Each family brings its own unique history and dynamics to the John Dewey experience. Under the strain of coping with dysfunctional adolescents, families often develop secondary issues. Parents can disagree about the best approach to take with their troubled teenager; as the trouble escalates, so can bitterness between the parents, no matter how strong their marriage might be. In addition, other children in the family absorb the negative atmosphere and often feel neglected as parental attention is focused on a desperate search for an effective intervention. Therefore, parents and other family members need to become deeply involved with The John Dewey Academy’s community.
We encourage the development of healthy communication between students and their families. During the early days of a John Dewey stay, the telephone calls and letters of students are monitored by more senior students in order to minimize attempted manipulations of the family. If communication between students and their families becomes toxic, staff will work with the family to limit communication until the issues have been worked through. As long-standing patterns of dysfunctional or dishonest communication change during a student’s stay, family members usually need to renegotiate their relationships with the student and with each other. Our ultimate goal is for students and their families to speak openly and directly about issues without the need for professional assistance.
Because this process of rebuilding healthy communication and repairing family relationships is challenging and often painful, family counseling is crucial to the John Dewey Academy experience. The staff meets with families, usually on the weekends, as issues arise. The family, with good reason, wants assurance that the student will reject dangerous and self-destructive behaviors. The student, in contrast, seeks to individuate and separate in an effort to acquire a positive sense of self. Our clinical staff, always alert to this dynamic tension, works to promote emotional health on both sides of the equation. By the time of graduation, our families uniformly report closer and happier relationships, no matter how alienated they were at the time of enrollment. Once students have graduated, our families generally report no need for further family therapy.
At The John Dewey Academy, family involvement emphatically includes siblings. Because of the demands placed on the family by the troubled adolescent, siblings often harbor deep feelings of anger and resentment. Their expression of these feelings, as well as the building of new and healthier relationships between the siblings, is a key element in improving family life. To that end, we encourage sibling visits. Furthermore, during Parent Weekends we schedule regular sibling groups, in which John Dewey students and their siblings meet with a clinician.
Although the primary focus is on healing the family, parents and siblings can also participate in other ways in the life of the community. Because the school is small, we can include families in creative, flexible ways. For example, The John Dewey Academy celebrates Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the Thursday holiday. This gathering is attended by most current families in the community as well as by alumni and their families. We also mark New Year’s Eve with a bonfire on campus. Beyond these two long-standing traditions, families can create their own John Dewey traditions: parents may teach guest classes, cook a holiday meal with the students, or take a group on an outing. Such special occasions help to promote the sense of community that is so central to the philosophy of The John Dewey Academy.
Parents and staff must work together as a team to effect change in the family as well as in the student. One staff member therefore operates as a liaison in order to facilitate communication between parents and the clinical staff. Lisa Sinsheimer, a Board certified psychiatrist and alumni parent of JDA, fulfills this function as well as acting as a mentor to current parents. She attends all Parent Weekends and also spends one day a week at the school; in addition, she is on call to parents on a 24/7 basis.
Every six to eight weeks, families meet at the school for a weekend of Group sessions. The groups are designed to foster honest communication and to promote the growth of healthy relationships. During the Groups, parents ask questions, voice their concerns, meet and bond with other parents, and express their feelings. These weekend experiences, which are required for all current families, constitute an important element of the program. Types of Groups include:
Parent Group: Parents introduce themselves and identify their child. Parents are welcome to raise any concerns and issues. Attendance is limited to adults.
Primary Group: Parents and students of each Primary (clinician/mentor) meet in a group with him or her. Siblings (generally age twelve or over) are welcome to participate.
Divorced Parents Group: All divorced parents meet with members of the clinical team to discuss the issues specific to divorced parents.
Mothers Group: All mothers meet to discuss the issues specific to themselves. A female clinician facilitates the process.
Fathers Group: All fathers meet to discuss the issues specific to themselves. A male clinician facilitates the process.
Siblings Group: Students and siblings (generally age twelve and over) meet with a clinician to work on repairing and strengthening sibling relationships.
New Parent Group: Parents of students who have been attending the school for fewer than six months meet with current parent facilitators to discuss orientation and adjustment issues. The Parent Liaison acts as a consultant to this group.
Intergenerational Group: Each family member attends a different group led by one of the Primaries. Siblings are welcome to participate.
Senior Parent Group: Parents of seniors meet to discuss the transition to life after Dewey. Major topics include reintegration into family life, improvement of communication between parent and student, and internalization of the Dewey values in post-Dewey life, with particular emphasis on how to parent college-age students successfully.
An active Parent Organization, coordinated by the Parent Liaison and headed by a current parent, provides support to current and alumni families. Parents maintain frequent contact via telephone, email, and a password-protected Internet forum for current parents, alumni, and alumni parents. As they share hard times and triumphs, parents support each other and help each other develop more effective parenting skills. These contacts between parents have proved so useful that the Parent Organization now runs informal monthly Moms and Dads Dinners, generally in or around New York City, to discuss issues and share experiences. To orient new parents to the John Dewey Academy community, alumni parents often attend these gatherings as well. Prospective parents wishing to speak with an alumni parent should contact the Admissions Coordinator here.