Will Laughlin, MA, MAT

The best schools treat students as whole persons whose many parts-mind, body, spirit, relationships-merge and blur inextricably. Because any one part of a child cannot be addressed in isolation from the others, curriculum and instruction at these schools are designed to address all of these parts simultaneously. Such schools employ what might be termed the “integrated approach”; writing might be taught in math classes, ethics in history, physics in P.E., and life skills in science. Character development, work ethic, social skills, volunteerism, study skills, social tolerance, and the principles of democracy are topics that find their way, subtly or explicitly, into all classes and all teachable moments. In addition, these schools seek ways to connect parents to the school and the school to the community and the larger world.

This integrated approach to education becomes even more critical-and challenging-among adolescents, particularly those experiencing emotional, academic, or social difficulties. Adolescents are masters at divide and control strategies. They like to divide their world into several distinct parts-school, various peer groups, parents, etcetera-and they work hard to keep these parts from interacting with each other. For adolescents, whose developmental job it is to seek new levels of autonomy and independence, this compartmentalization provides a welcome sense of control and mastery over their lives. Adolescents will often learn to segment their personalities as well, presenting a very different “self” to each world they occupy. This gives them the freedom to experiment with different personas as they grope their way toward an adult identity; it also gives them a greater sense of freedom and personal control. Parents are sometimes baffled by reports that their sullen, silent daughter is boisterous and popular with her peers, or that their angry, oppositional son is a compliant charmer in the classroom.

While a normal and natural part of adolescence, this divide and control approach can, like any coping strategy, go awry. Over-utilizing this strategy can delay identity formation and can allow a child to mask pain and/or pathology from those who would otherwise be in a position to intervene. At best, this can make an adolescent seem distant and mysterious to her parents; at worst, it can allow emotional and behavioral issues to fester.

Effective parents, like good schools, recognize that their child is a whole person and that problems cannot be addressed in isolation. The key to fostering healthy adolescent development is to address every area of life simultaneously and as of equal importance. Treating an adolescent as a whole person and working toward integration of her world is a powerful antidote for the over compartmentalization that often accompanies, and exacerbates, adolescent pathology. To accomplish this, parents must work tirelessly to forge relationships with and between involved teachers, therapists, clergy, parents, and other stakeholders.

Even the most diligent parental efforts, however, can prove inadequate to integrate the world of a struggling teen. When an adolescent’s problematic emotions or behaviors reach critical mass, it can become an impossible task for parents to do this work of integration unassisted. This is when a good boarding school or residential therapeutic program can provide a mechanism for integrating the world and personality of a struggling young person. Small, high-quality boarding schools and residential programs have special leverage to create a 360 degree embrace that supports and draws together the various parts of an adolescent’s life. At its best, this embrace falls somewhere between a comforting hug and a safe restraint as the school’s staff wraps around the child seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to help her become and remain integrated, accountable, and safe.

To accomplish these ends, quality boarding schools and residential programs work constantly to ensure that all stakeholders-faculty, parents, educational consultants, therapists, etcetera-align philosophically, communicate constantly, and support each other’s efforts as their own. Some such schools even have parent communicators whose role it is to actively connect the dots and communicate a whole, integrated, and up to date picture of the child to all stakeholders-including the child herself. This reflecting of a child back to herself is an important strategy for moving her toward integration and wholeness, i.e. from a collage of disjointed images to a cohesive portrait.

In a small residential setting, students, eat, school, play, and sleep in a single integrated environment with a manageable and constant group of peers and adults. This allows a student to be observed and known in a way not possible at home, where the typical adolescent eats, schools, plays, and sleeps in different worlds and with different people. Because of this, many parents make the surprising discovery that they can know and connect with their struggling adolescent more effectively when she is in a residential setting than they could when she was at home. So while not appropriate for every struggling child, a boarding environment can be a powerful tool for healing the divided child.

Will Laughlin, MA, MAT is a writer and branding consultant for mental health organizations, including InnerChange, where he manages clinical content and publication.