Behavior Modification Schools

Behavior modification schools are educational institutions at which an academic focus is shared with a goal of helping students to suppress undesired behaviors. There are also behavior modification facilities at which academics play no part. This article concentrates on behavior modification schools for troubled teens.

When Is Behavior Modification Appropriate?

Before embarking on behavior modification, it is absolutely essential to be sure that the child can control the behavior. Even a highly motivated child can only control what is within his or her control. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to attempt behavior modification with a child who has any of a variety of mental disorders, including, but not limited to mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression); anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); or attention-deficit and disruptive behavior disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder, or other condition that, by nature, is beyond control.

In the case of any of these situations, behavior modification should only be undertaken in consultation with the child’s mental healthcare provider or team and usually at times when other parts of the child’s therapy (such as medication adjustments) are well in hand. And it should only be undertaken by people who are licensed to provide the proposed program. The educators involved in the academic section of the program should also be licensed.

The Basic Elements

A parent seeking a behavior modification school may be either extremely proactive or may be far along the road in a struggle that has lasted for years.  Whatever the situation, besides finding a school with an opening, an affordable program, and an environment that is suitable for your child, it is critical to find the key elements that will make behavior modification successful.

Behavior modification is only appropriate when it will be carried out consistently. This means that whatever is in place at school:

  • is also in place at home - and if the child is in a joint custody situation, at all the homes the child stays at
  • continues, even after the desired behavior is controlled: continued reinforcement may be key to maintaining control
  • should have an “out” if a problem develops such that the child will not be able to control the targeted behavior (due to factors such as introduction of a major stressor, problems with medication, etc.)

Types of Behavior Modification Schools

Behavior modification is an overarching term for a collection of pedagogical technique that can be instituted in any school, including your local public school. There are, however, schools that are dedicated to a combined goal of academic achievement and behavior modification. Such programs may use positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or a combination. They may or may not be licensed by the state or staffed by licensed personnel, and this is important to check.

They fall into several overall categories:

  • Teaching Family Homes
  • Boot Camp Style Programs
  • Wilderness Programs
  • Proprietary Behavior Modification Methods

 Abuse and accusations of abuse have created controversy about a number of behavior modification schools. If you are considering such an environment for your child, it is suggested that you check reviews, news reports, and the state’s attorney’s office for the state in which the school is located, as well as visiting the school for an extended period of time prior to deciding to send your child to such a school.

The Federal Trade Commission website offers an article “Considering a Private Residential Treatment Program for a Troubled Teen? Questions for Parents and Guardians to Ask,” which helps guide parents in choosing such a school. Visit  The A START fact sheet, available in the left frame here, is also very useful:


“Pitfalls in School-Based Behavior Modification Plans” by Leslie E. Packer, Ph.D.

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