations, a strong essay, and other skills and talents they have.  Ten years from now, no one will worry what their SAT scores were!  Finally, many schools and colleges waive the requirement of standardized test scores as part of the application process if the student has sufficient data in the forms of course work, jobs or summer enrichment experiences related to a possible career path, and/or community college courses that may have been completed.  For students applying to college, check out http://www.fairtest.org for a list of those post-secondary schools that do not require standardized test scores as part of the application process.  You will see a fair number of competitive schools on that list!  And no, your decision to omit such scores will not be a factor in their decision to accept your child or not.  The competition for slots not withstanding, many schools recognize the complexity of individual skills and abilities, and thus will judge your child on other factors if no scores are submitted.

The Challenges of Seeking Test Accommodations

Where Do I Begin?

Many times when parents call, it is immediately apparent that they do not know where to begin.  Do they need an evaluation, and if so what type of evaluation?  Do they need to find a different school?  Does their child need an IEP?  And what is the difference between an IEP and a 504?  Do they need an advocate, a lawyer, a therapist. . .and where do they go from there?!

Sometimes the best thing is to begin at the beginning.  A good first step is to find an experienced Educational Consultant, an experienced Educational Advocate, or an experienced Educational Psychologist familiar with students who have complex learning and/or emotional profiles.  You want to find a professional who can help you navigate not only what your child needs, but what is available.  Each state has different guidelines when you are working with the public sector, so if you are working within your public school system, make sure the professional with whom you consult is familiar with both federal and state laws as they pertain to your needs and has experience working with public schools in your state.  If you can afford to work with the private sector, make sure the professional with whom you consult is familiar with a wide range of services both in and out of your state so you can find the best options for your child and your family.

Each professional has different skills and expertise, and an ethical professional will let you know if your child’s needs are beyond their knowledge (and/or require additional supports they may have to research).  No one knows everything!  But a well-trained and experienced professional knows a lot!  So before you begin, you may want to ask some of the following questions:

  • What types of services do you provide?
  • What is the difference between (whatever it is you want to know) and (whatever else it is you need to know!)?
  • Do you work on an hourly basis or a flat rate, and what are your rates?
  • What can I expect to receive working with you?

          During your time with your chosen professional, there may be the need for additional input (such as from a lawyer) or you may need to add someone to your child’s “team” (such as a therapist).  In any event, you have to begin somewhere, so begin with someone who can sift through information to let you know what your options are.

          Ask your friends, coworkers, or family members for names of trusted professionals with whom they have worked.  You may also want to check out some of these resources to find a professional in your area:

Where Do I Begin?