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Haven and Hope

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Choosing the right residential treatment program for a child or adolescent is a critical decision for a family. As a parent, you place your trust in the chosen organization to meet a variety of your child’s needs — physical, social, emotional, and academic. Before making a decision of this magnitude, here are five important questions to ask a residential treatment program:

1. What is the ratio of staff to students?

Because the acuity of any student who attends a residential treatment program is high, you will want to look for a program that has the lowest adult-to-child ratio. Typically, a high-quality program offers a ratio of one adult to five or six students. At top-notch programs such as the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), in Chicago, the ratio in the residential program is as low as one adult to every four students. This is important because generally, each child will make the most progress if he or she feels individually cared for and attended to by the staff. If a child’s or adolescent’s needs become lost in the larger therapeutic milieu, it is harder for the student to make necessary gains.

2. What is the quality of the staff who work at the school?

It is extremely important to find out who will be interacting with your child on a daily basis. What are the requirements for a staff member to be hired at the organization and what security measures are taken for screening and evaluating good-quality candidates? What is the required level of education for each staff member? What is the level of clinical supervision and professional development that each staff member receives? In doing careful research, you will find a large variation in the expected qualifications from school to school. The highly respected programs often have a training relationship with a local university and tend to attract new talent to the field in addition to staff who are eager and ready to learn from more experienced professionals. Programs where the staff receives sufficient training and support typically have less turnover, which in turn provides a more stable setting for your child.

3. Who provides oversight and accreditation for the school?

Examining the composition of the board of directors and the expertise of individual board members is a good place to start. Are they knowledgeable about this type of work? Are the board members respected individuals in the community? How long have they been involved with the school? These answers will tell you about the program’s quality of support and its potential for longevity. The O-School has a proud history that dates back more than 100 years.

The accreditation status of a school is another marker for determining the quality of any school. Is the accrediting organization nationally recognized? Is it the gold standard of the industry? If so, you are in good shape. If not, you may want to determine why this is the case.

4. Does the strength of the academic program match your child’s ability?

Leading schools challenge their students academically. While it can be difficult to offer a high-quality academic curriculum within a treatment program, it can be a disservice to your child to focus solely on the treatment aspect of the program while placing the student’s academic progress on a “backburner.” It should be a priority for the treatment program to prepare the child for an eventual transition to a less-restrictive school environment. Keeping the child or adolescent at grade-level academics is in everyone’s best interest. You should inquire about the qualifications of the teachers and about the specific academic outcomes of the graduates of the school. How robust are the class offerings and what extracurricular activities exist?

5. Will my child make friends?

Children and adolescents who enroll in a residential treatment program may have to overcome significant social challenges. For some students, due to either psychiatric hospitalizations and/or multiple school placements, it can be difficult to maintain peer connections. It is important to learn what efforts are made within the structure and programming of the organization to assist with the social development of each child. Are there opportunities for the students to engage in normative activities for their age? Is there support among staff for students to make social mistakes and recover from taking social risks?

One way to gauge this is to tour the program. Does the organization provide a student-led tour? If so, does it give you a good idea of who the other students are and how your child would potentially fit in with this group socially? Do you see activities that your child would naturally be drawn to, or is your child already interested in the activities in which the current students are engaged?

At the O-School, efforts are made to provide social engagement in natural settings such as family-style meals, athletic activities, school dances, and an annual prom. Students have opportunities to engage in community activities such as a Shakespeare Slam, competing against other schools in the Chicagoland area, and video game tournaments held at the school. These activities, held outside of traditional school and therapy, provide students with opportunities for increased social connections, higher self-esteem, and feelings of accomplishment. These and other activities are examples of what you should look for in a program to provide the necessary social connections for your child.

To learn more about the O-School’s residential program, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s services, please visit our contact page or call our director of admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.

  • Residential treatment
  • residential school
  • residential therapeutic treatment


Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

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