Educational Consultants (ECs) do not choose a specific program for their client family’s child. Instead, they guide families by giving them the best-matched options, usually two or three that best meet the needs of the student and the family.

The first step is determining if a wilderness program is the right fit. An EC will complete a full review of the child’s history and the reasons why the family reached out. This process also includes reviewing any testing, school reports, transcripts, and, very importantly, speaking to the professionals who know the student from a clinical standpoint. Every assessment involves evaluating the student and family’s emotional, psychological, educational, and financial needs. An IEC will speak to anyone and everyone who has worked with the child professionally (with the family’s permission) to see what the child is like in different circumstances. The next layer of the evaluation is reading all the information about the student, including neuropsychological reports or grade reports to see how the student achieved or did not over time. The key to this phase is to find out the student’s clinical needs beyond the stories and paperwork. 

Once determined that a wilderness program is the fit, an independent educational and therapeutic placement consultant provides an overview of the different modalities (Nomadic, Base-Camp, Adventure, Hybrid). Students may learn outdoor primitive living skills and other particular skills from cooking, hiking, art, and adventure. They generally use community living to help students see where they are, help move them gently forward, and begin to unwind and examine their patterns or behaviors to aid them in their therapeutic journey.

Many people confuse therapeutic wilderness programs with experiential learning programs or boot camps. However, neither of the others provides the clinical sophistication offered at a TWP. Therapeutic wilderness options offer one-on-one therapy sessions, as well as group and family therapy run by trained or licensed therapists. Wilderness staff members go through several days/weeks/months of training to facilitate the group process. Other programs also fail to offer groups that are conducted daily or weekly with the clinical oversight of a lead therapist and a staff to student ratio of 1:4. In contrast, boot camps offer more structure and can have a military approach to the experience and do not offer clinical oversight and clinical milieu. What distinguishes a TWP is that it is designed from beginning to end to evaluate, assess, and support a student and their family through a clinical process in a very intentional design. The entire therapeutic experience is based on therapy, in an experiential model, rather than an office.

Wilderness therapy provides daily structure, therapeutic sophistication, phases to meet a student and diagnose, assess, and evaluate the student using a particular outdoor model. Individuals enrolled in TWPs are adolescents as well as young adults. At most, the groups are separated by ages (11-13, 14-17, 18+) and in groups of 8-10. They may also be gender-specific, and in most cases, they are.  

Adolescents or young adults listen to their peers; therefore, another level of the wilderness therapeutic experience is the peer group and having “leaders” in the group to model. Participants can become leaders themselves as they progress through the program. The role of a leader is reserved for students who have been in the program longer. It is an opportunity to demonstrate new skills and often the first time many of these youth have had a chance to experience leadership. Field staff runs the day-to-day schedule of the group. They drive the milieu and the therapeutic goals and interventions prescribed for each student by the licensed therapist assigned to them.

The wilderness model generally does not have a definite beginning, middle, and end. Therefore, the student cannot game the system because the system is evolving and changing with the student’s needs. The average length of stay is 70 days. This time allows a student to be free from the distractions of school, computers, drugs, malls, hair products, drinking, cell phones, friends, and family, in various primitive environments to examine and explore their choices and patterns. A TWP can be, but is not always, the first step in a multi-step therapeutic intervention process for a student and their family.

The length of this first phase can be 24 hours or several days. This step is also very dependent on where family members are in their understanding and availability to a therapeutic intervention of any kind.

Like their colleagues, special needs consultants visit programs and schools. There is one difference. Our visits at Optimal Edu Options include trips to the wilderness, and we meet therapists on our way out to the field (that generally involve a long car ride) or while we are in the field with the students. Many IECs spend the night out in the field before they refer to a program. We will go out on an expedition with a group of students, sit in a group session, get to know what that group is like, and hear about its strengths and weaknesses from the students. We also get to see the students we have placed in the wilderness, see how clean they look, see the glow that comes from their faces when initially we only saw or felt the darkness from their insides. It is always amazing to sit through a session with a student you have met in the office and then see them away from the computer, cell phone, friends, and family and begin to see the student as they were meant to be.

Our job as an IEC is to evaluate and assess which program and which therapist is suitable for each individual student. It adds another layer of questioning for IECs when they are researching if a spot is available: We ask what the group looks like now; how many students are rolling in or out of the group; how many leaders there are at that time; and if there are students with similar profiles. There are other questions IECs think about for a family, such as what type of parent program this family needs to help them move forward? Does the child need to be escorted?

The goals for each student in the wilderness are individual and how they are achieved is a personal process for that student. Some students accept their role in what got them there; others barely move, but in the end, we know more about the student and their capacity for insight and awareness.

Most IECs follow the student through the process at the TWP:

  1. The EC receives updates from the therapist on how things are moving along, reads their letters, sees their progress through photos.
  2. An EC will support the family with weekly phone calls.
  3. At the end of the wilderness therapeutic program, an EC will assist in the transition to home or another school or program.

In the end, there has been a therapeutic assessment and perhaps additional formal testing while in the wilderness. There is graduation. The student has experienced success through experientially therapeutic processes, personally and interpersonally. They have been sober and clean from friends or drugs, or technology. They have slept eight hours a night for many weeks, eaten three meals a day, concentrated on themselves and their family, and are beginning the next step with a level of awareness of their process and they have some ownership in it. The IEC has supported the family through the process that suits everyone’s needs, but more importantly, the family as a whole has begun the journey to support each other and work on their own needs and begin to reconnect in a new way.