At Open Sky, students are immersed in a new environment and removed from many of the distractions that kept them from thriving at home. This is an essential part of stabilization, assessment, and initiation of real change. When students leave our program to return home or continue treatment at an aftercare program, they may find themselves in an environment where old distractions are present and accessible again. Our intentional transition planning and support services empower students and their families to overcome these challenges by integrating the skills they’ve learned at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. The Open Sky Clinical, Field, and Family Services teams work together to help families plan for the transition and confidently step into life beyond Open Sky.
Transition planning incorporates everything from looking at the big picture to nailing down the “nitty-gritty” details. The big picture perspective includes the important decision of whether to pursue an aftercare program (as many of our students do) or transition back home. The Open Sky primary therapist works closely with students, families, educational consultants, and home professionals during this process to discuss all the available options.
Open Sky programming in and of itself helps to support the other aspects of big picture transition planning as well. Coping skills, healthy communication, and mindfulness practice are all inherent to both the student and parent experience at Open Sky. Every day in the field, these skills and practices become more and more habitual for students. Family members also have numerous opportunities to practice these skills while their child is at Open Sky: at Wellness Weekend, Family Quest™, through Parent Coaching, and on Monday Night Parent Support Group calls. Open Sky Transition Mentors partner with families prior to and after graduation to help families implement these skills once their child leaves Open Sky. For example, Transition Mentors schedule post-graduation phone calls to offer additional support and guidance through the transition process.
We also spend time talking to students and families about the seemingly insignificant details of the transition, which, in reality, are actually quite important to consider. What are the specific steps of the transition? For example: are you going out to eat? Will your child have his/her cell phone during the transition? Will your child want to call a friend right away? Having an initial plan in place is paramount to a smooth and successful transition. Each member of the family can share his or her requests when creating this plan so that everyone’s voice is heard, and the family can put its best foot forward.
It is essential for parents to practice emotional containment and uphold boundaries and structure as their child transitions out of Open Sky. Parents receive guidance on these topics throughout their child’s stay from the primary therapist, through Family Services, and from Transition Mentors after graduation. Holding boundaries is often easier said than done, but ultimately, these boundaries support deeper relationships and trust. Students leaving Open Sky are used to the structure of the program, so maintaining appropriate levels of structure can be helpful for them to apply what they’ve learned in wilderness therapy.
Another key to a successful transition is a practical application of the coping, mindfulness, and emotional regulation skills that both the students and parents have learned. This may seem obvious but is worth mentioning because of how important it is. Both parties have done their work and have common language and skills that will benefit healthy and assertive communication. By checking in with each other, being intentional in relationships, and utilizing skills like the 4-line feelings check, it is more likely that everyone can understand themselves and each other better.
One of the main things I encourage families to do is to keep the transition time as short and simple as possible. We typically advise that the process not last more than 48 hours. Whether transitioning to another program or back home, if that “in-between” time is more drawn out, it can be difficult to uphold the positive changes and structure. It puts a lot of extra pressure on both the student and the family. By expediting the “in-between” stage, boundaries and containment are more easily implemented and upheld by all involved.
The Family Quest™ experience is utilized to intimately address family dynamics that may be contributing to a student’s current struggle. Families and students come together for this powerful and life-changing three-day/two-night wilderness intensive guided by a Family Services Therapist. Participants engage in a more in-depth process to re-establish healthy family bonds. Family Quests™ are a useful time for family members to practice skills together with their child and discuss expectations and requests for the upcoming transition.
As a Family Services Therapist who leads families through the Family Quest™ experience, I help to guide this conversation. We talk about each person’s strengths and the specific challenges they may face moving forward. We use that awareness to begin creating a plan to prepare for the transition process.
During an end-of-stay Family Quest, graduation is just around the corner. The Family Quest™ is an opportunity to spend quality time together prior to the transition. The hope is that the transition can be an extension of the intensive work done during the Family Quest™.
During a mid-stay Family Quest™, plans and discussions surrounding the transition can be referenced and helpful throughout the remainder of the child’s stay. Graduation and transition are less imminent, so it gives the student and family more time to come to terms with the next steps and understand what the process will look like.
Rather than simply ask families and students to complete satisfaction surveys, Open Sky conducts empirically validated research for measuring the effectiveness of our program. We ask our students and their parents to complete three questionnaires at four different stages: arrival, graduation, 6 months post-graduation, and 12 months post-graduation. The results show that our adolescent and young adult students not only improve but make substantial gains beyond what is considered “clinically significant improvement” in mental health symptoms and that they maintain these improvements over time.
At Open Sky, every aspect of our programming is designed not just to help students and families in the moment, but to benefit them for long-term success. The transition process is part of this. By integrating skills learned with guidance from the Clinical Team, Family Services Team, and Transition Mentors, families can face next steps with confidence and hope.