Programs for Struggling Teens: Ideal Features- Part VI This Emotional Life - PBS

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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

Programs for Struggling Teens: Ideal Features- Part VI


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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 V (principles 1-16).

Principle 17. Residential schools and programs should not have unusually high runaway rates.  Residential programs or schools must have constructive methods for helping teens develop the ability to comply with rules and expectations.  High runaway rates may be evidence that the methods of the program or school are ineffective or of a poor match between the needs of the teen and the ability of the program or school to meet those needs.

Principle 18. Schools and programs should seek to minimize contagion. Programs and schools must try to minimize the opportunities for teens to influence each other negatively. Struggling, impressionable teens in such programs regularly associate with one another day after day (and night after night); these peer interactions can exacerbate negative behavior. Researchers Dishion and Dodge refer to this as the risk of “deviant peer contagion.”  Programs and schools should be aware of factors that can increase the likelihood of negative peer contagion: teens’ personality and temperament, severity of teens’ behavioral and emotional challenges, age, individual susceptibility, skills of program and school staffers, and extent of program or school structure.  The risk of negative peer influences is greatest for behaviors that are usually acquired through social interactions, for example, delinquency, substance abuse, and violence.  Research suggests that programs and schools for struggling teens generally should limit opportunities for younger and older teens, and less deviant and more deviant, to mix on a regular basis.  Unstructured, unsupervised time should be limited, particularly when younger and older teens, and less and more deviant teens, are together.  Limiting the contagion effect is another reason why smaller programs and schools are generally preferable to larger settings, as staffers can keep a closer eye on peer interactions.

 Principle 19. Aftercare is critical.  A quality program or school creates an aftercare plan for each teen.  Follow-up for program or school alumni is essential.  Important relationships between adults and teens during the period of enrollment are not severed forever.  Instead, because of the importance of such relationships, the program or school formulates a carefully designed weaning period of planned, occasional contacts—perhaps the program or school staffers send the teen a postcard, e-mail message, or holiday greeting card.  The teen might be permitted to have a planned visit six months (or so) after the teen’s departure; this gives the teen an opportunity to forge ahead but with assurance that the staffers to whom the teen has said goodbye still care.

Ideally, programs, schools, educational consultants, and other professionals are thoughtful about the most appropriate next step.  Some teens leave a residential program or school without an appropriate “next step” in place.  This is a recipe for disaster.  For example, teens who have made considerable progress in a wilderness therapy program may need a transition school—such as an emotional growth boarding school—for a year or two before returning home in order to sustain the growth.  And before returning home from the emotional growth boarding school, the teens may need a carefully graduated process of gaining freedom and privileges in the community surrounding the boarding school so they can practice making wise and safe community-based choices before going home. Teens who have spent a year in a residential treatment center may need a therapeutic boarding school as part of the “step-down,” or transition, process.  That is, most struggling teens need a gradual descent that entails increasing degrees of independence. Abrupt changes that lack coherence, coordination, sufficient supportive services, and a gradual lessening of structure and supervision should be avoided at all cost.  Abrupt transitions may overwhelm any teen’s coping capacities and be a setup for regression.  Even with careful aftercare planning and services, some regression is common; it should be anticipated and planned for.  Otherwise, the regression can blindside both teens and parents.

 Principle 20. Program evaluation is a must.  A program or school should regularly survey participants, alumni, parents, and educational consultants to assess consumer satisfaction, gauge well-being, and solicit feedback about program and school strengths and areas for improvement. This is ethically imperative.

Parents and professionals should view with suspicion broad, emphatic claims about the “success rate” of a program or school. Some tout “survey results” that indicate that, for example, “94 percent of our students’ parents would recommend this school to others” or “98 percent of our graduates are accepted by a college.”  One should always probe and ask hard questions about the research methodology to ensure that the claims are valid.  How recent are the data?  How were the survey questions worded?  Did they avoid any bias or pressure to respond positively?  Did the program or school survey all students, alumni, and parents who enrolled in the program or school or only those who did not withdraw or get expelled?  If the survey was based only on those who completed the program or school “successfully,” the data are clearly biased toward positive results. If the program or school claims superior results compared with other options, are the claims based on controlled, methodologically rigorous research protocols?  When the program or school claims that eventually every student “gets into college,” is that in part because staffers demand that every student submit multiple applications, regardless of whether the teen intends to go to college right after graduation?  Too often, programs and schools make unsubstantiated, exaggerated claims that are neither valid nor supported by solid research.