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Blending schooling with treatment

June 22, 2010
by Carrie Finazzo
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An Illinois center keeps its young residents on track academically

Receive life-changing treatment or stay on course to graduate? It's not a decision a family should have to make when considering what's best for a daughter dealing with an addiction or an eating disorder. Yet this is the situation in which many families find themselves when considering treatment. With National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders data showing that age of onset is between 11 and 20 for about 76 percent of individuals with eating disorders, it is clear that schooling is a fact of daily life and a top priority for many of these individuals.

The stay at a residential treatment center can last almost as long as an entire semester of school, putting an already struggling young woman behind in her studies and behind her peers. Given that many young women with eating disorders are driven and high achievers, this added perceived “failure” can cause significant stress. This is hardly the foundation for beginning a life of recovery.

At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, a facility for young women outside of Chicago, we have always felt that as much as possible, schooling should be available to-and in fact, incorporated into the treatment plans of-our residents. We combine clinical services, expressive therapies, and education to enhance the continuum of care, always with an eye to treating the whole person. In my experience, which parallels the philosophy at Timberline Knolls, the educational component delivered at Timberline Knolls Academy (TK Academy) on the treatment campus is just as important to a young woman's recovery as the clinical component.

The educational programs at TK Academy are designed not just to ensure that young women who come to Timberline Knolls for treatment maintain their education. They're developed so student-residents actually excel in their educational goals while healing themselves. Our plan is to keep a strong focus on healing the whole girl and move forward so neither students nor their parents worry about what they are missing while away from home.

While continuing to access academic growth, the girls also participate in a comprehensive, integrated approach that includes primary and group therapy. We work with each student-resident so she is not discharged only to realize she has fallen behind in school, at which point a whole new source of anxiety emerges.

School procedures

When Timberline Knolls opened as a residential treatment center in 2005, TK Academy operated with teachers who provided educational assistance to its residents. In September 2007, just as a new school year began, TK Academy received approval as an Illinois State Board of Education residential school, following a quarter-based academic calendar and offering a six-week summer school program-all in accordance with the state board's learning standards.

Providing five hours a day of instruction, the school's certified teachers, certified teacher's aides and academic coordinator partner with students and home school districts to create individualized education plans aligned with state and national standards, grade-level promotion and the exit criteria required for graduation. By building school spirit among the students, TK Academy also seeks to provide student-residents with a sense of community and pride, both of which are critical in achieving recovery. The students celebrate the community and take pride in being part of something bigger than themselves, and that provides the student-residents with the opportunity to celebrate success with one another.

Timberline Knolls also offers school districts and mental health providers consultation and liaison services to assess their clients' needs and help make informed treatment decisions. Social worker Aida Maravillas, who has a long history of working with students at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill., has seen firsthand the success that comes about when combining clinical and educational support. While Maravillas's students during their time at TK Academy received the necessary one-on-one attention unavailable in their home school, she was also allowed to be part of the clinical treatment and educational routine. She says she received progress updates in a timely manner and was quickly notified when issues arose, so that she would be included in decision-making processes.

Discharge planning

While achieving academic success at Timberline Knolls is important, it is just as important to ensure that students are able to continue their success once discharged. Prior to a resident's discharge, in many cases 30 to 60 days before, TK Academy staff begins working with the student-resident, the parents and the student-resident's home school to ensure continued academic success.

The academic program at TK Academy is embedded in residents' overall treatment and recovery plan. Each resident receives an individualized academic program, just as each received an individualized treatment plan. Because each student is different, we assess and then develop a specific plan for each, considering the individual's current level of achievement and ability to learn, as well as the requirements of her home school district. As TK Academy offers residents an opportunity to achieve recovery, it also helps them cope in the world around them.

By making TK Academy part of the overall solution for each resident, Timberline Knolls offers the needed real-world environment that gives residents a true sense of familiarity and normalcy, says Timberline Knolls medical director Kimberly Dennis, MD. Dennis and her clinical staff tailor for each individual the programs that immediately create a dynamic, therapeutic and structured community where students learn, achieve and even take responsibility.