What to Expect from Placement for Struggling Teens

by George and Adrienne Posner

As educational consultants, we frequently face questions from parents about the likelihood of success from programs and schools that we recommend: How successful are these programs? Will our child be able to come home afterward? How long will it take? Will our child still be able to go to a really good college? - and many other similar types of questions. In considering these questions there seem to be some basic ideas that all those who work with struggling young people (parents, consultants, therapists and school/program staff) need to keep in mind. Four seem particularly important:

1. The process takes time. The beginning can be rough for everyone. There is a normal period of testing and adjustment that most children go through when they enter a school or program. In addition to home sickness there is also anger, fear, guilt, shame and denial. Parents too experience feelings similar to those of their children. This is the time parents start to realize that the program placement was, to some extent, a leap of faith. It is also the time when most doubts occur. Although preparation by the consultant and on-site parent visits prior to placement can help, nevertheless, in the beginning many parents start to question their decisions. Relying on phone calls and letters from a child for information about the child's progress and the quality of treatment is not only unsettling for the parents; it can also weaken the parent's confidence in the school or program, and can ultimately undermine the child's success. Ways of dealing with this doubt include staying in contact with the program, talking with the consultant, and calling parents whose children graduated from the program. Although most programs welcome communication with parents, their primary job is working with children. At this vulnerable stage many parents fall into the trap of judging a program by how well their needs as parents are being met. Parent communication is of the utmost importance, but patience is necessary to give the program and student time together, before parents make a hasty judgment.

2.There is usually no such thing as a perfect placement. Parents are looking for many things in a program. Most parents want a school or program that is safe, not too costly, not too far from home, can provide a good education, has just enough structure, has just enough therapy, has the right mix of students, has qualified staff etc. etc. Unfortunately all schools and programs have strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, choosing a placement entails setting priorities. This is where consultants can be very helpful. A consultant can provide an objective perspective on the situation by helping the family set priorities. Setting priorities in the beginning can help parents avoid frustrations when schools and programs don't measure up to an ideal.

3. Programs do not “fix kids”. So what is it that schools and programs do accomplish? And what can we realistically expect from them? First of all, a school or program can get the family out of crisis, allowing time for separation and reflection. Secondly, it can keep the child safe and drug free. Third, schools and programs with a therapeutic component can help the child increase his or her self awareness. Fourth, a school or program with an emotional growth curriculum can help raise issues and clarify values. Fifth, a school or program with an appropriate learning environment can provide an education that addresses the child's learning needs. Sixth, highly structured schools and programs, utilizing immediate consequences for behavior, can start to build new behavioral patterns. Seventh, schools and programs with a family component can help the family itself begin to change. Eighth, schools and programs with a drug treatment component can help the child work towards building a commitment to a life of sobriety. In light of all these potential outcomes, if a child goes to a school or program, will things get better? Assuming the child completes the program, he or she will have acquired a set of tools. By tools I mean new ways of coping with issues that the child has struggled with and may continue to struggle with throughout life. The acquisition of tools does not necessarily mean changes in behavior. Tools only result in changes in behavior when the child chooses to use them. Sometimes children relapse back to old behaviors after leaving a school or program. Does this mean that the school or program has failed? Some responsibility for this behavior rests with the child. A school or program can only go so far. It is up to the child to take what he or she has been given and to move forward. It is important to understand that when a child leaves a program, he or she is not fixed, only equipped.

4. Success at home also depends on changes at home. How long will it be before a child can return home? That depends on what needs to be changed and how much work has been done on changing the old environment. The problematic issues at home typically include the former school, old friends, availability of substances, and family dynamics. Depending upon the significance of each of these factors, adjustments might range from drastic to minimal. Much depends on the length of the program. For those coming home after a short-term program a specific after-care plan must be in place before the child returns. Although returning home after a short-term program is not ideal, sometimes there is no other choice. If this is the case then all family members need to be involved in working on changes. Relevant elements of an after-care plan under these circumstances might include individual therapy for the child and perhaps other family members, family (and possibly marriage) counseling, a change in school, and drug counseling, to mention a few possibilities. Although we can expect more durable changes from longer-term programs and schools, without changes at home the success of the child is at risk. Parents who expect the child to make all the changes and a school or program to provide all the answers are usually disappointed. Most schools and programs recognize the importance of family growth. Therefore, they offer a wide range of family work including phone therapy, audio tapes, recommended books, on-site family counseling, family seminars, and local support groups. Parents that experience the greatest success from schools and programs are usually those that take the fullest advantage of these resources.

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