RedCliff Ascent: The Leader in Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare

By Stephen C. Schultz

RedCliff Ascent is an Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) program for adolescents who are essentially stuck in the adolescent stages of development. They lack the coping mechanisms, competencies and discipline necessary to manage their lives at an age appropriate level.

In other treatment or academic settings, these students may only be labeled by their diagnoses, which often include ADHD, ODD, Depression, Anxiety, ASD, bipolar mood disorder, etc.  The RedCliff treatment protocol recognizes the child and the illness are two distinctly separate components. A student’s life should not be defined by a diagnosis. Each is specifically addressed independently in the therapeutic process.

We help the student and family understand how a specific cluster of symptoms associated with their diagnosis has impacted the student’s developmental progression.  RedCliff’s therapeutic model disrupts these unhealthy patterns of behavior and reintegrates the student into a more healthy developmental process.

Our treatment model has been evolving for well over two decades. With over 15 years of field research and clinical leadership, Redcliff is considered one of the premier wilderness programs in the United States. 

Why Do I Care?
Unlike any other program, we recognize that regardless of the student’s diagnosis there is an underlying developmental stall. RedCliff’s treatment modality addresses both issues. The model was developed and refined through research informed treatment practices.

RedCliff has two therapeutic goals. They are to disrupt current behavioral patterns, or the developmental stall of the student, and reintegrate the student into the appropriate level for their age. In order for therapy to be most effective, the first goal must be accomplished before the second can be initiated.  

We help parents disrupt the dynamic, not just move it to a different setting. A crucial measuring stick for each aspect of our therapeutic and operational protocols is this question: What is the therapeutic value of this procedure, activity or intervention?

Although it defies conventional wilderness therapy program practices, the answer to that question is the reason RedCliff encourages parents to communicate by standard mail instead of email or telephone. It explains why we do not have students write impact letters. It is the foundation for our policy of allowing parent visits only for graduation exercises. 
That crucial question, “What is the therapeutic value?” also explains why we do not offer high adventure recreational types of activities.

A teen who has stalled out does not struggle with a lack of entertainment in his life. What he lacks is the ability to master the mundane responsibilities that come with school, work, and family relationships. 

At RedCliff, the goal is to help students find meaning in those daily activities, rather than search for an outside “thrill.”  A typical day will include hiking, practicing wilderness survival skills such bow/drill fire making, orienteering, botanical identification, journaling, and low-impact camping. Each of these activities also has an expectation of competence and mastery. This provides the therapists a rich diagnostic environment for therapeutic sessions.

Enrollment at RedCliff ascent is open-ended.  The therapeutic goal is not to force students to comply. Rather, it is to give students an opportunity to gain insight, develop internal motivation and to achieve position of excellence, mastery and competence.

Because the program is achievement based, length of stay will vary from student to student. Our goal is to help students advance to their next developmental level as soon as it is therapeutically wise to do so.

Why Do I Care?
Our unconventional approach is based on the quest for therapeutic excellence, not what is convenient. What is best for the student, not what is happening in the marketplace, is at the heart of every intervention and therapeutic protocol. 

As psychoanalyst Fritz Perls explained, “What is essential is not that the therapist learn something about the patient and then teach it to him, but that the therapist teach the patient how to learn about himself.”

RedCliff offers a consistent, unvarying expectation of each student with a consistent structure to facilitate their development. The program structure does not vary from staff to staff or from therapist to therapist. This provides a seamless transition from assessment to treatment as students confront the challenges of the program.

A consistent behavioral standard provides a way to measure the student’s developmental progress. Although the structure does not change, therapy itself is individualized to meet each student’s needs. Interventions can be custom designed to address a particular student’s specific patterns of resistance.

We have found students in the early stages of RedCliff therapy are still very focused on maintaining a disruptive family dynamic, even though they are geographically separated from the rest of the family. Their maladaptive behaviors will often be amplified as they struggle to maintain a perceived control over what is happening at home. It’s especially critical that parents stand firm during this aspect of treatment.

To help them identify and understand this process, parents have access to information and updates on the parent portal. This online private portal is designed to give parents specific tools for successful parent/child relationships both during the RedCliff experience and at its completion. Through interactions with the therapists, parents learn how to assess their child’s level of commitment to the family relationship, as well as how to judge the effectiveness of the wilderness experience.

In addition, parents are required to complete our exclusive Parent Narratives.  For many students, the Narratives are their first real look at their own histories. It is their opportunity to learn of their parents’ triumphs and failures. The Narratives are also designed to coincide with student autobiographies. Each is shared at a specific point in the student’s individual therapy. These exercises often become the focal point around which parent and child begin to build a sense of unity.

These exclusive Narratives are also a useful tool in measuring the parent’s commitment to their child’s therapy and the program in general. When parents are unwilling to complete their assignments therapists are alerted to potential problems in the family dynamic. That dynamic may be a factor in determining what the next step should be in the student’s transition plan.

Why do I Care?

Parent centered learning as discussed in the parent portal and the Parent Narratives, done jointly with student learning, help parents understand their child’s level of progress and commitment in the therapeutic process. Parents learn how to assess the student’s commitment to the family relationship and how to measure their son or daughters willingness to re-enter the adolescent stages of “healthy” development.


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