Sorting out the “Can’t do” from the “Won’t do”

by John Eck Summit Prep History Teacher

On day one of the semester students drift in and find seats. In those minutes before the lesson gets underway there will be joking, mild horseplay, questions about what we will be doing in class today (“History / Government  and lots of it” is my usual reply) and general chit-chat.  Each student brings their own personality, level of interest, learning style and hopes and fears–about me and the course.  They come in with a mixture of anxiety and ease, interest and apathy, focus and distraction.  Some have cognitive challenges, learning disabilities, different levels of self-motivation and self-expectation. They have different stories and experiences of success and failure in school.  Some arrive with documentation of challenges–ADHD, executive functioning, dysgraphia, dyslexia, NLD–you name it.

So the question for me as a teacher is:  How do I cover the curriculum in the necessary depth and vigor with such an array of characters, styles, attitudes, interests, learning challenges and abilities?  My response, developed over decades of teaching is: Teach the individuals in front of you and sort out the particulars as you go.  Look at their abilities while parsing through actual challenges.  Motivate them outside of their demotivated state.  Find their places of interest and curiosity, sometimes buried in apathy or lack of confidence.  Instill confidence and competence to overcome habits of disengagement and failure. Mentor with patience, understanding and a sense of humor. Figure out what makes each kid tick. Keep an ongoing discussion with colleagues regarding your individual students, especially the ones who are struggling. Where there is a documented, identifiable learning challenge, it is up to the teaching staff to understand the nature of it and the extent to which applies to particular student. Collaboratively, with the student, teacher, key staff members and parents, set about finding strategies to help the student find the way forward in skills, content and intellectual growth.

A teacher can be inspirational and transformative in a young person’s intellectual development. A teacher can help struggling students turn cynicism and negatively into skepticism and critical thinking.  The beauty of History and the Humanities is that students are encouraged to disagree with, challenge and contradict authority as a way of getting to the truth.  This is the heart and soul of liberal education and it is the heart and soul of what adolescence is all about.  The fundamental task of a young adult is to find their own way in the world.

Having said this, a few notes for clarification are in order. These are my observations which are based on decades in the classroom concurrent with coursework, readings, consultation with learning experts and discussions with colleagues. Here’s what I have observed:

I must sort out the “can’t do” from the “won’t do”. In other words, is this a learning challenge or are we looking at a decision by the student to not fully exert themselves? Over the years, I have observed that often documentation of learning challenges are inaccurate or incomplete, and it emerges that there are other factors at work in a student’s failure or underperformance. Students sometimes get a false “can’t do” message. As a result, the student may develop a “won’t do” attitude toward their studies.

The designation is not destiny. Having a cognitive struggle documented does not mean a student cannot learn to perform at a high academic level – even without special accommodations and modifications. I have seen in almost every class I have taught students bearing some sort of learning disability label who have achieved at academic levels on par with their peers.

Failure is an option. Students who receive support or have it available to them and choose not to take advantage of it, have experienced failure in the short and the long term. Students who do not make a consistent effort to study, to complete assignments or to engage in class can and do fail assignments and assessments. Occasionally, a student can even fail a course.  However, I have never failed a student who demonstrated effort and the growth that accompanies it.   Failure is a normal part of life and can be a good teacher if we are paying attention.

Grit and grind prevail. Research indicates that resilience and hard work are the most accurate determiners of achievement. Some students need more academic support than others but in all cases, these two attributes will have the final say. In the end, we are the agents of our success.

Self-expectation and self-motivation. What a student thinks about their ability and potential in school will guide their response to their academic challenges. Self -perception in this realm trumps actual ability and possibility.

Kids get over it. Students’ challenges are often enmeshed in emotional, familial and developmental issues. As students start sorting out their issues they begin to become capable of working through their cognitive stuff. With help and feedback from their teachers and by persistent effort, they push through some of these difficulties and/or find successful strategies to move forward. The vast majority of our kids go to college and go on to live meaningful lives. Many of them struggled with learning challenges earlier in their lives.

In light of the above realities, how are we to proceed as educators? Presented below are some key approaches and practices I’ve adopted. They are not unique to me but are informed by my years of study, observation and experience.

