Emotional Growth
FamilyLightsm: Successor to Bridge to Understandingsm
Shows best in Internet Explorer.  May be distorted in Mozilla Firefox.

 We are not sure there is a single, universally accepted definition of "Emotional Growth" in the context of the schools we are considering.  Usually "emotional growth schools" are thought of as schools that address behavioral change but do not include a substantial amount of actual clinical input.  In most cases Emotional Growth Schools have included a curriculum targeting character development and emotional maturity (and usually some behavioral results).  That curriculum traditionally applies to all students regardless of differences, just as the core educational curriculum in most schools applies to all students and tend not to be highly individualized.

(Article continues below box)

FamilyLightsm is an educational consulting firm specializing in work with families with a young person with behavioral, emotional or psychological difficulties.  We offer in-depth personal guidance to families on a fee basis and free guidance on the internet. FamilyLightsm attempts to be fully objective and accepts no advertising nor referral fees. The only revenue at FamilyLightsm comes from client fees. 

Many use the term "Emotional Growth School" to refer to any school with an emotional growth curriculum, whether or not it is also a therapeutic school.  Yes, it is confusing, even to us.  Just be sure that when you hear the term, you know what is meant by the person speaking or writing. There are other variations in how people use that term.

We prefer to refer to all schools with a true clinical component as "therapeutic schools," and not to refer to any entity as therapeutic  unless properly qualified licensed clinicians are in charge. However, many therapeutic schools -- as we use the term "therapeutic" -- include a curriculum that would be typical of an Emotional Growth School. We call this an "Emotional Growth Curriculum."

As the reader might expect, one  major concern where emotional growth schools are concerned is that they do not claim to accomplish more than they can actually deliver, and that they have a policy and a protocol for safely transferring out a client they can't really help or accommodate safely because of needs to complex for them.

We also want to be sure that the school or program has correctly targeted the population it best serves. 

In many cases the most important impact of an Emotional Growth School is its impact on maturity of the students who attend it.  This is an excellent modality for young people who are simply immature but have no other significant pathology, although that is not who these schools initially served.  

The history of Emotional Growth traces back at least to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, although it is possible to trace it back farther if we look at the history of that organization.  This is arguably beginning of the concept of intervening in a significant behavioral issue through peer support. Later, (in 1958, according to Wikipedia as of October 8, 2008) an Alcoholics Anonymous member whose name was Charles Dederich founded Synanon. This began the Concept House tradition that put the addicts-helping-other-addicts concept into a residential setting.  Synanon used harsh confrontation methods and did not include the spiritual dimension of Alcoholics Anonymous.  However they did produce anecdotal reports of seemingly hopeless addicts becoming drug abstinent. (Of course that did not include alcohol abstinence; Synanon residents were "taught to drink responsibly") 

Synanon grew in prominence through the 1960s when  drug abuse became a national concern.  Traditional psychiatry appeared to have nothing to offer in dealing with drug addiction or alcoholism (which then conventional wisdom said were two different things).  But the idea was that Alcoholics Anonymous was the only answer to alcoholism and the Synanon kind of thing (there were imitators) was the only way to respond to drug addiction.  Traditional mental health work was perceived by the conventional wisdom of the day to have nothing to offer addiction or alcoholism and, at that time, that conventional wisdom was not far wrong.  

In (or near) 1972 Mel Wasserman, a gentleman who was very close to Charles Dederich founded Cedu High School. According to Wikipedia, (as of October 8, 2008) Wasserman was a former Synanon Resident.  We doubt that, as Synanon was intended to be a lifelong commitment and people who left the community were not generally treated cordially by those still in the community. Clearly Wasserman lived outside the Synanon Community.  (If any reader wants to dispute that date, or clarify Wasserman's actual connection with Synanon and Dederich, please respond to us with corrected information and/or clarification.)   

Cedu High School began the use of the term "emotional growth."  The school used many of the Synanon tools, combined it with some of Esalen, and the tradition was launched.  This was a combination of peers confronting peers under adult guidance (some would say manipulation) and a series of intense marathon retreat style workshops that formed the basis of the emotional growth curriculum.  The traditions of Cedu were imitated by a number of schools in a very pure form (Amity, Cascade, Mt. Bachelor, for example) and in less pure form in many other venues.  Wasserman was openly hostile to psychiatry and anything resembling traditional mental heath work. We are reluctant to say he was actually hostile to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he certainly never made common cause with it. Some have suggested that he did not like the spiritual aspects, a point of view we cannot confirm.  Again, we welcome responses from people with insight into this aspect of history. At the risk of oversimplifying, these events created a three way split in intervention with problem adolescents, between traditional mental health, emotional growth (as in Cedu), and twelve step folks (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other anonymous fellowships). 

