Spending time together…

Interesting how time changes our perspective.  For so many prospective and new parents, FFS is an intervention for their child, stemming from fear and desperation and with fragile hope for what might be.  But for alumni parents who wrote to me recently to let me know their daughter is just 10 weeks from graduating from college, they described it as time spent together.

I continue to hold tenderly to the time we spent together over our daughter Anna at The Family School.  I still see the school as a haven of second chances…a place that values and invests in the heart of an individual. 

And that really is what it is – time we spend together –  partnering, struggling, praying, hoping, striving, loving, teaching, guiding, crying, celebrating…

We are in this together – and it is time spent together.

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An unexpected measure of success

A recent experience with an alumni student reminded me that the way we measure success may need to be redefined.  At 1:30 in the morning, an alumni student showed up at the school asking for help.  He walked away from the school when he turned 18 (more than a year ago), against his parent’s wishes.  But when he really needed help, he returned to FFS to ask for help; not as a student, but as a “family” member.  He knew he could come back to “the family” and without challenge, judgment, expectation or cost, ask for and get help.  He stayed for a few days, did important work with a sponsor at the school, helped out at the school (did service work), was taken in by staff and felt renewed and ready to leave a few days later, intending to return to his mother to make things right with her, re-establish going to meetings, getting a sponsor, returning to work, etc.

On our statistic sheet, this student was noted as an unsuccessful departure.  But, now we are thinking differently.  He knew that he could return (even unannounced) and get help, be cared for and pointed in the right direction.  We were reminded that this is a successful outcome – it says a lot about who we are, who we want to be – and we are thankful that he felt comfortable enough coming back and asking for help.

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8 Vital Skills from a mother’s perspective

Check out this interesting and informative article from “Survival Mom”: http://thesurvivalmom.com/2012/07/07/7-vital-skills-to-teach-your-children-that-will-trump-an-ivy-league-education/

She hits the mark dead on.  We should all be focusing on these with the children and adolescents we are responsible for – both by teaching and modeling.

I also would invite you to visit The Family Foundation School to see how these skills are taught and modeled at the school.

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Nothing short of a miracle

When we left Steve at FFS on January 11, 2011, we could not imagine his going on to anything more than community college or some kind of training program for a trade.  To have him enter a first-class college is nothing short of a miracle.  You all have certainly done your job well in preparing this young man for higher education … and we want everyone there to know how grateful we are.  At the same time, we hope he will remain clean and sober as he moves forward … no small task on a college campus … yet, if you all have been able to get him ready for college in this short time … I have no doubt that he has learned the tools that will allow him to live a clean, sober life, too.  I think he has taken his ‘program’ work far more seriously since turning 18.  Somehow, that strange junction where one becomes an adult had a profound effect on Steve.  I think it was then that he realized he was over being a kid, and that now things count.  Thank you all for being there for him.

Blessings on you all,

TJ – Steve’s father

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School tour checklist for parents…

A checklist for parents when visiting a therapeutic boarding school or similar program. 
(c)  Jeff Brain 2009

1. Be open minded. You are seeking a unique learning and therapeutic environment for your child since he/she has not been successful in traditional settings. Do not define the school by your understanding of what you know works. If that worked, you wouldn’t be searching for a specialized environment.

2. Ask questions. Never assume a question is not relevant, appropriate or proper. Take notes and arrive on time for your appointment. It is important not to short-change your time at the school by arriving late. In fact, its always good to arrive a little early so that you are not feeling hurried, and have a chance to organize your thoughts.

3. 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. For example, if a school represents that it can address substance abuse, you should be looking for evidence of expertise in this area. How do they address it? How well versed are staff? What is their approach? How many staff know this? And perhaps most important, does anyone have personal experience with it? It is amazing how many schools and programs are treating kids with eating disorders for example, with no one on staff with personal experience overcoming an eating disorder. It’s appropriate to ask for their admission criteria, and their exclusion criteria.

As an aside, it is critically important that you be fully truthful and thorough in representing your child’s needs, strengths and personality.  A school can only help ensure a good match to the degree that you have accurately and fully disclosed the information to them.

4. 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. You should have a clear sense of where your child falls on the continuum of students they have at the school. This is important to manage “surprises” later related to expectation of success.

5. 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.

6. What the school does especially well — what its strengths are — will be evident. What is often not as clear is where its weaknesses are. It’s good to ask the admissions staff what they feel are the weaknesses. All programs have them, and are continuously working to improve in one area or another. Knowing and understanding these weaknesses is important for a prospective parent. How well does the admissions staff know these organizational issues, and can they speak to how they are being addressed?

7. You should always have access to students alone (students plural – more than one). If the admissions personnel or staff will not leave you alone with students, assume they have something to hide.  You should always expect to be able to speak to current students. Make sure you speak to students who are most similar to your son or daughter. This will give you the best sense of how the school will respond to your child’s specific needs. It is often interesting to speak to new students. Many schools will not allow this,  but if you can, new students usually offer interesting insight.

8. Most schools have specific times that are optimal for on-campus tours, and this is appropriate. You should also feel free to ask to see the school during times outside of the scheduled tour times, like on a weekend, or at dinner time. This may not always be practical for you, but even just asking the question and seeing if the school is open to that is telling.

