Choosing the Right School

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This page presents a document authored by Jeff Brain while he was Vice President for External Affairs at the former Family Foundation School, later renamed Allynwood Academy.  His responsibilities included admission.  We include his document pursuant to his permission. FamilyLight feels that it is the very best explanation of what constitutes an effective visit to a therapeutic facility by parents of a child, adolescent our young adult they are considering referring.  

Very respectfully, we have added editor's notes at several points, but all the credit fore the quality and comprehensive nature of this  goes to Jeff.  We begin with his original title, and point out he owns the copyright to this article and further reproduction requires his permission.  


Making the Most of Your Boarding School Tour©

A checklist for parents when visiting a therapeutic boarding school or similar program
Jeffrey Brain, MA, CTS, CEP
Certified Educational Planner, Certified Trauma Specialist
jeffbrain30 at gmail dot com


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 a parent 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 matched 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 to them. The evaluation process necessarily entails a degree of discernment and carefulness that is often difficult since the decision is 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, by referral of an educational consultant, psychologist, therapist or physician, or by referral of an 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 of care. But for those parents not using an educational consultant, it is important to ensure that you look for schools and programs in the appropriate level of care. This is especially important to help guide your expectation 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.

After reviewing the school’s web-site and admissions packet, and speaking with the admissions personnel, parents will make the all-important campus visit, to really 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 and how to discern aspects about the school that makes it right or wrong for their child. In addition, there is usually so much emotion associated with the process that the evaluation is sometimes skewed by emotions 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. This 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 in not only learning and understanding programs, but also accurately representing programs.

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 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 jeffbrain30 at gmail dot com.

Making the Most of your On-campus Tour©

A checklist for parents to use when visiting a therapeutic boarding school or similar program

The list below may be printed and used as a checklist when you visit schools or programs.

  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 – do not ever reject a question thinking it 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 you have a chance to organize your thoughts. (Editor's note 1)
  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.
    1. 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. (Editor's note 2)
  4. Ask how similar or dissimilar your child’s needs are with 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 what about your son or child concerns them or suggests that they may not have a successful outcome.
  6. What the school does well – what their strengths are – will be evident. What is often not as clear is where their weaknesses are. It’s good to ask the admissions staff what they feel the school’s weaknesses are. All programs have weaknesses and are working on making improvements in one area or another, so knowing and understanding those are 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. (Editor's note #3) 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.
    1. 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 responds to your child’s specific needs.
    2. It is often interesting to speak to new students. Many schools will preclude you from speaking to new students but if you can, they 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 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 (this is different than your own emotions which may be fear, anxiety, etc) but does the school have a good feel to it?
  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.  Editor's note #4
  14. Ask about the financial condition of the school. How long have they been in operation? How are they equipped to handle difficult economic times? Have they ever filed for bankruptcy? Editor's note #5  
  15. Be aware how well the admissions staff knows 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 student’s names (depending on the size of the school) but they should know most.
    1. If you would like to have a little fun with the admissions staff, ask them to identify by name the student’s pictures they have in their admissions packet or marketing materials. Editor's note #6. 
  16. Is the school appropriately accredited or licensed? Ask who they are 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. Editor's note #7 
  17. Is the school a member of any professional organizations – which ones and why? Look up these organizations on-line 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 help you by making referrals to other schools, programs, services or professionals that will help you ensure that 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 they are 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 to know if the school makes attempts to help parents even if an enrollment is not the outcome.
  20. Is the school active in their community? A good school should be a contributing member of the community it is in. What is its involvement/relationship with the local or regional community and with the local school/school district?
  21. Who makes the acceptance decision? In a therapeutic school, someone with clinical knowledge, experience and expertise should be making the acceptance or denial decision. It is appropriate to ask credentials of the person(s) who make these decisions.
  22. Ask the admissions director what professional organizations he or she belongs to that sets standards of ethical and professional standards. They should have membership in appropriate and recognized organizations of admissions professionals that set ethical and professional practice guidelines.
  23. Do not sign a power of attorney form. You should not be diminishing or relinquishing your rights to make decisions about your child.  Editor's note 8
  24. 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 on-line as truth, discern the accuracy of the reports when you visit campus and talk to students. Editor's note 8.5
  25. Ask to speak to staff that 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.
  26. Ask to receive student produced material – such as 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.
  27. Ask about the schools short and long term plans. Are they planning to grow in size, or downsize? Are their building plans or campus improvement projects? Are there program changes that will be anticipated during your child’s enrollment?
  28. Ask about costs and fees. Get all costs and fees in writing. Ask if the tuition will rise during your child’s stay.
  29. Ask about significant incidents at the school – running away, suicide, fire, death. What you are looking for is a direct, straight forward discussion of this. Suicide can (and does) happen anywhere. You are looking more for the school’s preparation, readiness and sensitivity to these tragedies.
  30. Be clear about intervention techniques. Ask and especially observe the 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 should be open to you speaking with a student who can manage talking 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. Editor's note #9.
  31. 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. Editor's note #10
  32. 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.   Editor's note #11
  33. Ask about health services – how well is the school or program equipped to address any existing medical conditions or illness/injuries that may arise?
  34. Communication with staff and your child. Ask about what the school’s communication policy and procedures are. 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.  Editor's note #12
  35. Ask about what role the school anticipates or expects you to have with your child’s treatment. Most good programs include family counseling and parent education.  Editor's note #13
  36. Ask about recreational opportunities, weekend structure and activities, security, and what a typical day is like.
  37. Do not hesitate to ask if you have a specific concern, such as how the school deals with bullying, homosexuality, trauma, abuse, adoption, etc.
  38. 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.  Editor's note #14

