Choosing a Residential School
How to find a therapeutic boarding school that's a good match for a child with psychiatric or developmental issues
By the time parents reach the point of looking for a residential school, “they are in crisis, having exhausted all their local interventions and school district supports,” says Jeff Brain, dean of admissions at the Family Foundation School, a therapeutic boarding school in upstate New York recently renamed Allynwood Academy. The school works with at-risk teens with diagnoses including ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, and eating disorders, as well as teens who practice self-injury.
Brain says parents must determine the level of care required, from drug rehab to therapeutic boarding schools and everything in between. While they may do their own research online, use an educational consultant and other professionals, and reach out to parents of current and past students, he has also written “How Do I Decide the Best School for My Child?”, a 36-point checklist. Here are some of his suggestions:
- 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.
- Ask how similar or dissimilar your child’s needs are to 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.
- Ask the admissions staff directly why the school would be successful
with your son or daughter. Also ask whether anything about your child
concerns them, or suggests that they may not have a successful outcome.
- You should always have access to students alone. If the admissions
personnel or staff will not leave you alone with students, assume they
have something to hide. Make sure you speak to students who are most
similar to your son or daughter.
- 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?
- 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 to it? (This is different than
your own emotions, which may be fear, anxiety, etc.)
- Is the school appropriately accredited or licensed? Ask who the
school is 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.
- Ask about significant incidents at the school: running away,
suicide, fire, death. What you are looking for is a direct,
straightforward discussion of this. Suicide can (and does) happen
anywhere. You are looking more for the school’s preparation, readiness
and sensitivity to these tragedies.
- Be clear about intervention techniques. Ask about them and especially observe any interventions in action during your visit.The school should have clear rationale as to why the interventions are used.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask about the school’s communication policy and procedures. They
should align with the mission and scope of the school as well as with
the issues of the students. Any good program will ensure that someone
who knows and works with your child has regular communication with you.
- Ask about the role the school anticipates or expects you to have in your child’s treatment. Most good programs include family counseling and parent education.
- Do not hesitate to ask if you have a specific concern, such as how
the school deals with bullying, homosexuality, trauma, abuse, adoption,
- Always ask for a parent reference list. How current is it? How
diverse and long is it? Does it include both current parents and alumni
parents? 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
Read the rest of “How Do I Decide the Best School for My Child?” here.