Sam announces that he has scored his very first basket in a competitive basketball game, a sport he has previously avoided like the plague.
Mark expresses pride in the fact that he has earned academic honor roll for two quarters and had read three books from cover to cover, contrasting his academic failure at his last school.
Bobby, just back from a weekend at home, reports that he still had some arguments with his parents but “they” seemed to get along with him better. He even offered to do the dishes after dinner.
Progress reports like these from our students make the Valley View community feel good. But how are they achieved? The answer is that, first and foremost, it requires a therapeutic milieu that fosters personal growth and maturation.
For a variety of reasons, the youngsters who come to Valley View are “stuck in a rut,” almost as if they had missed out on certain elements or experiences of childhood. Others appear as if they have “run into a stone wall” at a certain stage in their development. They may have performed more satisfactorily in an earlier stage, but with the intrusion of early adolescence and the academic and social challenges that accompany it, they seem to have given up. These boys often come across as frustrated, angry, manipulative and depressed.
Early adolescence is the ideal time to approach a window of therapeutic opportunity. This demands a multilevel approach, which in simple terms means creating an environment where boys are allowed and encouraged to be boys.
One must start with the commitment to create a setting that provides boys with nurture, definite structure, support and activities that stimulate them intellectually, emotionally and physically. Certain skills, such as learning how to complete a task, evaluate where they stand relative to peers, and the ability to develop empathy and give of themselves to others, are of significant developmental importance to growing boys. Simple ingredients such as good food, smiling, communicating and having fun with their peers, along with constant compassionate support from adults, all play a vital role in the healing process. Other factors–community service, a rating system which provides weekly adult feedback of how they are performing, and a financial system where boys are expected to earn their own spending money–are all components woven into the fabric of a therapeutic environment.
Through providing a variety of experiences, opportunities for pragmatic psychotherapy (even though of limited impact in the past), as well as the assistance of medication where appropriately indicated–all these things together can steer youngsters towards increased self-understanding and putting their lives into perspective.
To identify what needs to be accomplished with a boy is a relatively simple task. Teaching youngsters to recognize, learn and use the tools and skills that go into making this happen is far more complex. There must be a staff of individuals with a history of experience, proper clinical training, and a well-designed contemporary environment, which can be assimilated by the young adolescent. The responsibility of an alert and well-trained staff is to give boys constant honest feedback regarding their interaction with both peers and adults (family members included). From this, a connection should be made between such feedback and the underlying psychological issues that have led them to become “stuck” at a particular stage of their development. For boys of this age, a residential environment provides excellent unlimited opportunities to identify and hopefully learn to deal with these issues, whether they occur on the athletic field, dinner table, classroom, or even on a shopping trip.
The success of our approach was dramatically illustrated during a recent Parents’ Weekend when three students who were with us about twenty years ago returned to share their experiences with the Valley View community. While all three had “turned out well” (a lawyer, a social worker and computer software designer), the audience was riveted by their comments, and at times were close to tears, as the “boys” reflected upon the impact that certain staff members and various experiences had upon their lives. They talked about how the experience of feeling success and being cared for and understood had left an indelible mark of resilience, allowing them to succeed even with subsequent frustrations.
Valley View School has been working with young adolescent boys for more than 40 years, and the majority of our present staff has been here for an average of at least eighteen of these. It is our mission to continue to do our best to “make the son shine” for the next one hundred years.