Are Therapeutic Boarding Schools Successful?

Are therapeutic boarding schools successful for troubled teens? Are they effective for changing negative behavior? Schools for troubled teens are designed to help students that are having difficulties in their home and school setting.

Many are afflicted with emotional, social and/or behavioral issues which can also cause poor academic performance.  What is the actual success rate of therapeutic boarding schools?

Are therapeutic boarding schools successful?

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Have you reached a point where you are considering a therapeutic boarding school for your teenager, however completely confused if it will be the right decision?

Has your house become a battleground? You fear your teen will explode at any time?  Are they spending more time online, isolated in their room — failing in school, vaping or doing drugs? Maybe they are suffering with depression, anxiety — that has led to self-harm or possibly suicide ideation.

Your teen has refused to see a therapist, outpatient treatment failed, the school setting is not working and maybe you even tried having them live with a relative. A short-term hospital stay was not successful.

Choosing the right therapeutic boarding school for your teen’s needs can be tedious work, however you are your child’s best advocate. 

If you are like most parents, you jumped online to be bombarded with many websites that only made this task more confusing — there are literally millions of places to send troubled teens — according to the internet, but how do you know what is right for your teen and family? Most importantly, how do you know if these schools are successful or effective?

A simple internet search for “places to send troubled teens” yields nearly 10 million results!

Read: Where Can I Send My Troubled Teenager.

Are Therapeutic Boarding Schools Successful?

Reality is, we have yet to see any third-party research or independent study that is not funded by a school, program or organization that is not part of this industry. Another words, a study that would not have reason to be bias.

For example, although the wilderness therapy industry (OBH – Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare) has tried for several decades to fill research gaps to bolster its case of effectiveness and reduce the need for legislative intervention, science still does not support wilderness therapy. Therapeutic wilderness programs have no outcome data to support the effectiveness of these programs, and particularly the long-term effects of these interventions.

In 2019 OBH did its own research to say that wilderness therapy was effective and less expensive than traditional treatment such as short-term hospital stay or out-patient services. Although in this research the results claim it to be effective — it does not mean it’s the solution, and as the research revealed, the average cost of the wilderness treatment is $27,426 (which is likely higher now) — not including the cost of equipment.

Interestingly this study was partially funded by National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which collects fees for membership from wilderness programs, as well as other teen help schools that want their logo on their websites and partially funded by Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC).

3 Ways to Success in a Therapeutic Boarding School

There can be success in therapeutic boarding schools and there absolutely has been happy endings. This starts with a parent being diligent in doing their research and understanding they do have choices. Keep in mind, what may have failed for one family, could have been successful for another family.

The one absolute fact is that home life is not working, you have exhausted your local resources and typically when a parent decides it’s time for residential treatment, it’s when they realize they are out of options – as well as their teen is literally crying for help by their negative behavior, and it is important to keep them safe. In many cases, it’s not only the safety of the teen that is in crisis, but also the safety of the family.

1. Longevity. Although you might be starting this journey, therapeutic boarding schools have been around for a long time. Not only do you want a school that has a good reputation, when you find one that has had years (decades) of experience — and bonus points for low staff turn-over, this could be a good contender.

Have you selected a program that has been around awhile, however started reading some frightening websites, horror stories of the troubled teen industry or negative reviews?  It’s time to learn about deciphering the misinformation online.

2. Parents. You are not alone! If there is a therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment center or any type of program you are considering for your child, and they will not give you *parent references — this is a red flag. 

Parents and parent references are the heart and soul of programs. You (mom and dad) need just as much support as your teen does. This experience is overwhelming. Only those that have walked in your shoes can understand and support you.

Prior selecting or enrolling in a program, ask the admissions director for parents to speak with — here are some questions to ask parents to give you more insights about the school/program:

-Why did they have to send their teen to a program?
-Are they happy with the program?
-What was their trigger moment that made their decision?
-How long did their child attend the program?
-Why did they choose that program?
-What was their deciding factor on this program?
-Did they visit the program before placing their teen?
-How is their teen doing today? Do they consider it successful?
-How was the communication with the program?
-Did they provide transitional support after their teen graduated?
-Would they recommend the program to a friend or family?
-More parent questions.

A key question parents should ask is, if they could change one thing about the program to improve it, what would that be? It gives you room to find out a bit of negative. Usually not enough to change your mind but helps you to go in — eyes wide open.

* Programs may have you complete an application or a short version of an application before giving you parent references. This assures them that you are a fit for their school and are considering placement. It does not mean you’re going to enroll in the program; however, it provides security for everyone involved when giving out personal information of families.

For programs that will use the excuse that it violates their HIPAA policy, it’s just that, an excuse. With HIPAA, you can have exception with the parent’s permission to be a reference.  Most all of these programs you are interviewing operate in accordance to HIPAA — again, get parent references and if they don’t want to give them, it might be best to move on.

Bonus tip: Always ask for parents references with the same gender and age of your teen, and you can take it a step further by asking for families in your same geographical region.

3. People. Who is the owner, director, staff — people working with your teen? It’s the people that make the therapeutic boarding school a success. It is typically why when parents ask about programs that are owned by corporations — we pause, or shy away. When you are considering a program that is corporately owned, it can be more of a struggle to have things changed to meet your child’s needs. Whereas when working with privately owned programs — it only must be approved through the owner/director. You are usually a text message or email away.

All quality programs (privately owned or corporately owned) should be licensed and accredited – so you are not sacrificing by choosing a privately owned program.

It’s important to review their credentials, accreditations –– and ask about background checks of their staff. Again, about staff turn-over.

BEST SUCCESS of a Therapeutic Boarding School


Finally, determining the success of a therapeutic boarding school has so many factors, but most importantly is THE FAMILY.  If you’re not planning to jump on board and be part of the program, then do not waste your time or money.

Therapeutic boarding schools and programs are not only about the teenager – it is about bringing the entire family back on a healthy path again. The family is broken right now. We are not here to point fingers, we’re here to heal — get on a road to recovery.

There will be books to read, family therapy (virtual) and workshops to attend. Never doubt, this can be successful – it is not easy, but it’s worth it!

Read: What is the Goal of Residential Treatment.

Read: The Purpose of A Therapeutic Boarding School.

Read: Questions and Answers Parents Ask About Therapeutic Schools.

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Family consultants help parents find reputable residential schools and treatment programs for troubled teens when they have utilized all of their local resources and are overwhelmed by their online searches.

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