Woodbury Reports Archives


The Internet's leading source of information on emotional growth schools & programs

Archives Contents

Archives Home
Contents by Year
      1989 - Present
Contents by Topic
      Industry News
      Schools & Visits
      Opinions & Essays

Archives Search

The easiest way to find information is by using our search function. Just type in the words you would like to search for and you'll get a list of articles related to your topic.

Site Index

Schools & Programs
Online Discussion
Online Store
Contact Us

Opinion & Essays - August, 2001 Issue #84 

Behavior Modification and
Psychoanalytic Theory

In Emotional Growth Schools and Programs

By Kristie Vollar
Woodbury Reports, Inc. - Referral Assistant

[I wrote this essay for my Psychology Class and thought it might be interesting to the parents/professionals who are involved in the network. I want to clarify, however, that I am only describing two therapeutic approaches that are components of more comprehensive therapeutic and/or emotional growth programs, which are not explained in their entirety in this discussion.]

At the beginning of this class, I completed a personal information sheet in which I mentioned I had gone to a wilderness program and then to Mission Mountain School. Mission Mountain School is a therapeutic boarding school for girls who are struggling with dependencies, have poor decision-making skills, struggle with healthy relationships, and in general, display addictive behaviors. The school uses various therapeutic approaches, including behavior modification and psychoanalytic therapy. My discussion will focus on my experiences with these two therapies while I was enrolled at Mission Mountain School, with additional examples drawn from other schools/programs with which I work. Most of these programs use behavior modification and psychoanalytic therapy as part of a more comprehensive program.

Behavior modification is a therapeutic technique that generally uses rewards and consequences in the form of a level system to reinforce desired behaviors. Many of the wilderness programs use a level system where kids start out in one group and work their way to the highest-level group, at which point they are ready to either move on to another facility, or go home. An example is the Aspen Achievement Academy program, described in Lon Woodbury’s visit report that appears in the directory, Places for Struggling Teens™ 2000/01 [published by Woodbury Reports, Inc]. This program is “specifically structured to bring the adolescent through a modern ‘rite of passage’ to responsible young adulthood. Each child goes through four phases of the program, each with increasing responsibilities and privileges, as they complete 27 assignments. The first phase is called Mouse, and is basically an orientation lasting a couple of days. Next is the Coyote phase, which deals with personal issues along with learning the skills needed for survival and comfort in the wilderness. In the Buffalo phase, the student moves on into community and family issues, and works on teamwork, which is often a very difficult concept for children with low self-esteem to grasp. The highest level is called Eagle, where the student learns responsibility by taking on leadership roles in the group. Each phase builds on the previous one, with the goal of each child learning self-control and the ability to establish and work toward accomplishing goals.”

In addition to the level system, many programs also utilize licensed therapists to help the child understand how their emotions interfere with their ability to change their behaviors. Sometimes the child will tap into repressed memories and need a counselor to help them understand and cope with the feelings that arise. This form of therapy is based on psychoanalytic theory. For example, I was acting out sexually when I was 17 as a result of repressed memories of being sexually molested when I was less than three years old. Repressing my memories of molestation was how I had been coping with the scariness and pain of the situation. But at 17, I had been sexually acting out to attract more attention in a misguided effort to improve my sense of self-worth. I felt ashamed, and didn’t even know why. After I had been in a therapeutic setting for awhile, where I felt safe and had been learning about myself and some of the reasons why I behaved the way I did, I started to remember being molested. The counselors were then able to help me understand that “it wasn’t my fault” and helped me learn to cope with the new feelings and memories that surrounded being molested. I verified with my mom that I had in fact talked to her about being molested when I was two and was able to “process” a lot of feelings that came up by physically hitting a sponge block with a large bat because I felt angry. I wrote letters to the molesters telling them how their actions had been wrong. I was both angry and hurt that they could take advantage of a 2 1/2 year old child. I worked on art projects and things that interested me to remind myself that I was “worth it” and there was no reason for me to feel ashamed.

