What is the ideal interplay between academics and treatment in a residential treatment program? Should they be treated as separate programs? Should they be integrated? Is one more important than the other? To find out, we asked InnerChange academic director, Kathrine Whittekiend, M.Ed.
The best way to structure academics in a treatment setting is to make the faculty active members of the treatment team. We have to do this in order to be effective, both as teachers and as participants in the treatment process. This means having access to and input into treatment team objectives, case management discussions, and treatment strategies. This way, when the therapist is working on an issue in treatment, we can support that work in the classroom.
For instance, one of our girls was not engaging her treatment actively; she was sitting back just kind of waiting for it to be over. So in collaboration with the treatment team we pushed her in the classroom, giving her more assignments and more responsibilities, like tutoring other students. Doing this tapped a bit into her perfectionism and flushed out her issues in ways that talk therapy could not. It forced her issues to manifest in the classroom. This gave the therapeutic team material to work with and the girl began to finally see the relevance of the treatment process. Finally, she was willing to engage.
Another student would shut down emotionally whenever she became overwhelmed. This occurred most frequently in the classroom since she associated academics with performance triggers. So the classroom became a very rich environment for working with her habitual shutting-down behaviors. Of course, shutting down in the classroom was not only emotionally difficult for her, it also impeded her learning, an example of how emotional and academic objectives are often complementary.
As part of her DBT treatment, we helped this student identify feelings of anxiety and implement DBT skills to deescalate the stress prior to shutting down. We were in a unique position to help her practice these self-management skills in a practical setting; the classroom.
Academically, this integrated, cross-departmental work has a powerful effect on performance. We see marked improvement in our students’ study habits. Many students don’t know how to study when they arrive, which contributes to their anxiety. That anxiety, then, reinforces avoidance and other behaviors that are emotionally and academically counterproductive. So the student feels trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle.
By addressing the study habits in a setting that balances challenge with nurturance, we can give these girls a sense of competence, “I can do this!” In this way we interrupt the anxiety-avoidance cycle. The student becomes more emotionally stable and a better learner.