  • Work closely with therapists and educational specialists. Learn what you can about the student’s cognitive and emotional life. Be sure to bring your perspective and experience to every discussion of a student
  • While being aware of any challenges a student faces academically, do not put that at the forefront of your interactions with them. Relate to them, first and foremost, as fully capable intellectual people.
  • Maintain high expectations of effort, quality of work and in-class focus and behavior. Be encouraging and helpful along the way but also firmly and consistently hold boundaries. Season this process with a sense of humor and calibrate the correction or consequence to the nature of the infraction.
  • Establish a mutually respectful relationship with the student. Get to know her. Have   conversations outside of class. Have an occasional laugh. Apologize if you feel you’ve made an error in your dealings and expect the same in return.
  • Maintain passion for your subject area and for teaching. Relate, in every way possible, how what you are doing matters and how it can inform their understanding of the world and themselves.
  • Help students turn cynicism into skepticism; opposition or contrarianism into critical thinking. When a kid is quirky or edgy or even oppositional, turn that into a positive force which critiques accepted thinking and opens the door to a different understanding.

As I tell all my students: the mistakes you may have made and the pain and difficulties you may have experienced do not define you. They can, however, be good teachers and show you a new way of being in the world. Teachers, parents, therapists, mentors and peers will all become part of who our kids are and who they might become. Let’s make the most of the opportunity to put our students on a good path.

Posted in Academics

On the Eve of My Retirement

by Judy Heleva Admissions Director

Creeping up on the eve of my retirement, I cannot help but reflect upon my last 13 years spending every workday on the winding roads here in Montana on my way to campus. I chose from the beginning of my journey here at Summit Prep to make my daily drive one of peace and reflection. I could have chosen and sometimes do choose to take the speedy express route from our small city of Kalispell to the campus. That takes 10 minutes less than the route I travel.

I am an early riser. I try to leave my home by 6:30 in the morning and take side streets without any traffic lights. If I do take a road that has a traffic light, it will definitely be blinking with a caution light or a blinking stop sign. I just sneak across that as there is usually few if any obstacles in my way. I pass by elementary schools that are just waking up. I have also gotten accustomed to noticing where my neighbors clothed in their long robes are darting out onto the street to rescue their newspaper.

Leaving the town behind I come to the newest obstacle, the by-pass around the city that comes complete with a round-about that is itself a new feature in the Montana landscape. Finally, I get to slip onto a residential road, Whalebone Drive, that runs along a creek with a wall of forest on the opposite side. Here I have gotten to the place where I begin to encounter wildlife. This past winter a huge elk stepped up onto the road on the Creekside wanting to cross into the woods. He stepped out at the last second. I just about stopped my car when the elk got a bump on his rear flank that rolled him onto the road and he is lying on his back struggling to get back on his feet. He was thrashing his head and the spread of antlers he had seemed to be preventing him from being able to right himself. I sat in awe behind the wheel with my headlights just illuminating the patch of road on which he struggled.

All of this slowness and awareness of my surrounding as an opening to my day has led me to a place where I, as an admissions person, can hear the information that is often quite painful for a family to share. I can read about events that in testing seem unfathomable to have happened. To sit in the wake of rubble and give back hope of light at the other end of the “earthquake.” That is what we are asking of families when we suggest their child is in need of a therapeutic boarding school. Struggling to get back on their feet just as the elk, caught in the blindness of the headlights.

Montana and its environment lends itself to giving space for feeling, thinking and healing. As I move forward and make a transition to a new life schedule, I am keeping my eyes open to how I can begin my day with nurturing and wide-eyed wonder. I believe that the wonders in the world far outweigh the worries in the world….so I will keep on looking for the road less traveled and the space to breathe in & out.

Posted in General, Uncategorized

Clinical Supervision and Individualized Care

“Did you know”, is a monthly e-publication to Summit families that covers various clinical philosophies, standards and practices concerning the treatment and well-being of all students. Summit’s therapeutic team attempt to individualize treatment for each student’s special needs while maintaining a school-wide standard that serves the good of the whole community. The entire clinical team meets weekly to discuss and collaborate the various issues of treatment that arise. These informational tidbits are an opportunity for parents to learn more about the Summit “process” and the recipe of clinical supports and interventions that lead to each student’s success. M. Stemborski, LCPC, LAC

Topic: Clinical Supervision

Every week for a total of three hours, the entire clinical department meets as a group for Clinical Supervision. This time is utilized for reviewing, discussing, and problem-solving the therapeutic process of all the students, their families, and the well-being of the community as a whole. Although a primary therapist is designated to each team, they are not expected to carry the entire team’s therapeutic needs on their own. Each member of the clinical staff has specialties and experiences that can be shared to best serve all the students at Summit. Also included is Dr. Vic Houser, Summit Psychiatrist, who coordinates with all the teams providing medication management and psychiatric insights. Dr. Vic has been with Summit since the doors opened, creating an intimate feeling amongst the clinical staff. Complete therapist biography’s and video snippets can be found on our website to help families get to know all the therapeutic staff.

“Each student and their family may only communicate with a primary therapist but in truth they are being guided by an entire clinical team”. Good to know!

