Because I write about my own challenging child, parents and grandparents of kids with behavior issues and special needs often write me asking about residential placement, or if I can recommend a good facility. Although I consider myself a quasi-expert from years of trial and error with my son’s treatment, I am not a trained professional.
But I have a friend who is, and I asked her to write a piece that might help readers of my blog who are desperate to find help for their kids. An educational consultant, Lucy Pritzker has extensive experience evaluating boarding schools across the country. Read below to learn why boarding school might be the right fit for your challenging child.
All too often boarding schools don’t give themselves credit where credit is due. Success is credited to a school’s behavior modification system or a change in the student’s medication. What is overlooked is all the wonderful things that naturally happen when kids live at school.
1. Predictability – Boarding schols provide a predictable routine that is impossible to replicate at home. All difficult children, whether they suffer from an anxiety disorder, a mood disorder, Asperger’s, or ADHD, thrive on predictable routines. At boarding school, meals are served at a precise time each day, a delivery person brings the mail at the same time each day, and there are established routines that do not deviate because of a problem with a sibling, a next-door neighbor, or a parent’s work schedule. Boarding schools are organized to ensure predictability.
2. High Interest Activities – At boarding school, what happens after school is just as important as what happens in the classroom. Difficult kids tend to be less difficult when they are engaged in activities they really enjoy. School offerings include wilderness survival classes, competitive and non-competitive sports (from alpine skiing to yoga), fine arts, outdoor bread baking, blacksmithing, video game making, music lessons, go-karting, and more. In many schools, participation in sports or arts is mandatory, ensuring students are engaged for a large portion of the day in faculty-led structured activities. This also enables students with social issues to have an adult helping them navigate the social scene during non-academic time. At the right school, a student who has academic difficulties but excels on the field, spends a large part of the day happily engaged in activities in which he excels and succeeds.
3. Transitions – Parents and teachers of difficult kids note that activity changes (i.e., lunch to classroom, school to home, etc.) can be difficult. In boarding school, transitions are kept to a minimum because the campus and school community remain constant even though activities change. Students who may act out and refuse to go to school when at home, have no such trouble at boarding school because the dorm parent is also their math teacher and also the adult at the breakfast table.
4. School Culture – At the right school, positive peer pressure can do wonders to turn opposition into eager participation. Different boarding schools have different cultures. Some promote strong work ethic and community service, some breed a strong love of the outdoors, and others value intellectual pursuits above all else. The momentum of the school community pulls the outliers along and they enthusiastically get with the program.
5. Quality of Life – A short walk across the boarding school campus is a welcome change from the lengthy bus ride many special needs students take to their day schools. At home, speech, tutoring and physical and occupational therapies are the afterschool activities of a special needs student. In boarding school, therapies are often integrated into the daily routine — while learning to whip up a great dessert, culinary students are coached in appropriate peer interaction; running for dorm president becomes an activity a dorm parent guides a student through. And parents benefit because they are no longer schedulers, chauffeurs and activity directors.
6. Physical Activity – Exercise has been proven to ease symptoms of ADHD and help with dysregulated behaviors. Boarding schools encourage, and often require, daily rigorous physical activity. Proximity to outdoor recreation, as well as on-campus facilities like rock walls, hockey rinks, fishing ponds and mountain bike trails, allow easy access to getting a kid’s heart rate up.
7. Small Class Size – Class size in boarding school is intentionally small. In home schools there are as few as 3 or 4 students, allowing those with learning disabilities and/or slow processing speeds to get individualized attention and a learning pace they can manage. Traditional boarding schools keep class sizes to 12 or less. Difficult students find themselves with more (positive) adult interaction and can’t fall through the cracks in small classes.
8. Independence – Difficult kids have a tendency to rely on caregivers to get through their day. At boarding school, systems are in place that allow students to function more independently. For instance, a student who is always forgetting her homework may rely on Mom to make sure it’s in the backpack every day. Boarding schools geared towards kids with executive functioning problems keep books and assignments both in the school room and the dorm. The student (and parent) no longer has to make sure information gets from Point A to Point B. Slowly the student is trained to ensure his homework gets to the teacher. Relying on the school’s internal system rather than a parent ensures greater independence. The move towards independence is a crucial developmental step that easily gets tossed aside in a busy family. At home, these kids become more and more dependent as they get older, rather than acquiring the developmentally appropriate independence they gain at boarding school.
9. Experience – It’s not easy staying a step ahead of a difficult kid. Tired, stressed-out parents try to strategize, read up, research and plan for tomorrow, hoping they will be prepared for what the day brings. A reputable, seasoned boarding school staff have years of experience with difficult kids and know what works. Clinicians and educators at day schools and outpatient programs occasionally see complex students and tend to be at the same disadvantage parents are, while in boarding school difficult and complex is the norm.
Lucy Pritzker is an Educational Consultant who works with families to find the best programs for their difficult children. She travels extensively throughout the U.S. evaluating programs. Lucy sees local clients in her New Jersey office and uses phone conferencing and SKYPE to work with families across the country. Lucy is the mother of a difficult child and knows, first hand, the value of a boarding school education not only for her son, but for the entire family.