Traditional or Therapeutic Boarding School?

It’s true that not all boarding schools are alike. Not only are locations, sizes, and structures different, but the overall purposes of the schools can be vastly different as well. The biggest differences exist between traditional boarding schools and therapeutic boarding schools.

On the surface, these two types of school can look similar. But they’re designed for two very different types of students.

A traditional boarding school typically focuses on preparing students for college. To that end, the curriculum is more challenging than that of a public school and there are increased opportunities for extra-curricular activities such as theatre, art, and sports. A traditional boarding school provides a unique combination of increased structure and increased independence. The combination is beneficial for students who wish to be challenged academically or who need a little extra guidance in order to stay on track. But most traditional boarding schools aren’t equipped to handle students with extreme learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral issues. Those types of students will benefit more from a therapeutic boarding school.

Therapeutic boarding schools are designed to meet the needs of students who would be considered “troubled” or “at-risk”. These include students that have struggled with drugs or alcohol, come from an abusive home or have suffered abuse at the hands of someone else, act out irrationally or violently, or struggle with motivational or self-esteem issues. Therapeutic boarding schools are staffed with people who are trained and equipped to work effectively with these types of students.

In a traditional boarding school, students live in standard dorms that include a dining hall and common areas for socializing or studying. The days are fairly scheduled, but “free time” is built in as well. The living conditions in a therapeutic boarding school, however, resemble a home much more than a dorm. A typical therapeutic boarding school will have larger homes in which 4 – 10 students live with one or more residential staff members. Each student is responsible for helping maintain the home. He or she has chores, helps prepare meals, and must help keep the home neat and clean. Most therapeutic boarding schools also require students to sit down and have dinner together – family style.

This residential style offers a great amount of emotional and psychological support for the student as he or she works through emotional or behavioral issues. It also provides a more solid relational foundation since one or more of the school’s staff members live in the same home. And, it facilitates more social interaction among the students who live together.

Though most traditional boarding schools follow a standard school year, running from approximately late August to early June, therapeutic boarding schools typically have “rolling admissions”, which means that students are accepted year-round. It also means that most students at a therapeutic boarding school are in school year-round with breaks lasting one or two weeks between each quarter. The continual focus on school is extremely beneficial for the types of students who attend therapeutic boarding schools because it enables them to catch-up (it’s common for students to have fallen behind in school), and gives them goals toward which they can consistently be working. The student-teacher ratio is often much better at a therapeutic boarding school as well, sometimes as low at 4 to one.

Many traditional boarding schools have counselors on-site who are available should a student choose to make an appointment. At a therapeutic boarding school, counseling sessions are often required. The counselors at a therapeutic boarding school typically have a Masters Degree in an area of study such as counseling, psychology or social work. Their experience and training makes them uniquely qualified to meet with students who are struggling with substance abuse, emotional, behavioral or other issues. Counseling sessions may be one-on-one, or a student may attend group therapy sessions. It all depends on the student’s needs.

In addition, students at therapeutic boarding schools can often participate in other activities that traditional boarding schools don’t offer. Some therapeutic boarding schools have ropes courses on which students can test their strength and endurance. Others have horse stables where students work to maintain both the stable and the horses, in addition to learning equestrian skills. Some therapeutic boarding schools reside on lakes where skills such as kayaking or sailing are taught. Though it may sound like a vacation, therapeutic boarding schools have specific reasons for including these types of activities. Learning new skills improves self-esteem, and physical exercise and activity have been shown to improve a person’s overall mental state. Taking care of a stable and horses teaches students the value of being part of team, and taking care of another living being often helps emotionally troubled students break through some of the barriers with which they struggle.

When deciding on boarding school, it’s important to decide first on which type of school will most benefit the student. Traditional boarding schools work well for most, but for troubled students, a therapeutic boarding school will offer the best opportunities for emotional and behavioral recovery and growth. Some parents seek the advice of an educational consultant; a trained expert who specializes in boarding school. Educational consultants have comprehensive knowledge of the options available to potential boarding school students and be a great asset in the decision making process.