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alternative schools for troubled youth

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

A Parent's Guide to Alternative Schooling for Teens Facing Challenges

As parents, we all hope for a smooth journey through our children's teenage years. But let's face it – sometimes, things get tough. If you have a struggling teen, whether it's with unsafe behavior, academics, or emotional issues, you're not alone. Many families find hope and help in alternative schools designed for teens just like yours. These schools aren't just about academics; they're about healing and growth in a supportive environment.


What Are Alternative Schools?

Think of alternative schools as a fresh start for your teen. These aren't your typical high schools. They're special places where challenging teens get the attention and tailored support they need. From therapeutic boarding schools to wilderness programs, these institutions offer a blend of academics, therapy, and life skills. It also may be a bit confusing with all the different types/names of alternative schools and what they offer, so here are some different titles of alternative programs and what they offer.


  1. Therapeutic Boarding Schools: These are residential schools providing therapy and education to adolescents with emotional, behavioral, or learning difficulties.

  2. Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs): RTCs offer intensive therapeutic programs in a residential setting, focusing on mental health and personal development alongside academic progress.

  3. Special Education Schools: These schools cater specifically to students with special educational needs, including those with learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, or other challenges that require specialized teaching methods.

  4. Wilderness Therapy Programs: These are experiential, outdoor-based programs that combine therapy and education in a wilderness setting, aimed at fostering personal growth and behavioral change.

  5. Boot Camps for Teens: While more controversial and less focused on academics, some parents consider boot camps as a short-term, discipline-oriented option for troubled youth.

  6. Emotional Growth Schools: These institutions focus on the emotional and personal development of students, alongside academic education, often incorporating therapeutic support.

  7. Recovery High Schools: Specifically designed for students recovering from substance abuse, these schools provide a supportive educational environment with access to counseling and recovery programs.

  8. Day Treatment Programs: These are non-residential programs that offer therapeutic and educational services during the day, allowing students to return home in the evenings.

  9. Boarding Schools for Troubled Teens: Similar to therapeutic boarding schools, these are residential institutions focusing on the needs of adolescents facing behavioral, emotional, or academic challenges.

  10. Special Needs Schools: Schools that cater specifically to students with various special needs, including behavioral challenges, learning disabilities, or other specific educational requirements.

Each of these alternative schools offer a variety of methods, catering to the diverse needs of troubled or struggling teens. When considering these options, it's important to evaluate the specific needs and circumstances of your struggling teenager to find the best options for their treatment.


Finding the Right Fit

Choosing the right school can feel overwhelming, but there are great resources out there:

  1. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP): This is a great place to start. They have a directory of programs across the U.S., including wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools.

  2. The Association of Alternative Schools: Here, you'll find a list of schools that cater to special educational or behavioral needs. It's a great tool to find schools by location and type.

  3. Your Local School District: Don't overlook your local resources. School districts often have connections or recommendations for alternative schools in your area. Speak to the academic counselor assigned to your teenager.


Talk It Over with Your Teen

This is a journey you and your teen should take together. Talk about why an alternative school might be a good idea, and listen to their thoughts and worries. Finding a school where they feel comfortable is key. It may be hard to breach the topic with your teen, most teens often feel they are failure having a conversation. So instead of giving this a directive, use curiosity to see how they may respond and lead them down a path of conversation that they get to contribute to. If your teen if volatile about the subject and needs to be placed without your teens "buy-in", at least you will be able to reference the conversation later to remind the teen that they had an oppurtunity to offer their insight but chose to not participate.


The Holistic Approach

Alternative schools offer much more than traditional academic learning. They prioritize the 'whole person' approach, valuing emotional and social development alongside academic progress. With smaller class sizes and a nurturing approach, these schools are dedicated to fostering personal growth in each teen. The emphasis in many of these schools is on therapeutic and emotional support. This foundational work helps create a safe and confident space for your teen. Once they feel secure and understood, they are often more open to setting and pursuing their own goals in both social and academic areas.


Wrapping Up

Seeing your teen struggle is hard, but there's hope. Alternative schools offer a path for them to overcome their challenges. By exploring these options, you're taking an important step towards a brighter future for your teen. Remember, every teen has the potential to succeed – sometimes, they just need the right environment to show it.


Sundance Canyon offers free consultation to parents with questions about alternative options that may include our services if they are a match for your teenager's needs. Parents we help have a better knowledge of what next steps to take, if any, to intervene on behalf of their struggling teen. Call us at 866.241.3234 OR go to our CONTACT US page.


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