Wilderness Programs

Wilderness programs are a type of residential therapeutic facility.  Wildernesss programs are designed to help young people who are struggling with a variety of issues make a fresh start in a new direction. This article provides some background on wilderness programs.

Wilderness programs support young people as they experience the challenges of an outdoor experience, often combined with caring for animals or other tasks, their sense of responsibility and ability to lead and make good decisions is enhanced. Effectively run wilderness programs can make a great difference to a teen who’s been having a difficult time.

Who Are Wilderness Programs Meant to Serve?

Individual wilderness programs may serve a narrow or broad population, Programs that have a target population may have criteria or restrictions on who they accept in order to best serve those they were designed to serve. Issues that may be addressed  in wilderness programs include difficulty with authority, for example, an antiauthoritarian attitude, defiance, confrontational behavior, truancy, running away;, or lying not living up to potential, as demonstrated by poor grades or lack of motivation, possibly related to learning disability; self-defeating behaviors, such as choosing a bad crowd to hang out with, giving in to peer pressure, and/or substance abuse, and irresponsibility; poor self-image, as revealed by low self-esteem; mood disorders, such as teenage depression or other attitudinal issues such as manipulative behavior, a sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled fits of anger. Teens who engage in criminal behavior, including stealing, physical violence, etc. may also be served. This specialization means that recommendations - the way that many times people get information at the beginning of the search for a treatment facility - have to take the specifics of the teen’s issues into account in order to be of value.

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) is a membership organization that supports therapeutic schools and assists families to find appropriate schools with proper credentials. A look at the wilderness programs listed on the NATSAP website shows programs mainly serve teens 13 and up, and a number have a separate young adult program for those 18 and older. Only one serves children as young as ten, but there are programs that have single gender groups as well as co-ed programs available.

More About Wilderness Programs

Of the twenty-three wilderness programs that belong to NATSAP, there are two located in Colorado, one in Maine, one in Minnesota, one in Montana, one in New York, two in North Carolina, one in Ontario, Canada, three in Oregon, nine in Utah, one in Vermont, and one in Washington. This means that if you live in a number of places there will not be a wilderness program near your home. As a consequence, first, a child will, in many cases, have to travel to reach a wilderness program, and second, will be at a distance from his or her family for the duration.

Eighteen wilderness programs serve children aged 13 through 18, and some of these serve older and younger students as well. Four take no students younger than 14, and one serves only students 18 and older. Some of the wilderness programs have an academic component, in which case, as NATSAP members, you can be sure that they will be licensed for academics and have an accredited program.

Wilderness programs vary in the duration of stay that is usual. They also differ in whether families are invited (or even required) to participate in aspects of treatment, and the extent of communication with families during the program.

Other things to consider in choosing a wilderness program include how progress is measured . Be sure to choose a program with a history of success. If there have been substantive changes to the operation, find out why. If there has ever been court action involving the program, that’s important to know as well. Any wilderness program should have a high level of staff qualifications and a low teacher-student ratio. Because of the nature of a wilderness program, it is important to find out if a child has ever tried to leave (i.e., run away) and what safeguards there are, as well as what the approach is to students who are uncooperative or break rules. The cost and the possibility of financial aid will be important to many.




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