The best way to structure academics in a treatment setting is to give the faculty active membership on the treatment team. In fact, we believe that this is necessary in order to be effective—both in academics and in treatment. 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.
Academically, this integrated, cross-departmental work has a powerful effect on performance. This surprises many people, who may assume that treatment means putting academics on hold. But in a setting that addresses the needs of the whole child, treatment and academics actually complement each other. We see marked improvement in our students’ study habits from enrollment to discharge in part because of the therapeutic process they go through, which breaks academically disruptive cycles of anxiety and avoidance. We also see therapeutic progress accelerated by the very practical, applied personal-growth work that occurs in the classroom setting.
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.
So by addressing therapeutic issues in an experiential classroom setting we can accelerate the treatment process. By addressing emotional issues that have interfered with academic progress through clinical treatment, we make these girls much better students. It is by collaborating rigorously across departments that we can help the student become more emotionally stable and better learners.