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How Attending Residential Education Changes the Family (Boarding Schools and Wilderness Programs)

Updated on November 4, 2013

There are many reasons why parents enroll their children in means of residential education. Because these institutions are often private and expensive, the educational benefits are a common reason to attend. When boarding schools were formed, a common benefit was social mobility, because adolescents are able to network and make connections with elite individuals. This type of boarding school, however, is becoming less popular in our society (Flint 1993). Recently, it has become more common that at risk youth enroll in these institutions as a way to gain independence from their family and learn how to behave in society.

Figure 5 illustrates the different reasons why subjects attended residential education. Eighteen (46.15%) of the former students surveyed for this study were at risk when they were enrolled in boarding school (insert Figure 5 here). 12% of former students attended residential education for educational purposes, while 20.51% attended because of family tradition. Eight subjects were enrolled for various reasons labeled Other/Unknown. These reasons for attending included that subjects felt “claustrophobic” in their hometown, or that they needed a new environment in order to feel motivated. Some were left blank and others were difficult to code.


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The reasons why an individual attends a residential institution is directly related to the change in the parent child relationship. Nick D., one of the formerly at risk subjects, explains why he attended a Christian boarding school at fifteen and immediately blames his parents:

I really feel that they could not figure out how to be effective parents. I have been going to counselling my entire life since the age of three, since my parents had been divorced. Many events led up to this but I had a form of aggression that could never quite be put out. My step dad was always buying ‘How To’ parenting books, and I just really feel that they gave up on me and made me someone else's problem.

Nick feels abandoned by his parents even though they seemed to care enough to read parenting books; but he feels like it was their decision to enroll him in boarding school. These feelings are not unique to Nick; many of the former students who were at risk explained a similar sense of abandonment and neglect.

Changes in the child parent relationships for formerly at risk students were generally negative. Because their attendance was involuntary, they were less likely to maintain or develop a positive relationship. Some formerly at risk subjects stated that they could have improved their behavior at home or that residential education was unnecessary. As a result, they blame their parents for enrolling them. Nick says: “I hated them[, my parents]. I started harming myself at boarding school and they didn't seem to care, making me despise [them].” While at boarding school, he was attempting to get his parents’ attention. Because they did not live together, Nick was forced to become more independent and more detached from his parents. We cannot assume that this is true for all at risk youth; further research needs to be done to see the effectiveness of residential education as a treatment for at risk behavior:

Not enough is known about residential care programs to provide a clear picture of which kinds of treatment approaches work best or about the effectiveness of the treatment over the long term. Further, no consensus exists on which youths are best served by residential care rather than community based care or how residential care should be combined with community based care to best serve at risk youths over time. (U.S. General Accounting Office 1994)

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A typical dorm
A typical dorm | Source

A common indicator for at risk youth is a decline in their grades. School is an important part of the socialization and development of an adolescent. If they engage in at risk behavior, they are less likely to maintain good grades. “However, although school commitment and grades have been identified as risk factors for involvement in delinquency, a question remains about whether the school bond is simply a risk factor or whether elements of the school bond might have an additional function— that of a protective factor” (Sprott, Jenkins and Doob 2005: 61). If schools serve as protection from at risk behavior, residential education is valid treatment for students with one or more risk factors. By living and learning in a close environment with other students, away from hometown distractions, an at risk youth may be motivated to get good grades.

Sprott, Jenkins and Doob (2005) were able to prove that individuals with a weaker school bond were more likely to be violent and engage in at risk behavior. Youth with three or more risks that had a strong school bond, were less likely to be violent than those that showed a weaker school bond with no risks (p. 67). It would make sense to enroll at risk youth in residential education in order to strengthen their school bond, yet the separation they feel from their family may also be detrimental to the child’s behavior.

Susan was sent to a boarding school as a result of her drug and alcohol use when she was fourteen. She explains that she “didn't [want to go to boarding school] at the time, but now I know [my parents] were right and now I want to be a pyschologist and help kids who were like me.” Susan says that the maturity she gained from attending the boarding school allowed her relationship with her parents to improve. Residential education causes students to socialize in a small community with people in their age group. As Sprott, Jenkins and Doob (2005) suggest, by living and learning in the same place, Susan’s ability to concentrate on school and have a stronger school bond allowed her to avoid at risk behavior and engage herself in her studies.


