A lot of my work has been on long-stay residential programs, running anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. The educational benefits of these extended programs are massive, yet so many schools still opt for the quick sub-contracted hit and miss approach with a week here and there, which, from an educational point of view don’t seem to achieve much. However, the merits or lack thereof for short discrete programs is a topic for another time.
With any long-stay program, there are still a number of risks to its educational value. These stem mainly from school administrators who don’t quite understand the real value of the program. Some inherit long-stay programs as part of a new job. The problem is however, when inheriting something like this, it’s like rifling through your long-lost great aunt’s deceased estate. There’s lots of weird stuff that you don’t understand. It looks cool, but you’re not sure what it really does. Therefore, you might keep it… you might not… but perhaps you should just leave it for the moment and it’ll somehow magically become apparent one day what it’s really for! Others panic about students missing out on academic lessons and love to interfere by unnaturally inserting academic content for the sake of it, for fear they won’t make up the mandated hours, or worse, it might affect the Yr 12 marks!!! This is more nonsense than anything else, as it’s usually thought up by people whose only experience has been in schools and as a result, they don’t understand real-life and what students actually need.
The reality is that the social and emotional skills developed in these programs when done correctly can significantly improve overall student performance. There’s often a mad rush to cram more into the daily life of a student, as schools, in the desire to be ‘the best,’ think that more activity and movement means better ‘well-balanced’ children. However, this is a total load of rubbish as quantity never results in quality and you’re just going to burn students out and make them hate learning. Instead, it’s important to improve the quality of each experience and take the time to reflect on how that experience unfolded. Reflect on whether it were effective and successful.
Despite these potential misconceptions of why and how a long-stay program should run, whatever the case might be for the structure of the program, there’s a common and often overlooked problem of student reintegration as they return to their regular life. Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen done very poorly over the years and can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and significantly reduce the impact of the educational experience.
When students have been away from home for an extended period of time, something changes in them. There’s a level of independence that’s gained, as well as a valuable bonding with their peers. This is a great outcome in itself, as this should be one of the key aims of these programs to be able to create thoughtful independent young men and women who are set up ready to face challenges and be successful in life.
However, despite this increased independence and the constant buzz of activity that comes with being on camp, what happens when students return home? Life is back to ‘normal’! The community in which you’ve been living is suddenly gone. Mum, dad and teachers are telling you what to do once more and in the evening, the bedroom is empty and the fun chatter that goes with getting to sleep each night is deafeningly silent.
As a result, for students returning home, this can be even more challenging than leaving and spending time away from home. The reality is that students have come back changed, having had some amazing experiences and spent what feels like a significant part of their life away from family. Yet at the same time for everyone else back home, for them, their daily routines and working life have continued and they’re expecting the exact same boy or girl to return as if no time had passed at all. Often families are not prepared for the independent young man or woman who comes back.
Unfortunately, without a good reintegration plan and process, the return home can be extremely frustrating for the student and those around. To avoid this, the reintegration process needs to involve teachers, parents and the students to ensure a smooth and effective reintegration that maximises the benefit of the time spent away.
Teachers need to understand that the students going away, are usually coming back more independent and therefore their teaching style should reflect this. Whilst this isn’t always possible, it should at least be acknowledged in the methodology of teaching post program. If the staff at the main campus are in tune with the aims, objectives and style of learning being utilised on the long-stay program, this enables a far smoother reintegration process back in the regular classroom. A complete lack of understanding can have a dramatic and opposite effect, causing tension and unnecessary disruption in class. One effective way to help develop this understanding, is by rotating each of your staff through a long-stay camp or if this isn’t possible have them go on an extended part of the camp and be buddied up with one of the experienced staff members running the program. Getting them to visit the campus for a day is a complete waste of time, as it provides no understanding of the actual program. You can never truly describe an experiential program and all its intricacies. You just need to experience it for yourself.
Parents also need to understand the potential feeling of isolation and frustration faced by their son or daughter on return. To minimise this, it’s important to meet with all parents prior to the return of the child and run a good debrief session with them. It’s important to explain what experiences their child has had, the style of teaching and learning that was employed and provide specific strategies for how they can continue this back at home. It should be made clear that the long-stay program is just the beginning of a life-long process of experiences, reflection and growth and to make the most of this, it must be continued. The last thing parents should be doing is treating their son or daughter as a poor child who’s just suffered great hardships at ‘bootcamp’ and must be taken care of once more. If parents are going to take this approach, they might as well not send students anywhere or let them doing anything… ever! This is the fastest way to destroy all learning that’s occurred, so try to emphasise this when debriefing.
In the excitement of having the students return, a lot of schools fail to leverage this great opportunity with parents. Whilst schools are amazing at the glossy brochure approach before hand, they’re not so great with the explanation as to why they needed to take the students away in the first place and how this educational experience can be continued in a powerful way back home. It’s essential to have parents as part of the overall learning experience prior to students leaving and especially on the return home. The “next steps or what now?” is so often overlooked, yet it’s vital to help maximise the long-term learning and development that the opportunity of the long-stay program afforded them.
Finally, but most importantly, the students themselves. Over the years we’ve run different reintegration processes and sessions to provide students with strategies as they return home. It usually involves some sort of debrief and celebration. The closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.
I started thinking about this and how it could be effectively explained with an experiential metaphor. I was running a mountain bike expedition as the final wrap up for one long-stay program and we’d been riding quite tough and exciting terrain all week. On the last day I decided to change the pace and as an alternative, ride around the bike track of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. In comparison with the rest of the week, this was an easy ride. At the end of it, I facilitated the wrap up for the month-long program and set the scene by starting with the change of pace and change of environment that we’d just experienced. As it was such a stark contrast, it made it far easier to do. From there, I tied it back into the fact that the group was about to go back to a change of pace and a change of environment and went on to discuss the challenges they’d faced and skills they’d learnt.
However, why did this mountain bike riding to cycleway riding transition provide a good metaphor? All the skills of persistence, determination and adaptability that were required earlier in the week when riding hard, were still required now in a different context. We had to be aware of different paths. We had to be mindful of pedestrians and we were now back in a cityscape. It was through this very clear connection and example that we were able to make the debrief relatable and powerful. This then opened up the discussion to what other skills can be transferred and how can they be applied when facing other potential challenges and flowing into the fact that life will change for them the next day and strategies to help them continue their journey.
Setting the scene and clearly articulating that this is an important transitional time is vitally important to reduce the chance that your students will feel isolated and frustrated on return. The longer the program, the more intense these feelings may be. On the six month program on which I worked for a number of years, this was often a massive challenge, as they were no longer children, nor acting as children.
It’s important for teachers and parents to acknowledge the change and continue to provide opportunities for students to push the boundaries of their comfort zone, to take responsibility and allow them to grow. Through doing so, the educational benefit of time away and the measurable result will be felt throughout the school and into the future. Most importantly, you will be able to maximise the effectiveness of the long-stay program which will massively improve the ability of each and every student to face life’s challenges head on and succeed in whatever they decide to do with their lives.