Topic: Individualized Care

“One size does not fit all” is one way to describe the Summit Prep approach to treatment. The question that follows this philosophy is; how can we individualize treatment to meet the unique dynamics of each student and family WHILE preserving the integrity and structure of the entire Summit Program?


There are some Summit rules and expectations that are non-negotiable and crucial to the safety and well-being of the milieu. On the other hand, there are special circumstances of each student’s process that needs to be addressed on an individual approach to assure the progress of treatment. Then there are gray areas in-between that require a team approach as opposed to the decision of a single therapist. When a Summit wide guideline or rule is altered to accommodate one student, the entire staffing community is affected. These decisions need to be weighed carefully and communicated efficiently. Individual therapists do not have the authority to make acceptations without the team consent. Many times, it is a therapist, RC, or teacher that is making these individualized recommendations. Every special request is discussed and clinically evaluated between all the departments to find the ongoing balance between modesty and specialty.

Posted in Clinical, Did You Know..., Uncategorized

What are YOU Going to do About It?

Recently Summit Prep said goodbye to Blake, a residential counselor. He is heading back to school to become a teacher. Residential Counselors play a key role in the lives of our students. It is through their support and positive guidance that Summit students grow stronger to believe in themselves.

Before Blake left he shared his thoughts with the entire community about being present in their journey while at Summit Prep. Very powerful words

Dearest Summit Community,

While it has come time for me to make a transition in my life, it makes me think about why we are here, what we are doing, and where do we want to be? While you may say to yourself over and over again that this is not where you want to be, the fact of the matter is that this is where you are. So if you’re not happy about that, I ask what are you going to do about it? 

The urge to fight this reality is incredibly tempting. You could run, you could refuse, or maybe you could simply find the right thing to say to your parents that would melt their hearts enough to get you pulled. – All viable options. However, the sooner we accept that we are here for a reason, the sooner the work begins, and the greater reward at the end of it all.

For the past 2.5 years, Summit has been my job. I came here to work. There were days I didn’t want to be here, conversations I didn’t want to have, sometimes seeing people I didn’t want to see. Yet with every trial, comes the opportunity to triumph, overcome, work through, figure out, and at the end of it all, cash in. But you don’t get to do that until you do the work. And in my opinion, the harder the work, the bigger the payoff. 

Your time here is what you make it. If you consistently complain, say that it sucks, or fight with every fiber of your being to refuse to accept the fact that this is where you are and this is your reality, than more than likely your metaphorical lingering dark castle will grow and the sunshine is going to be ever more difficult to see. However, if you can catch yourself, stop yourself dead in your own tracks, and then tell yourself whatever it is you need to tell yourself (because only you know what that really is) than believe it or not, fight it if you wish, but this so-called horrible soul sucking place you believe is just short of hell’s doorstep, you call Summit Preparatory School, actually, just might actually be the platform launch you to the next level and transform your life – Just maybe. So think about trying it, or talk to those around you who already are doing it. 

That said, I want to say that this place is full of people who care. There is no mischievous wizard trying to hide behind the elusive dark curtain. There are only people who care. There are only people who give a damn about you and come to work every day with the intention of bringing out the very best you. Not to mention your family who more than likely seeks the same. You know this your reality, and you know that there will be challenge that comes with it. So the question still remains – what are you going to do about it?