9. When you visit a school, try hard not to be influenced by the weather. You generally will have a more favorable impression of a school you visit on a beautiful, sunny, spring day than a school you visit on a rainy, damp, cold day. But, of course, this is no indication of the quality of the school or the match for your child. Try not to be influenced by these types of external circumstances. The view may be beautiful but the view will not be the agent of change for your child.

10. When on campus, spend time just observing. You will want and need to be talking to students and admissions staff, but do take time to just “hang out.” Watch students change classes, observe an activity such as a gym class or sporting event, casually walk around campus. Don’t allow your time to be completely scheduled.

11. 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?

12. 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.)

13. Ask about the ownership of the school. Is it owned by a parent company or is it privately or family owned? Is the owner on campus? Does the owner have regular involvement with the students? Are you able to speak to the owner? It is important that the ownership of the school be connected to the daily operations and, more importantly, to the students.

14. Ask about the financial condition of the school. How long has it been in operation? How is it equipped to handle difficult economic times? Has it ever filed for bankruptcy?

15. Be aware of how well the admissions staff know the students. Do they address students by name and do students know them? It may be unrealistic to expect the admissions staff to know all the students’ names (depending on the size of the school), but they should know most.

16. Is the school appropriately accredited or licensed? Ask who it 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.

17. Is the school a member of any professional organizations? Which ones and why? Look up these organizations online to learn more about their mission. Are they members of professional groups? This shows a spirit of collaboration and involvement in the larger field of education and therapeutic services for youth.

18. Will the school refer you to other schools, programs, services or professionals that will help you determine whether you are making the right decision? You may opt not to use those resources, but it’s important to evaluate if the school is just interested in filling a spot or if it is committed to helping you find the best matched program.

19. Does the school provide help and assistance to parents even if you do not enroll?  As a therapeutic school, it may be meaningful to you if the school makes attempts to help parents even if an enrollment is not the outcome.

20. A good school is active in and contributes to its community. What is its involvement/relationship with the local or regional community and with the local school or school district?

21. Who makes the acceptance decision? In a therapeutic school, someone with clinical knowledge, experience and expertise should be the one deciding whether or not to enroll a student. It is appropriate to ask credentials of the person(s) who make these decisions.

22. What relationship does the school have with its alumni? Are there any alumni working at the school (if yes, that’s a good sign). How does it handle/respond to disgruntled alumni (who usually have a presence on the internet)? Most schools who deal with at-risk or troubled youth have some negative press from alumni. Expect this and feel open to ask the admissions staff about it. Rather than take what is said online as truth, discern the accuracy of the reports when you visit campus and talk to students.

23. Ask to speak to staff who direct, organize or coordinate the activities that you think your child will be most interested in. For example, ask to speak to the soccer coach, or the dance instructor or the art teacher.

24. Ask to receive student-produced material, such as the student newspaper, yearbook or student handbook. Different than marketing or admissions materials, these give a more current and focused glimpse into student life at the school.

25. Ask about the school’s short and long-term plans. Are they planning to grow in size, or downsize? Are there building plans or campus improvement projects underway? Are there program changes anticipated during your child’s enrollment?

26. Ask about costs and fees. Get all costs and fees in writing. Ask if the tuition will increase during your child’s stay.

27. 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.

28. Be clear about intervention techniques. Ask about them and especially observe any interventions in action during your visit. Ask to speak to a student who is currently dealing with a problem. The school will necessarily need to be selective and careful in this regard to safeguard the integrity of the student’s consequence, but it should be open to you speaking with a student who can talk to you about their experience. The school should have clear rationale as to why the interventions are used. Arbitrary or capricious interventions should not be used.

29. 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.

30. 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.

31. Ask about health services. How well is the school or program equipped to address any existing medical conditions or illness/injuries that may arise?

32. How do parents communicate with staff and with their child? 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. Some programs should have liberal communication and others should have restricted and monitored communication based on the needs and issues of the students. Any good program will ensure that someone who knows and works with your child has regular communication with you.

33. 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.

34. Ask about recreational opportunities, weekend structure and activities, security, and what a typical day is like.

35. Do not hesitate to ask if you have a specific concern, such as how the school deals with bullying, homosexuality, trauma, abuse, adoption, etc.

36. Always ask for a parent reference list. You may think they will include only parents that will give a positive reference. That may be true, but you can tell a lot from the list itself. Does the program have such a list? How current is it? How diverse and long is it? Does it include both current parents and alumni parents? Does it say that parents are not expected to report back to the admissions office if they hear from you or what you ask about? 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 experience.

37. Remember, there is no perfect school. You are choosing the best matched both for your child and for you. But, no school can be all things to all people. Find the one that matches the best.

Good luck in your search!

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The Hardest Day of our lives…

For parents – one of the most important but hardest days is when after all the research, touring, meeting students and staff, completing paperwork and making the transition the day actually comes when they bring their son or daughter to the school to begin (or continue) their journey toward healing and recovery.  I was reminded of this recently in this simple but powerful email from new parents of FFS.