Formerly at risk subjects (46% of the total sample) were more likely than others to live at home after their experience. Spending their formative years without their parents allowed non at risk students to gain independence and live on their own. One third of the youth that attended these programs due to at risk behavior did return home. Because of their at risk behavior, they seem to have gained little independence and returned to live with their parents after they attended a residential institution.

As Swanson and Schneider (1999) suggest, adolescents that begin to attend a new school in their early high school years (eighth to tenth grade) show little changes in behavior: “More detailed stepwise modeling…indicated that the larger increases in behavioral problems initially observed among movers are a product of the mover’s family backgrounds” (p. 56). They also discovered that students who live in a non mother father family had higher levels of behavioral issues. The choice many parents make to send their at risk youth to means of residential education can greatly impact their behavior while attending this institution. Subjects that had a negative relationship with their parents (53.85% of surveyed subjects) were at risk at the time of enrollment (see Figure 4). Others described in their responses that their separation allowed them to mature, healing this relationship.

Overall, at risk youth tend to get better grades as a result of residential education. They strengthen their school bond because they live on campus. They are also able to socialize with other students that are going through the same transitional period. The parent child relationship suffers from living away from home during periods when the child has behavioral issues. If the student does not voluntarily attend the institution, a sense of abandonment can cause them to have resentment toward their parents (Rubin et. al. 2007) and have difficulty strengthening their school bond.

Boarding schools have focused on creating an environment where students can get an education and network with other students. Zina explains that her experience at boarding school allowed her to mature and learn how to take care of herself: “I became more independent and learned how to make decisions in my own life without the presence of my parents. All major decisions in my life were taken by me and my parents were consulted only to gain their advice.” Her independence makes her less dependent on her parents. This does not show a negative child parent relationship. Instead, her responses illustrate a strong child parent bond. Her parents played a different role in her life than they would is she was living at home. They were more like mentors than mediators to her during the time she spent away from home. Their bond would be different if she attended boarding school involuntary.

The reasons for attending influence the outcome of the student’s relationship with their parents:

Findings show that parents of sons who attend military schools are similar to traditional boarding school parents in their desire to inculcate traits into their children. Parents who choose military schools, however, cite specific reasons for their choice and differentiate themselves from traditional boarding school parents. These differences rest in military school parents’ desire to instill traits more akin to a quality work ethic than to promoting advantage over others and membership in an elite segment of society. (Shane et. al. 2008)

As the researchers explain (Lee and Barth 2009; Rubin et. al. 2007), the choice of institution is vital to the outcome of the experience. Residential education takes the child out of the home. For some, this creates a perfect work environment that allows students to participate in healthy study habits and school activities.

For some students, boarding school is a way to stay out of trouble. At non residential schools, a student can feel alienated and therefore may not be motivated to succeed. One respondent describes his experience:

Boarding school seemed like the best way to get me motivated and focused. Before, I was skipping classes regularly and not taking my work seriously. Boarding school provided the oversight I needed to keep myself focused and motivated. Essentially, there were consequences for not following the rules at boarding school. Public school would simply send me home to my parents or put me in detention.

The attention the student describes is a clear benefit of residential education. For students that attend for educational purposes, this helps them succeed and obtain good grades. 20.51% of subjects said that they attended residential education for some other reason than education, family tradition or at risk behavior (see Figure 5). Of these, two said that they attended because they were bored of their hometown. The others were unable to answer the question of why they attended clearly. One subject’s reason was, “because my parents are ignorant.” This and similar responses were coded as “other” because of their ambiguity.


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      Derdriu 5 years ago

      Brittany, What a clear, logical, thoughtful analysis of the familial impacts of residential education! It is interesting how pivotal are the feelings of the students and their parents in terms of a successful education and a happy personal and professional life. Residential education can offer help to the student who in turn can apply what is learned to the parent-child interaction ... if everyone is open to change and up for improvement.

      Thank you for sharing, etc.,


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      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you so much, Derdriu. Yes, if everyone is willing, residential education is a great way to strengthen school bonds and break bad habits. Thanks again for commenting and reading. -Brittany

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