Wilderness Therapy Programs for Adolescents with Special Needs: How They Work

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Wilderness therapy is a behavioral treatment approach for adolescents that combines experiential learning in an outdoor environment with intensive counseling sessions in both a one-on-one and group format. This type of residential treatment program, which individuals typically participate in for one or two months, functions as a form of therapeutic intervention for teens who have difficulty with managing anti-social, rebellious, or apathetic behaviors in a classroom and family setting.

The Structure of Wilderness-Based Therapy Programs

Though individual treatment facilities may differ in terms of daily scheduling, a typical wilderness therapy program such as that of the Aspen Achievement Academy includes these elements:

Individual/team chores and responsibilities. Program participants complete assigned daily tasks such as preparing equipment for hikes, cooking meals, and cleaning the shelter and camp sites.

Hiking and other physical activities. Outdoor excursions such as scheduled hikes and cooperative games allow teenagers to bond with one another and receive mentoring from staff members in a natural setting.

Individual and group therapy sessions. Scheduled sessions with licensed therapists are also an element of this program. Therapists spend time reviewing treatment plans with staff members and talking to patients individually and as a group.

Academic lessons. Adolescents in wilderness programs receive schooling in science, life skills, and health while completing hikes and observing nature.

Personal time. Program participants have opportunities to write letters to family members, building campfires with peers, engaging in conversation, and playing games.

Benefits for Teens With Academic Issues

Wilderness treatment programs can help adolescents with special learning needs in several ways. Students who are underachieving academically due to a learning disability, lack of interest in school, or poor classroom attendance may thrive in a wilderness-based setting due to these factors:

The program involves opportunities to engage in experiential education. Unlike the traditional classroom environment, a wilderness program curriculum allows students to learn and experiment in a physical setting: for example, geology is taught through the study of fossils and rocks, and astronomy is studied through direct observation of the stars.

Academic goals are structured and planned in conjunction with therapy. Wilderness treatment programs are organized in a manner that encourages both academic and therapeutic progress. Students are continually encouraged to meet and exceed educational objectives.

New students are encouraged and motivated by established program members. Participants who are settled into the program routine guide newer participants in completing educational activities and learning skills.

Benefits for Teens With Behavioral Issues

This type of program also offers several key benefits for teenagers who have behavioral disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, depression, and anxiety. By participating in a therapeutic wilderness program, these students can:

Improve attention span through structured activities and hands-on learning exercises. The “applied learning” and outdoor exercise components of these programs help students with attention problems to improve focus and concentration on tasks.

Learn to model positive behaviors of higher-level students and staff members. Adolescents who have successfully completed introductory phases of a wilderness program can serve as role models in terms of demonstrating positive and productive behaviors such as cooperating with others and respecting authority figures.

Develop self-esteem and learn various coping skills. Wilderness treatment programs are designed to help teenagers with self-esteem issues to gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. Adolescents with anger, anxiety, or depression problems are taught coping skills for facing fears and managing aggressive behaviors.

Wilderness therapy programs are most appropriate for adolescents who have demonstrated little to no behavioral improvement after participating in various types of individual and family treatment sessions. Parents who feel that their children may be candidates for these programs can contact wilderness academies for information on admissions criteria. After returning home from a wilderness treatment facility, teenagers can continue engaging in community outdoor activities as part of a nature therapy program.