Other programs we work with also use behavior modification with a reward system to reinforce positive behaviors and natural consequences to extinguish unwanted behaviors. A child will learn through experience that if he is resistant and doesn’t pitch his tent, and it rains, he will get wet. So he learns to pitch his tent, at the same time learning that what he does directly affects the type of experience he is going to have. Resistance is common in the beginning of a Therapeutic Wilderness Expedition, but as the child learns what behaviors will bring negative consequences, he also learns what behaviors will bring positive rewards, and therefore, will become less resistant and more cooperative. Naturally, as he begins to cooperate and learns appropriate behavior, he moves up through the levels. Another example, also from the Places for Struggling Teens 2000/01 directory, describes Lon Woodbury’s visit to the Ascent program: “The structure is very tight… the student’s choices at any one time are few and clear…wake up is at 7:00 am…students are given five minutes to get dressed, make their beds, and gather outside. If anyone takes longer, then they all go back to bed to do it over again until they do it right. Also, when the students go any place at Base Camp, they do it single file and on the run. The only time I saw the students walking was to a graduation for one of the students. Even then, they go single file, with no talking. When a student falls into his/her negative feelings or becomes resistant, the student is placed on a stump in the large circular center, roughly equivalent to a “time-out room”. The student is physically in the middle of all the activities, but obviously isolated from everyone. This is physically symbolizing the emotional isolation the student has created, and it becomes his/her sole job at that time to process the negative feelings that are going on and to work on resolving those feelings so he/she can rejoin the group.”

The therapist or psychologist who uses behavior modification, looks at a person’s behaviors rather than their brains and nervous systems. The kids we work with are generally placed in a program due to the behaviors they are displaying, for example, their grades are slipping, they are running away, hanging out with “negative peers”, are into drugs or alcohol, have a low self-confidence, or poor leadership skills. They might be really angry and/or aggressive and perhaps are depressed. The first thing they need is an intervention that will get their attention and help them realize that their behavior, for whatever reason, is not appropriate. In the wilderness, they are able to work on their self-confidence and leadership skills. They also can begin to tap into some of their “real” issues, the reasons why they are “acting out”, instead of focusing only on the “symptoms” of the problem, their acting out behaviors.

The psychoanalytic perspective can shed light on some of the causes of certain behaviors. The psychoanalytic theory, as developed by Sigmund Freud, was based on the assumption that much of our behavior stems from unconscious processes.

Mission Mountain School used behavior modification to provide us with structure so that we were able to learn what behaviors and actions create a safe environment. As we began to feel safe, we could eventually tap into some of the deeper issues. Since some of us didn’t know why we were angry, weren’t sure why we felt ashamed, or why we couldn’t make good eye contact. First we had to modify our lifestyles, and learn how to “process”, that is, understand and cope with the emotions and events that were constantly ocurring. We learned to adhere to our structured schedules and work with the program to avoid negative consequences for the entire group by modifying our behaviors. Then the therapists, using psychoanalysis, counseled us to help us look deeper into our behaviors and learn how to process the information that began to surface in our conscious memory. Many of the girls had been molested during the first 3 years of their lives; many had other types of abuse at a young age, many felt they didn’t “belong”, doing “what ever it took” to fit in. Tapping into repressed memories helped us work through some of our feelings, helping us to alter our behaviors as we learned how to manage the new feelings that accompanied the new memories. Each girl’s history was evaluated in order for the school’s professional staff to implement the appropriate therapies needed to recover from past pain and regroup towards a healthy, positive future.

Another aspect of behavior modification used by Mission Mountain School, called an “intervention”, is a period of intense physical work, reduced sleep, stricter rules and more intense group therapy. It is used for breaking into an “underground”, the secrets the girls would keep from the group in order to be sneaky or plan a run. During an intervention we would have very strict inspections of our work, work all day in the hot sun, and if someone was resistant, or we didn’t pass inspection, we would start the day over again. This was used to “break” down our defenses so that we would share what was going on with us. When an intervention lasts long enough, one gets physically, mentally and emotionally worn out until there isn’t enough energy left to hide “what’s really going on”. The longest intervention I was on at the school was 22 days.

The main difference between these two approaches is that behavior modification focuses on changing behaviors, using techniques such as a level system that incorporates rewards and consequences, while the psychoanalytic approach seeks to uncover the underlying causes, such as repressed memories, that are causing the unwanted behaviors, to help the person better understand their motivations and find more effective ways to deal with their emotions. Many programs effectively integrate these two approaches, along with others, to help students modify difficult behaviors and emotions.

PO Box 1671 | Bonners Ferry, ID 83805 | 208-267-5550
Copyright © 1995-2017 by Strugglingteens,LLC. All rights reserved.    Privacy Policy