Learning Disabilities in a Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

I was sitting around a campfire, in the high desert country of southern Utah, miles from creature comforts, listening to a group of teenage boys telling their stories to me and another visiting educational consultant. They were introducing themselves and sharing the reasons why their parents sent them there. “There” was a pretty austere location in red rock country. No distractions, lots of opportunities to examine one’s life and plenty of opportunities for staff to fine tune diagnostic issues (concerning behavior).

In my introduction to them, I shared that I work with lots of kids and families who have learning differences and learning disabilities. I explained that I was visiting schools and wilderness programs that might work well with clinical/behavioral issues and issues related to learning disabilities.

Afterwards one boy asked if he could speak to me alone. With tears in his eyes he asked me if “there were schools” that he could go to “for my aftercare” that can help me with my therapy “but also deal with my dyslexia.” He also teared up when he explained how painful it was to hear that his “writing assignment” given to him by the field staff out there, was “not good enough.” He was talking to me about how much of a different and more severe struggle it was to put his thoughts down on paper than most of the other boys in the group.

This was a bit of a breakthrough moment for this boy. After letting him know that I’d be in touch with his ed consultant (I happen to know him) to communicate his thoughts and wishes, I also debriefed with his therapist.

This particular therapist and in my opinion, this particular outfit, had the perfect response. He was thrilled and moved by how this kid self-advocated, and how he opened up. Even better, the therapist was completely stoked/inspired to talk about ideas and tools that might help this kid even more. This continued a better dialogue with a group of therapists about how to connect those dots between learning struggles, how one processes and expresses information, and therapeutic tools.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
This entry was posted in Learning Disabilities and Mental Health, Shapiro Looks at K-12 Schools. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Learning Disabilities in a Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

  1. This seems like a great way to make breakthroughs with children like this. Have you heard of these excursions happening elsewhere?

  2. The proper wilderness setting is a great way to make many breakthroughs.

    I also have had students make many different kinds of breakthroughs over the years in wilderness settings. There are a variety of kinds of programs and camps that are available that offer excellent programs.

    Many times, young people experience real breakthroughs because of the environment of “back to basics” living, exposure to nature and strong relationship building that happens in a wilderness program.

    Having a child approach you, ask to speak with you, have tears in their eyes, just tells you how connected Sanford is with these kids.

  3. Sanford says:

    Disability Training:

    There are therapeutic wilderness groups like these in various parts of the country. There are groups in places such as southern and northern Utah, Idaho, the northeast, northwest, and the southeast.

    This week I’m on the big island of Hawaii and will visit such a place here.

    The issues for parents and professionals are:

    1. How to assess whether an individual kid needs such an intervention and experience.

    2. How to assess the strengths, nuances and potential weaknesses of the program. Being in the wrong program, or a poorly designed program can have disastrous effects. Being in the right program and the right time for the right reasons can have life-changing positively transformative effects.

    One of my primary concerns and motivations is to help all concerned to increase the quality and effectiveness of therapeutic programs by better integration of the LD component into their therapeutic tool box.

    Thanks for writing in.

  4. Pingback: LD Resources » Blog Archive » Learning Disabilities in a … | Untreated Info

  5. The good programs provide a safe place for the child. This is something that seems to be lacking for many kids with LD. The classroom has often become frightening and disheartening. With a positive peer culture and supportive staff, these students can begin to open up about their struggles, admit to challenges, and ask for help; the first step to moving ahead.
    Thanks for your work, Sanford.

  6. Sanford says:


    Thanks for your comments.

    “With a positive peer culture and supportive staff, these students can begin to open up about their struggles, admit to challenges, and ask for help; the first step to moving ahead.”

    Yes, and not always easy to find. Yours is a program that certainly does. The first and crucial step is the right supportive environment. After that comes more hard work, helping a student reinvent their own sense of self-determination through success building off successes.

    I loved visiting with you guys and will follow up soon so I can write more about the wonderful opportunities you guys are creating.

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