The professional literature on adolescent development and programs for struggling teens suggests that, ideally, programs should have a number of key features. These principles should underpin any efforts to help struggling teens and their families along every point in the continuum of care, including initial assessment, crisis intervention, home-based services, community-based counseling, alternative community-based education, mentoring, drug and truancy courts, wilderness therapy programs, emotional growth boarding schools, therapeutic boarding schools, and residential psychiatric treatment. Parents of struggling teens, and the professionals who work with them, should seek to identify programs that embrace these principles, in addition to those presented in Parts I through IV (principles 1-12).
Principle 13. Schools and programs should handle teens’ mental health needs professionally. Staffers should recognize that teenagers’ emotional and behavioral struggles sometimes are a result of their mental health challenges rather than simply willful choices. Before admission and upon intake, staffers should ask parents to provide detailed written information from mental health professionals who have had contact with the teen. That information should be taken into account in designing an individualized package of services for the teen. It should also inform how staffers respond to challenges and crises that arise in the teen’s life.
Also, staffers should be willing to administer psychotropic medication at the times recommended by the teenager’s physician, rather than when it is most convenient for the program or school staff. Some programs and schools will not tailor their medication schedules to meet teenagers’ unique needs and a physician’s instructions. As a result of this medication mismanagement, teenagers may have difficulty complying with instructions and expectations; the resulting noncompliant or inappropriate behaviors are treated as disciplinary issues instead of signs of medical neglect.
Principle 14. Schools and programs should handle teens’ special education needs professionally. Staffers should recognize that teenagers’ academic struggles sometimes are a result of their special education challenges rather than simply willful choices. Before admissions and upon intake, staffers should ask parents to also provide detailed written information from education professionals who have had contact with the teen. That information should be taken into account in designing an individualized package of educational services for the teen. It should also inform how staffers respond to academic challenges and crises that arise in the teen’s life. For example, a teen who has a verbal learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may need more time to complete assignments. The teen who has ADHD may not intentionally forget to bring his textbook to class; rather than punishment, he may need strategies for remembering what materials to bring.
Principle 15. Staffers should have appropriate education, training, and credentials. Parents, and the professionals who work with them, should assess the extent to which the teaching, clinical, health-care, dormitory, and recreational staffers have appropriate education, training, credentials, and experience. Some schools and programs lack strict hiring criteria for teachers and other staff. This may have been a factor in abuses and scandals that have occurred. For example, unprofessional and unscrupulous schools and programs may hire for teaching positions college graduates who have no training in how to teach or expertise in the subject matter they are teaching. These schools may assign staffers who lack graduate degrees in a mental health profession to supervise “seminars” that mimic group therapy. These group sessions can be destructively confrontational, emotionally abusive, and model dysfunctional communication styles and poor problem-solving skills.
Principle 16. Schools and programs should not have unusually high attrition rates. Administrators should be candid about the attrition rate for their program or school and the reasons for it. Given the nature of the struggling teen population, some attrition is to be expected. But some programs and schools have a pattern of relatively high attrition. Often this is a red flag. High teen turnover or a low graduation rate year after year may be a sign of program turmoil and instability, weak preadmission screening to ensure a good teen-program match, or a punitive, hostile, non-nurturing environment that pushes teens to “melt down.” Parents who are unhappy or disenchanted with a program are more likely to withdraw their child, leading to high attrition. While all programs and schools have some disgruntled parents, some have a disproportionate number. Valid and verifiable attrition and graduation rates should be readily available in writing when parents and educational consultants ask for that information.