The message in this article appears in the most recent version of “We Are NATSAP”.
It is an ongoing conundrum in therapeutic environments that we stress developing coping strategies to “control” strong emotions while we also acknowledge to our young charges that control is not something they can attain easily. We want them to learn and develop strategies to self-regulate in relatively stable environments and apply those skills in the “real world”—yet we know that the real world is not always stable and does not respond necessarily well to those strategies they are learning. And while we model appropriate behaviors, we hold our students to even higher standards at times in an effort to “over-coach” their more challenging behaviors. No wonder young people get so tired and frustrated with their placement in programs, and some even take any opportunity to fight back with self-defeating behaviors. Frustration ensues, and no one wins anything in the end.
Over the years, those of us who work in the industry have seen many programs respond to an ever shifting cultural and behavioral landscape in an effort to address the increasingly complex needs of their young charges. Teachers, administrators, therapists and residential/field staff undergo multiple trainings and continuing education opportunities. We read—a lot—and attend many conferences. At Auldern Academy, we have incorporated newer, evidence-based therapeutic methodologies such as EMDR while also sticking to the basics of balancing school, therapy, and activities, just like so many other programs have done. So what else can we do? How can we hold our students accountable, help them become their own best version of themselves, help them find success in the world, and simultaneously make the process more palatable and, dare I say it, fun?
Well, one of the things that we do well at Auldern Academy is that we listen. Our students are often the best resource for us in determining next steps. Recently, we instituted the “Take a Break Tuesday” program after talking with our students about what might give them ownership of and pride in their hard work. It’s a simple idea, really, and we don’t lay claim to being the only program to have ever instituted such an idea. Yet this is an idea whose time has come, and it is an idea that we hope will have far ranging effects on and for our students. After a long day of school, therapy, and chores, on what is typically yet another school night, students may go to the movies or may go to the theater on outings designed strictly to be fun. Yes, students are expected to be “model citizens” and apply all those self-regulating skills they have been learning. It isn’t going to be easy every time, but we’ve had no complaints yet!
As with many other capable therapeutic programs, we offer community service, we have weekend outings, we go camping and hiking, we have school, and we offer sports in addition to everything else (including, of course, therapy). But this one simple activity, so far, has proven to be one of the most powerful therapeutic tools we can offer our students to incorporate into their individual therapeutic tool belts—a chance to have fun, to be a kid, and to do it well with no outcome or final product to prove they did it beyond the smile on their face as they fall asleep. And on a Tuesday night at that.