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Difference Between Residential & Therapeutic Boarding Schools

by Neil Kokemuller

Residential and therapeutic boarding schools are alternative educational programs for students in middle school or high school. The term "residential" actually refers to a residential treatment center, where students get a combination of mental health treatment therapy and schooling. A therapeutic boarding school provides in-residence students a mix of school and various therapies.

Residential Pros

The major advantage of a residential treatment center is that it offers a complete package of services to middle school and high school kids struggling with mental, emotional and behavioral challenges. Students complete grade-level school during the day. The center also has a full staff of professional psychiatrists and nurses that manage mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders. The residential treatment center dispenses medications and students meet with staff regularly for therapy.

Residential Cons

The costs for a residential treatment center are typically higher than they are for a therapeutic boarding school. The Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation notes on its website that the costs vary from around $56,000 to $125,000 per year. Some school districts may help with some or all of the costs, but many parents and families are stuck paying some portion of the expenses. Additionally, if you send a student to a residential treatment center, he is inherently going to interact with other students with mental health and behavioral challenges.

Therapeutic Pros

The therapeutic boarding school emphasizes a balance between strong academics, therapeutic sessions and residential life. While each boarding school has its own standards, therapeutic schools tend to have more developed academic programs that mirror traditional schools. Students learn structure and discipline in the classroom as well. Therapists use individual, group and family therapy sessions to help students develop emotional and behavioral coping strategies. Thought high, the costs of therapeutic schools are usually lower, less than or near the bottom end of the cost range of a residential treatment center.

Therapeutic Cons

The major drawback of the therapeutic boarding school is that it doesn't typically provide thorough treatment of mental health conditions. A residential treatment center is likely a better fit if a student has significant need in that area. Many therapeutic schools won't even administer psychotropic medications, preferring that students meet with outside psychiatrists for medication management. Character development is a common element in therapeutic schools. However, many schools require that students have the basic ability to function in a school setting with therapeutic support. An extremely volatile or exceptionally disruptive student might not fit in.

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