Ideas Driving the CEDU/RMA Solution-6

Lon Woodbury MA. IECA. CEP


Everything you hear is opinion, everything you see is perspective.

Attributed to Marcus Aurelius – 2nd Century AD Roman Emperor

 Section 6- (The RMA-CEDU Solution)

The RMA I found in 1984 was the result of 20 years of experimenting and evolving into a unique and many-faceted approach in working with and helping “troubled” teens.  The following outlines some of the specifics of where their thinking had led them to develop a different approach in providing a healing environment for emotionally wounded children.

A Different Philosophy

CEDU/RMA evolved as a reaction to what was becoming a controversial national mental health treatment environment at that time (1960s-1980s) in how to help children with emotional/behavioral problems.  CEDU/RMA saw conventional intervention as a philosophy that assumed if a young person had behavioral/emotional problems, there was a root cause that could be diagnosed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the child subsequently treated.  The school referred to conventional methods as the “medical model” since it seemed it had largely evolved from the approach of treatment of physical problems; i.e. when you had some pain or discomfort, the Medical Doctor would diagnosis the problem (virus, germ, some physical breakdown, disease, addiction, wound etc.) and recommend the necessary treatment.  In other words, the young person was “broken” in some way that needed treatment (fixing).  The residential treatment center model and the psychiatric hospital were the result of mental health treatment that evolved out of this philosophy.

The CEDU/RMA founders reasoned instead that the usual reason a young person was having behavioral/emotional problems was they had missed an important lesson in growing up.  In other words, the child was having trouble growing up and it was a maturing problem they had, more often than the student being broken.  Their solution was to create an environment that took the young person emotionally back through each of the various stages of child growth and development through providing various emotional experiences.  It just happened to closely parallel Erik Erikson’s view of the stages of psychosocial development.  During their process of guiding the child back through the maturing process, when the child got stuck and started struggling, they viewed it as an indication he/she had come up against one of the unlearned lessons.  The child’s attention was then focused on these specific individual issues to help the child heal the wound and resume his/her job of growing up.  It was my job as Admissions Director for RMA to screen out those applicants whose behavioral/emotional problems indicated a more serious mental health disorder like bi-polar, Schizophrenia or serious addiction.  These could not be effectively helped by CEDU/RMA and were referred elsewhere.

To me, these philosophies seemed to be almost incompatible.  Either the child had missed a stage in the work of growing up and needed successful emotional experiences to continue his/her progress, or the child was broken and needed to be diagnosed, treated and hopefully cured.  Each assessment called for different types of solutions.

A School rather than treatment center

As CEDU/RMA evolved, the owners determined that the existing institutional model that best fit what the founders wanted was a residential boarding school model.  The model and philosophy of a residential treatment center was seen as contrary to how they wanted to help children. By the 1980s, CEDU/RMA had developed a residential boarding school with the main purpose of growing children to maturity in all ways.    It was explained that the school had four major parts to the school curriculum: academics, emotional growth, physical growth, and wilderness.  These of course were all intertwined, and most activities of the students contained some or all four elements.  Each element had evolved with primary concern for the needs of the students.  Conventional approaches were rejected and replaced when an experimental technique appeared that seemed more promising or of more value to the students.

Formal therapy and treatment was not the only way to heal a struggling child

CEDU/RMA came to maturity (1980s) in a time when the nation was seriously questioning all its institutions for young people.  CEDU/RMA management saw a lot of young people around them having emotional problems but few getting the help they needed despite the rapid increase in the numbers of mental health therapists and mental health institutions. They decided that education was a more promising route toward helping most children with emotional/behavioral problems than was therapy.  Residential boarding schools provided the model they needed, with its 24/7 supervision and natural isolation from tempting but harmful social influences.  By the 1980s, CEDU/RMA was even described by some as anti-therapeutic, with some justification.  As one part of that, the school felt that young people in general were unnecessarily overmedicated and most would heal better without the impact (positive and negative) of medications. Consequently, mood altering drugs were not allowed by any student at that time at the school.  As Admissions Director I reviewed many students who were on Ritalin and many other psychotropic medications.  My instructions were to advise the parents that the child could not be enrolled while still on medication. However, I informed them, if back home they would wean their child off those medications under the supervision of a psychiatrist, and if the child wasn’t consequently acting erratic, we would accept the child for an interview and determine if we could enroll him/her at that time.  In my experience, most of those parents contacted me again later reporting that the child was off those medications and functioning normally.  These families usually successfully interviewed, were enrolled and did well in the program.  To me, this was evidence that indeed, too many young people were being medicated.

Individualized Curriculum

Mass education and mental health therapy systems based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) at that time seemed to be tending toward the “one size fits all” practice.  In both categories of institutions, the sheer number of young people involved almost required a “mass orientation” mentality.  CEDU/RMA compromised.  They had a specified program that all students had to go through but managed each student in an individual way that his/her personal experiences were tailored to his/her individual needs.  This was accomplished partly through small academic classes (typically 3-5 students in a class), a high staff to student ratio (1:3) for that era, and small groups for most activities; expeditions, raps and the like numbering about a dozen.    CEDU/RMA also kept their total size small.  There were 90 students there when I arrived in 1984, and the highest the student population ever reached while I was there was 200. At those larger numbers the environment seemed fragile and in danger of exploding.  Indeed, runaways increased as the school approached 200 students.  In addition, it was so organized that any specific student had up to six staff whose responsibility was to develop a personal relationship with that student and keep an eye on him/her.  In addition, the senior students (those on the cusp of graduating) had leadership responsibilities assigned for those in his/her group or dorm.  Senior staff also took a page from the therapeutic programs through regular “staffing” type meetings covering the status of each student.

Nature Oriented

CEDU was originally affiliated with the Outward Bound ™ organization and the school used Outward Bound certified wilderness activities as an integral part of the program for some time.  By 1984, as the CEDU school had evolved and RMA was founded (in 1983), the Outward Bound™ affiliation had been dropped and the school’s wilderness expeditions and activities used elements from many other sources including Adventure Therapy, trust and emotional growth exercises and outdoor recreation activities to create a unique approach using the healing elements from nature to help the student in his/her growing up.  Although not published until years later, the “nature deficit Syndrome” concept coined by Richard Louv in “Last Child in the Woods” published in 2005 seemed to be consistent with the CEDU/RMA philosophy.  His claim was that the apparent increasing anxiety among young people generally stemmed at least in part by a decreasing interaction with nature.  Although “nature deficit Syndrome” has not been accepted for inclusion in the DSM, recent research seems to confirm his basic concept.  That is, we need interaction with nature (wilderness) to grow up in a healthy manner.  At CEDU (and especially RMA) Wilderness and outdoor recreation was a very important of each student’s schedule.

Comments and discussion welcomed

Continued in Section 7  (The RMA-CEDU Solution continued)

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