Posted in General, Health and well being, Uncategorized

ACA – Against Clinical Advice


At times, families consider or make plans on behalf of their child that contradict or oppose Summit rules and guidelines. It is never Summits desire to engage in argument or conflict over these incidents. In most cases, a solution can be identified that meets the needs of the family, while promoting the integrity of the Summit model. If differences arise, it is Summit’s clinical responsibility to present the “evidence and experience” of similar past scenarios to inform the family of the potential risks at hand. This information needs to be communicated in an honest and direct manor, allowing dialogue for a successful solution.
Every parent of a Summit student is asked to fully participate and contribute to the healing process. The parent assignments, therapy phone calls, workshops, and dedication on your behalf are crucial and surmount to the positive changes made. Each family makes tremendous sacrifices to humbly allow a therapeutic program to care for your child. During the New Parent Orientation, the clinical staff and founders explained the developmental model and professional approaches in which Summit values.  These approaches have been studied, and proven over time to provide a service that prevail positive, life-long results. Years of accumulated data, outcomes, and professional experiences have shown this to be true.  It is in this philosophical foundation that I believe you chose to enroll your child at Summit.
In some cases, parents do not follow the recommendations of the entire treatment team. Against Clinical Advice or A.C.A. is a medical term used by Summit to  describe any situation where a parent or student over the age of 18 years chooses to make decisions on behalf of their child or themselves that directly conflict with (a) the clinical advice of the primary therapist and clinical director, (b) the structure and rules of the Summit program as pertains to the entire student community, and (C) an integral piece of the individualized treatment plan that possess a significant risk to the successful outcome of clinical, academic, and/or residential goals.  After an ACA occurs, Summit will schedule a Clinical Peer Review with the parent(s) and their entire treatment team, comprising of education consultants, home professionals, etc. to collectively evaluate and reassess the student placement within the Summit program.   
Some common examples that arise; vacations and home-passes outside the Summit schedule, home-passes before stage 3, off-campus visits before stage 2, off-campus passes when under academic probation, I propose some questions and comments to all parents in this situation to help explore the pros and cons, potential risks, and therapeutic value of an ACA (Against Clinical Advise) decision.
What are your personal motives for this decision and do they meet your needs more than your child? Many ACA decisions arise around holidays and visitation. The absence an entire family feels for a child away is known to be immense. Sometimes, the only consolation (or justification) is held in the uncertain future, hoping your child will live a happy and productive future. It requires some kind of faith that the present work will be worth the difficult feelings in the moment.
Is this a past parenting technique that has been shown to be damaging or counterproductive?  Collectively, parents around the world are learning to raise and teach a new generation that has different needs and approaches than we had.  This is a truth and we are all held to its challenge. Summit families too, are learning a new way to parent that may contradict, even oppose some of our deepest paternal instincts. For example, sending a child to a wilderness or intervention program can be a very unnatural act made out of fear for the lives of our children.  Now that the immediate threat of life and limb is removed, parents start to witness student changes. In this comfort, there is a tendency to slip back into old parenting techniques that may have contributed to the problem in the first place. Please be careful of rescuing, guilt, over rewarding, coddling, and gaining approval of your student.
Did you consult your education consultant, therapist or treatment team prior to making the decision? You have chosen to create an entire team to consult your family.  The Summit academic, residential, and clinical teams are at your disposal. You have invested tremendous resources and trust in this group of professionals. In many cases, these individuals have formed genuine and intimate relationships with your child. In some cases, parents and select team members may not see eye to eye, but what does the entire team feel about this decision. A note of caution, Summit discovers ACA decisions were discussed between the student and their parents prior to notifying the team. Are you able to trust such a gathering of gifted and dedicated people and value their collective feedback?
Are your requests extraordinary or appropriate to the current situation? It can be a parent’s natural desire to acknowledge and reward their children. In this particular population, many students have received unearned or unwarranted rewards and praise that may not reflect the reality and healthy standards of the world around them. We are all biased and somewhat “blinded by love” when it comes to family. How do we “keep it real”?  Parents are presented the task of instilling morals and values to help their children succeed in the world. An internal sense of accomplishment is of greater value than external or immediate rewards.  This is accomplished through hard work and discipline.  Your child has been presented a roadmap with clear and precise directions how to graduate Summit. The sense of triumph when graduating is the greatest prize and it may not be valued by a student until later in life.
Does this decision set a precedent that rules and guidelines are negotiable? When set standards are made negotiable, an individual can assume the belief that they are unique, an exception, and their circumstances don’t apply. When parents model the behavior of making exceptions and negotiating rules, an adolescent will quickly adopt the same. When student’s sense an alignment with the parents against Summit, resistance towards the program tends to increase. This behavior can eventually transfer back unto to parents when they later in life set a clear guideline, yet the child will begin to negotiate and defy.  Summit holds Five Primary Values as the foundations of strong relationships; RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY, TRUST, SAFETY, and COOPERATION.  Does the request for an ACA uphold these core-values?
Can your therapist work with your decision for therapeutic gain?  Are you willing to prolong or compromise this decision for the good of the “Big Picture”.  Many ACA request are made in the presence of fear, pressure, immediacy, guilt, or a sense of lost opportunity. You have committed to the Summit Plan, knowing the theory and guidelines behind its methods. Summit values any opportunity to grow. We try to discourage risky approaches where the learning curve stems from “tough lessons”.  A common scenario is parents bringing students home before approval and having the visit fall apart, requiring some level of “therapeutic damage control”.  As students’ progress through the 4 stages, the privileges increase as the student develops better skills to handle more difficult situations.  Can your decision be prolonged until a later phase or post-graduation as something to work towards?  Whatever your decision, the Summit Team will make all attempts to utilize this experience for growth.  It is our nature to be optimistic while being prepared for challenge.  Please keep in mind, some decisions can damage the student’s progress, undermine the therapeutic process, instill distrust, leave gaps for authority splitting or damage the community at large.  This destructive process can start with one seemingly unimportant decision that can snowball. Please, proceed with caution.  
Posted in Clinical, Did You Know...