Dear Jeff,

You made the hardest day of our lives so simple and easy.  We actually saw a smile on Tim’s face as we were leaving.  He already understands that he is in a good and safe place.  Thank you so much!

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12 Steps for Young People?

I am often asked about the applicability of the 12-steps to teenagers and even more for those without drug or alcohol abuse or dependence (or other similarly “addictive” behaviors such as internet, video-gaming, overeating, gambing, sex etc). In my response, I speak about the underlying values and principles that each step teaches and how the steps can be applied as a framework for living life. Some people also get tripped up over the overt spirituality of the steps. Although the spirituality is what resonates for many, the steps can be understood and used without the spiritual element. The following is a good description of what the steps are, in their basic form – its the 12-steps for young people.

1. I tried to be in charge of my life, but it got messed up.

2. I started learning to trust other people in my life and allowing that someone other than myself could help me.

3. I reach out and ask for help (and find the confidence to do so) and am willing to try something new.

4. I make a list of mistakes I made, and a list of things I like about myself.

5. I share my list with someone I trust (sponsor).

6. I know the problems I have and the mistakes I make. I decide I really do want things to be different for me.

7. I let other people help me with my problems and mistakes.

8. I make a list of people who I’ve hurt.

9. I apologize to those people and make things right to the best of my ability.

10. I continue to work to correct the mistakes I make.

11. I continue to get help and support form other people.

12. I help myself and others by sharing my experience with others, and I look for ways to apply these principles in all areas of my life.

I think there is broad agreement that everyone should have the ability to do these steps and that they become the foundation of healthy development and maturation for those that have lost their way.

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The Right Tools

I am moderately handy around the house and what I have learned is that if I have the right tools, I do a better job.  Without the right tools, it just won’t work.  I was reminded of this in a dfferent context when I received this email from alumni parents.

Hi Jeff.  I just wanted to let you know we received the 2011 yearbook on December 24 and it is gorgeous!  Our son was all over the yearbook (20 different pages!). It took him a few days to pick it up and look at it and when I asked him why he said he was afraid it would make him sad.  When he finally looked at it, he was so glad he did!  I’ve seen him reading it a few times over the holiday.  Still so far, so good with Brian.  He is still hanging with sober friends, we can never thank Family School enough for giving him the right tools to move forward in his life.  Happy New Year to you and your family.
Karen and Brian O

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Co-Ed v Single Sex Schooling

The December 2011 Monitor, a journal of the American Psychological Association (Vol  42, #11, page 11), reported and expanded on an article originally published in the September
issue of the journal Science.  The article concludes that “contrary to many people’s beliefs, single-sex schooling is not supported by serious scientific research and may actually be harmful to children’s social development”.  The paper was written by eight social scientists and cited several large reviews published over the past few years, all reporting little difference between single and mixed sex academic outcomes.  Dr. Lise Elliott, a neuroscience professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago says that the perception of the superiority of single-sex education comes from “an historical accident” namely that the best and most expensive private schools in the US and Europe were traditionally single sex.  But studies now show the benefits of single-sex education disappear when researchers control for demographics and school quality.

Interestingly, the paper also says that single-sex education may increase gender-stereotypical behavior.

I have always appreciated the benefits of mixed sex (or co-ed) schooling but my respect was elevated after witnessing the wonderful ways in which the teens relate to one another at The Family Foundation School.  I recently overheard one of our male students describe his experience to a prospective student and his description centered around the freedom he experienced being able to “just” be friends with girls without the demands and pressures of a sexual relationship.  Furthermore, he beautifully described the girls in his “family” at the school as his sisters – and thus has gotten to know them, and value them as people, as young women rather than the ways teenage boys typically see and relate to girls.  This is quite different than his perspectiveand behavior at home.

So, it’s good to see that the professional and scientific research says that our young men and women are not compromised academically by attending school together, but I know there are even more benefits of a co-ed environment that can’t be measured so easily
– but, when teenage boys learn to respect and value teenage girls because they
are people first, the outcome as they develop into young men is priceless.

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On Rollercoasters, Finding Help & Restoring Hope

The following is an excerpt from a email from a current FFS parent Tom C. regarding his son Will.  It is used with his permission and has some gems of wisdom that comes with experience.

I’m pleased to hear that your impression confirms ours.  I
have hopes that the experience with you all will give Will the tools that he
needs to have a productive life.  I know we cannot expect that he will
never backslide. However, knowing how to come to his senses and know where help
is and how to use it is invaluable … and, as you say, the fact that he knows it
works makes it much more easy to seek the help in the first place.  When
we got to FFS, his family leader said this would be a roller-coaster ride for
all of us.  And it has been … and the thing I fear most now is that this
is just the ‘training’ coaster … the real world will look like a monster from
Hersheypark compared to the school experience.  Yet, I know that without
the work that has been done in the past year, there would have been no hope for
Will.  I thank you all for giving us hope again.  Best to all of you,
and thanks for your caring, loving, faith-centered atmosphere.  Without
those qualities, no one can have a good life.  Now Will has seen it all in
action.  We will hope it continues for his lifetime.

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