Please let me know if you think other questions should be added.

You can email them to jeffbrain30 at gmail dot com

Additional Resources

The following are good, objective, informative web-sites that can provide you with helpful information about your therapeutic school search.  (Editor's note #15)    

Choosing the Correct Level of Care:
The information below is collected from various sources, the main source being the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) annual directory, 2009, p. 5-6.
I (Editor's note #16) 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 most structured, some less. Each program you consider for your child should be able to clearly define where on the continuum they lie directly based on the needs of the students they serve and the services they provide. (Editor's Note #n17)
Adolescent Psychiatric Hospitalization or Drug Rehabilitation Treatment Centers
 Variety of in-patient and out-patient service models, including day treatment, out-patient counseling, intensive outpatient (IOP), and in-patient psychiatric and/or drug rehab
 Typically short term and covered by insurance
 Triage orientation – crisis response, diagnosis and treatment recommendations and stabilization
Residential Treatment Centers (RTC)
 Focus is clinical treatment
 Emphasis is more therapeutic than educational
 Full range of treatment services including medication management and medical monitoring
 Typically treat adolescents with serious psychological and behavior issues
 Highly structured settings – greater emphasis on psychological and behavioral stability than on academic development, usually use a level system
 Typically follow a medical model approach to care
 Three to 12 month length of stay is typical
Therapeutic Boarding Schools
 Provide integrated educational milieu with an appropriate level of structure and supervision for physical, emotional, behavioral, familial, social, intellectual and academic development
 Grant high school diplomas and transferable high school credits
 Diverse extracurricular activities and interscholastic sports
 Diverse recreational activities
 Focus on character development and addressing psychological issues
 Provides various levels of individual, group and family counseling
 Extended length of stay 12-24 months is typical
Outdoor Behavioral Health (Wilderness Programs)
 Wide range of treatment models and therapeutic modalities that use the context of wilderness environments to facilitate growth and treatment
 Promotion of self-efficacy and personal autonomy through task accomplishment
 Restructuring of the therapist-client relationship through group and communal living facilitated by natural consequences
 Promotion of a therapeutic social group that is inherent in outdoor living environments.
 Comprehensive assessment available
 Two to three month length of stay
Transitional Independent Living/Young Adult Programs
 Designed for young people 18 years of age or older
 Safe, supportive environment with life skills training
 Educational programs are linked with community colleges or universities (or GED programs)
 Opportunity for community based employment, volunteering, community services and re-integration into the community
 Typically small residential model
 Six to twelve month length of stay is typical
Traditional Boarding Schools (including character based and LD)
 Focus is on academics and sports
 Therapy is on outpatient basis and confidential
 Home visits and vacations (breaks) are frequent
 Suspension and expulsions are the typical consequence for infractions
 Little to no family involvement; minimal supervision
 Not appropriate for students struggling with social, emotional academic difficulties or substance abuse
 With the traditional boarding school continuum, there are schools that specialize in students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia
 There are also schools within the continuum that are “character based” that are structured like a traditional boarding school but have a family counseling and character development emphasis.
 Do not offer integrated clinical services – emphasis is on character issues rather than psychological or psychiatric issues.

Please read our full disclaimer. You are responsible for verifying our information before acting on it.

March 8, 2015

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