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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1998 Issue #55

Certified Educational Planner 

The World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP) consists of an interrelated collection of legally independent programs for at-risk young people, or teens making poor decisions, currently with programs located in Utah, Montana, South Carolina, Mexico, Western Samoa and Jamaica. In the past many people have thought of Teen Help as the overall controlling organization, but Teen Help actually has only been a marketing, screening and admissions group that refers parents and their children to WWASP programs, and occasionally to other programs. Recently, WWASP itself has started doing marketing, screening and admissions for the WWASP affiliated programs, adding those activities to WWASP’s original purpose of providing the cost advantages of pooled resources. WWASP also provides services to all their programs such as seminars, workshops, a web page, consulting, trouble shooting and assistance with parent concerns. 

Cross Creek Manor, a girls program in Utah, was the earliest program, founded in 1987. After that, the other programs were founded one by one, following roughly the same model as developed at Cross Creek Manor but each separately owned. Some of the programs have added a therapeutic component in addition to the typical highly structured program. Some context in which these programs were originally developed might be helpful. 

By the 1980s, many individuals throughout the country independently came to the conclusion that the two most common approaches to working with teens making negative decisions (punishment model and treatment model) were not serving some teens very well. As a result, starting in the 1980s, many schools and programs were founded throughout the country based on an alternative approach. Cross Creek Manor was one of these. A common view of the founders of these various new alternative schools and programs was that the root problem was many of these “at-risk” teens had not “grown up,” that is they were not emotionally age appropriate. For example, a common situation would be a 16-year-old acting in ways that are reminiscent of what you would expect from a four-year-old. This teen could exhibit explosive temper tantrums, extreme self-centered attitudes, and/or reckless behavior with no apparent consideration of possible harmful consequences. This kind of behavior is not very surprising when done by a four-year-old, and that is why parents have to keep a very close eye on young children to protect them from themselves. But, these manifestations are confusing and very difficult to deal with when a 16-year-old does them. One reason for this difficulty is the common mis-assumption that negative behavior by a teen is a conscious choice, rather than a reflection of maturity. 

The Founders of these alternative schools and programs felt that when an immature teen was punished, instead of “learning a lesson, ” he/she would think the adult was arbitrarily “picking on them” and react with a counter-productive fear and/or anger. And, these founders felt that immaturity is not something that can be “cured” in the treatment sense. Instead they felt expensive psychiatric treatment was either ineffective or harmful when applied to a child who is primarily immature or with only an attitude problem. 

A major tool used by most of these new alternative programs was a tight structure so the child could learn the consequences of his/her behavior and attitudes. (A tight structure describes a program so ordered that consequences for any action are appropriate, immediate and consistent. This approach often uses natural consequences, and works hard to avoid the immature student being able to rationalize consequences as being arbitrary punishment.) This is a radically different approach than is the concept of punishment, which is to inflict pain until the child chooses to make better decisions. (An immature child cannot simply choose to grow up. Growing up happens over time through the guidance and help of parents and adults.) In their new schools and programs, these founders insisted on a balance of love and firmness within a tight structure in working with each individual child. 

Woodbury Reports was founded in November 1989 (and the Online Edition was started in September 1995) to chronicle the development of these alternative schools and programs, referring to them as “emotional growth schools and programs.” This term was adopted to distinguish them from those using punishment as a primary discipline tool (boot camps, military schools, scared straight, juvenile justice programs etc.) and to also distinguish them from hospital programs or residential treatment centers. Of course, punishment does work with some teens, and others can only be helped by treatment. But for many other teens making poor decisions, these approaches can backfire. These other teens are the ones more likely to become successful in a structured “emotional growth” program that helps them learn the lessons missed in their early years. 

When I visited Cross Creek Manor in 1994, the staff made no claim of being a treatment center, and did not act like one. The students I talked to, with no staff present, talked about accountability and consequences rather than punishment. From all appearances, which included parent testimonials to me, Cross Creek Manor was at that time an “emotional growth” program, and was neither punishment nor treatment oriented, but was focused on “emotional growth” through structure, and was positively changing young lives for the better. 

In the last year, a few parents have publicly criticized WWASP programs, while other parents have expressed gratitude for what the programs did for their child and publicly endorsed the program. The debate has been picked up by the news media, making it a public issue. Unfortunately, like many debates that get into the public arena, the real issues are being obscured by emotional accusations, and people jumping into the debate with no direct knowledge of the programs. As an example of conflicting claims, critics of the programs have told me they know of many parents of children in the programs who are concerned but reluctant to say anything critical. At the same time, WWASP officials report the results of a survey of 231 parents (all the parents of graduates they could locate) where 98.7% say they are satisfied with the results achieved by the student and the family, and 96.5% would not hesitate to recommend these programs. 

Woodbury Reports has established a corner in the News section of its Online Edition Newsletter to give a full, fair and open hearing to knowledgeable supporters and critics of the WWASP programs. It is limited to parents with children who are, or have been, in one of the programs and are willing to use their real name. This is to eliminate hearsay comments. In addition, comments will be added only that are calm, rational and address specific experiences or reasonable opinions of those parents. This is presented so people who have an interest in the matter can judge for themselves the merits of both sides of the debate based on the words of the participants. Contact Lon Woodbury at 208-267-5550 or lon@woodbury.com if you have a statement you want included. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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