Over time, there has been a combining effect. There is a realization that drug addiction and alcoholism are two sides of the same coin, and that alcoholism is simply a special case of addiction.  Traditional mental health people have generally accepted the notion that they simply did not have the ability to do the job with addicts and alcoholics using only traditional methods.  The acceptance is almost as broad regarding oppositional and manipulative teenagers whether or not they use drugs and/or alcohol.  Clinically based schools and programs are now likely to have elements of twelve step work and emotional growth (Island View). Schools that began as emotional growth schools have become therapeutic schools with an emotional growth curriculum (King George School).  Historically twelve step schools are adding components of both a mental health tradition and the Synanon antecedent to emotional growth school (Family Foundation School; Gatehouse Academy).  The fact is that adopting the best of each is probably good for everyone. 

One more factor is important.  Historically the Synanon tradition and the emotional growth movement used procedures that are simply not acceptable by today's standards and are alleged to have used methods that were simply abusive by anyone's standards.   People were screamed at, humiliated and forced to do hard menial tasks over time. There are accusations of sleep deprivation, harsh peer on peer punishments, and serious emotionally abusive brainwashing techniques.  While we do not believe any of the emotional growth schools actually endorsed it, there was peer on peer and occasional staff on student (rare but it occurred) physical and sexual abuse, but the problem was that the early emotional growth tradition did not include adequate supervision.  In addition, when the behavior was due to treatable mental illness, frequently psychiatric care was denied. 

We do not endorse every school and program in an emotional growth tradition, but we do see a contemporary version of emotional growth in schools being carried out with adaptations that do not involve these abuses. 

At this time, we believe the emotional growth tradition can be a positive contributor to a well run school when the historic abuses are removed and balance is achieved in a context of Best Practices.

In that context, we want to address the use of medications.  Currently we believe that schools and programs promoting behavioral change cannot reasonably prohibit the use of psychotropic medications.  In the 1980s when Emotional Growth was a new concept, most available psychotropic medications were simply for behavioral control and served no other purpose. In that setting, we understand the legitimate reasons for some schools and programs to make that exclusionary criteria. In the 21st century, many children and adolescents benefit from psychotropic medications administered with care.  It is tempting to support behavioral change programs that prohibit use of medications if they also evaluate students to screen out admissions who would benefit from them.  However, it is the nature of such programs that the need for psychotropic medications can not always be determined until the student/client is enrolled for a period  of time.  We don't want people facing the dilemma of a program change vs. denial of useful medications.  With current knowledge administration and monitoring of medications is neither difficult nor disruptive. We see no excuse for behavior change programs prohibiting medications across the board.

Specific guidelines are as follows. Remember "Emotional Growth" can refer either to behavior change modality that lacks clinical input or it can refer to the emotional growth tradition.  We attempt to be clear which we mean in each entry that follows, if it makes a difference.

  1. Like all behavioral change programs, emotional growth schools and programs should be judged by their relationship to reasonable innovation and evidence based best practice standards, where as they are available and applicable.

  2. While we recognize the value of the best of the emotional growth tradition for many young people who primarily display maturity issues and/or lack of discipline, we also realize those issues can mask issues that need clinical attention.  Both the admission and the continuation of enrollment in an emotional growth school or program addressing behavioral change and lacking a clinical component need to be reviewed by competent credentialed clinicians to determine appropriateness and avoid depriving students/clients of clinical mental health services where indicated. 

  3. The use of psychotropic drugs, under proper supervision shall not be prohited and will be restricted only in accordance with proper psychiatric procedure. 

  4. All medications will be properly administered according to a protocol signed by a licensed physician and with medications handled by a properly credentialed nurse. 

  5. Procedures that are harsh, demeaning, and potentially emotionally damaging are unacceptable.

  6. Physical restraint and isolation will not be used except under conditions where they would be permitted in a mental health licensed facility.

Feedback is invited. We will publish selected feedback.  Email FamilyLightResponse@yahoo.com

This article may be divided into two in the future, with one part being placed in Topics of Interest regarding Emotional Growth, it history and potential, and the other to remain here very narrowly focused on Guidelines. 

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last updated October 8, 2008; minor edits 1-7-09

                                    "Solutions, Not Just Referrals"

1999-2009  Thomas J. Croke & Associates, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Except lighthouse photo, which is public domain, no part of this website may be copied without permission.

For questions or comments regarding this website, email office@familylight.com