Therapeutic Boarding School or Residential Treatment?

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Every teenager has a unique set of personality traits, learning styles, and life circumstances. As a result, one teen may flourish while living at home and attending school. And another may do better at a therapeutic boarding school.

There are many different types of boarding high schools. These include religious, military, and performing arts schools. Moreover, some adolescents get the extra support they need at a therapeutic boarding school.

Types of Boarding Schools

For parents and teens exploring the option of a youth boarding school, a familiarity with the various types can help. Here are the seven main categories of teen boarding schools.

College Preparatory School

College prep boarding schools, also known as prep schools, provide teens with a rigorous academic schedule. Therefore, teens at a traditional boarding school are expected to apply to college and complete an undergraduate degree. In addition, prep schools give students an understanding of what college life will be like. However, they are more structured and supervised than colleges.

Gender-Specific Boarding Schools

In contrast to a coed campus, a gender-specific boarding school enrolls either girls or boys. Proponents of such schools believe they provide a more positive and less competitive atmosphere among students. Moreover, boarding schools for girls may have slightly different educational approaches than boarding schools for boys.

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Pre-Professional Performing Arts Schools

 Teens who have a strong talent and interest in performing arts may attend boarding schools dedicated to this field. Therefore, they can focus on theater, music, dance, and/or singing. Arts programs at such schools offer more performance opportunities than students find at public or college prep schools. Thus, many teens who choose these schools are planning a professional career in the performing arts.

Military Boarding Schools

Like college prep schools, military boarding schools for teens have high academic standards. In addition, teens receive an education that prepares them for a military college, such as West Point. For example, they may get up early to do physical exercises before classes. Furthermore, military schools emphasize seniority and rank among grade levels. Moreover, military academies are often thought of as boarding schools for troubled teens. In fact, such schools do not focus on providing therapeutic support for teens.

Sports-Based Schools

Almost all boarding schools have competitive and intramural sports teams. However, some boarding schools focus to a larger degree on sports. Hence, students prepare for professional careers in sports.

Religious Schools

Boarding schools with strong religious affiliations provide religious studies, scheduled prayer sessions, and regular worship services. Moreover, religion is woven throughout the curriculum and into the daily life of students.

Therapeutic Boarding Schools

Therapeutic boarding schools are designed to support teens struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. Hence, such schools integrate academics with group and individual therapy sessions. In addition, these schools provide close supervision and a clear daily structure. Therapeutic boarding schools are an appropriate choice for teens who are not well equipped to succeed in a traditional day or boarding school environment.

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Benefits of a Teen Boarding School

Not all teens are ready to leave home for extended periods of time. However, for those who are, teen boarding schools offer a wide range of benefits. These include the following:

  • High teacher-student ratio: A teen boarding school often prioritizes small classes and personal attention for students.
  • Greater independence: Living and studying away from home gives teens a chance to become more resilient and self-reliant. A study conducted by the Arts & Science Group of Baltimore found that 78 percent of boarding school alumni felt well prepared for the non-academic aspects of college life, including independence and time management.
  • Safer environment: As a rule, youth at teen boarding schools have less exposure to drugs, alcohol, and other risky situations.
  • Peer support: Because they live together on campus, students at a boarding school have more opportunities to support each other in academic and extracurricular pursuits. 
  • Character development: Teen boarding schools often emphasize campus-wide values and mutual respect among all members of the school community. 
  • Strong connections: Students living together at a teen boarding school create strong bonds and make lifelong friends. This is especially important for teens.

What Does a Therapeutic Boarding School Offer?

Therapeutic boarding schools for troubled teens are designed for those who need extra emotional and psychological support while progressing academically.

Traditional boarding schools, such as college prep schools or performance-based schools, do offer counseling if students request it. But therapeutic boarding schools provide much more comprehensive mental health services.

Teenagers healing from depression, anxiety, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), eating disorders, or other behavioral disorders, as well as teens in recovery from substance abuse, can receive support at a therapeutic boarding school. Furthermore, some schools specialize in addressing specific diagnoses. Hence, they provide curriculum and care designed for that specific disorder.

Differences Between a Traditional Boarding School and a Therapeutic Boarding School 

Therapeutic boarding schools offer many of the same benefits and opportunities as traditional boarding schools. But therapeutic boarding schools also provide

  • Regular counseling sessions for all students
  • A home-like environment, with fewer students and more residential staff, as opposed to a traditional dorm
  • Rolling admission year-round rather than a standard school year
  • Student-teacher ratio as low as 4:1
  • Experiential therapeutic modalities, such as Equine Therapy or Adventure Therapy.

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Therapeutic Boarding School vs. Residential Teen Treatment

Therapeutic boarding schools are academic environments that offer enhanced mental health services. However, residential teen treatment programs put the primary focus on healing mental health challenges. While such programs do provide academics, treatment and therapeutic care are the top priorities.

Hence, therapeutic schools and residential treatment have a number of differences as well as many similarities.

How They Are Similar

Both therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment programs

  • Accept teens with mental health challenges including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, ADD, and ODD
  • Employ trained and licensed therapists and counselors
  • Provide home-like residential environments with staff supervision
  • Offer experiential therapeutic modalities, such as art, music, Equine, and Adventure Therapy
  • Are proven to have a significant positive impact on teen mental health
  • Support teens in building self-esteem, self-regulation, coping skills, and positive relationships.

How They Are Different

Length of stay: Teens may spend a year or more at a therapeutic boarding school. But a stay in teen residential treatment is typically between 60 days and six months.

Number of residents: Therapeutic boarding schools have more students on average. Student population may be similar to a traditional boarding school—at least 60. Residential treatment programs tend to have fewer teens on campus, perhaps 30 or 40. As a result, they can provide a highly protected therapeutic environment.

Supervision: Teens in residential treatment are supervised at all times. However, a therapeutic boarding school environment is less restricted.

Focus on Therapy: Teens at therapeutic boarding schools do attend therapy sessions. But in residential treatment programs, therapy is a primary focus of each day. Students may spend 30 or more hours a week in therapy of some type. This includes individual, group, and family therapy sessions, as well as experiential modalities.

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Cost coverage: Insurance policies often cover residential treatment programs for teens. But the families of teens are responsible for the full cost of a therapeutic boarding school.

In summary, families considering a specialized boarding school can research multiple options. And teens and families struggling with mental health issues have choices.

Again, each teen is unique. To determine the right fit, parents need to assess their teen’s temperament, emotional needs, state of mind, and stage of development. Families can also seek the advice of an educational consultant or a therapist who knows the teenager well.

Ultimately, the goal is to provide every teen with opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive while feeling safe and supported.


J Therapeutic Schools & Programs. 2010; 4(1): 106–117. 

TABS Study conducted by the Arts & Science Group of Baltimore