The Summit Blog

How school works in our hybrid wilderness therapy program

Most of us imagine wilderness therapy to be weeks in the woods. Often, if “academic courses” are offered, they are facilitated in an environment that is far from the formal school and classroom experience and often do not align with a student’s course and credit needs. Journaling around a campfire, exploring flora and fauna along the trail, learning about the history of a national forest while hiking are all valuable learning experiences but during this time students are falling behind while the school year moves forward or while summer school is taking place. At Summit Achievement we make time for both a traditional classroom experience and adventures into the wilderness. Rather than merging both, we divide the week – three days in the classroom, four days in the wilderness.


A formal school and classroom experience is important for students participating in wilderness therapy as they are able to practice transferring the growing skills in communication, respect, problem-solving, team-work, confidence, self-reliance, and responsibility to the classroom weekly. They have therapists, guides, and teachers on-campus to discuss those experiences and help them bridge the gap from wilderness to school; they are supported in harnessing the strength and grit they have proven to possess in the wilderness and applying it to challenges in the classroom. Offering teenagers the opportunity weekly to spend time in the wilderness and in school with a therapeutic-centered approach is an experience we truly believe can help families and students break free from barriers and challenges, such as school-avoidance and refusal.


Now you’re probably wondering how a wilderness program can offer a formal school experience when new students are enrolling every week or month and ages range from 7th to 12th grade. A blended learning approach allows for a formal school day and rotating classroom schedule. Blended learning utilizes online courses so that students can begin their courses any time of year and move at their own pace. They are enrolled in courses that best suit their current level and current semester and that most closely match what they were most recently studying. These online courses are blended with in-classroom teachers supporting students with one-to-one coaching and instruction which allows flexibility in identifying and practicing interventions, tools, and strategies for overcoming a wide variety of learning and classroom-based challenges.


At Summit Achievement, we make the most of the three-day school week providing structure with a daily schedule that rotates through English, math, social studies, and science classes. Any of these subjects can be swapped for a world language or elective if needed. Students also attend study hall in the evenings four days a week. Short-term and long-term goals are set weekly to keep students on-track while adjusting these goals as scaffolding is reduced. These goals are set with an academic advisor and they are shared with therapists, parents, educational consultants, and schools so there can be a team approach to planning for the student’s “next steps”.


Check out our upcoming blogs about the school-avoidant student and specific ways blended learning can be used as an intervention to help students re-engage in the classroom experience.

Summit Achievement during the Holidays

For 21 years Summit Achievement, a hybrid wilderness therapy and residential treatment program located in Maine, has operated during the holidays.  Those outside of the field may think it is a difficult time to be enrolled or working at a treatment program, but that is not the case, as we have honed our model through years of experience in all areas including the holidays!  Summit, being a relationally driven program, focuses on family inclusion no matter what time of year.  Families, students, staff and faculty report that the holidays at Summit have been especially meaningful to them over the years.

For Thanksgiving, students at Summit Achievement celebrate at the main lodge by having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with families invited to attend for the day.  The students and staff will head out on an abbreviated expedition on Saturday and return to campus on Sunday.  For the Summit Traverse team, some students may go on a home visit (with clinician/educational consultant/parent approval).

Hanukkah is celebrated with a daily lighting of the menorah.  Over the years Summit has also had a rabbi come to campus. Families may also have a visit (with approval as above) with their child to celebrate the holiday.

Christmas is celebrated on campus at the main lodge with a special late day dinner and each student being given gifts from their families.   Much of the day is spent sledding, building snow people, or watching appropriate holiday movies.   Some students may go to a local church to celebrate the holiday.  Families are also invited to attend the dinner, and celebration, or take their child off campus for an overnight visit to stay at one of the local inns in the beautiful Mount Washington Valley.  The Summit Traverse team students may go home for a visit during Christmas or have a visit in town.

Summit has found that celebrating a simple holiday filled with love and support is one of the ways to foster healing for families and young people.    

Wilderness Therapy in the Winter

Okay, let’s be honest with ourselves, it can be scary making the choice to send your child to wilderness therapy.  Now add in the fact that you may need to make this decision during the winter months and you can get overwhelmed. Yet there are tremendous benefits and opportunities that your child can gain from these experiences, and it’s important to try to look past the fear that can be associated with cold weather.  Here at Summit Achievement we fully understand your concern.  We have been operating continuously in New England for over 21 years and have honed the skills necessary to manage this climate safely.

To make your child’s experience one in which they will be challenged but ultimately find success, we take several steps to address the winter elements.  First, we are not a traditional primitive-skills based, full-wilderness program; rather we are a hybrid model with a mountaineering style emphasis.   We train our staff to make safe, conservative judgments when it comes to managing the winter environment.  Our youth are outfitted in the most up-to-date wilderness equipment designed specifically for the conditions your child will find themselves in.  Our staff will teach your child the best way to use their gear (suppliers include Marmot and Outdoor Research) to stay safe and comfortable in the woods. Along with this equipment, we plan our outings on a weekly basis allowing us to get accurate weather forecasts for the coming trip and plan the itinerary accordingly.  One aspect of winter camping we actively manage is frostbite.  We do this safely through a handful of redundant systems like proper education on how to prevent it, using equipment designed for the environment, making hot chocolate or tea, and staff checking each student’s fingers and toes every day to make sure that their extremities are warm and dry.  When the weather is at its worst, we have three wood-stove heated shelters strategically placed around our main campus in Stow, Maine.  The shelters provide protection from the elements and the wood-burning stoves help everyone keep warm and dry.

The woods during the winter months are often some of the most beautiful and serene settings you can find.  As we enter our 22nd winter, we are ready to provide a safe, impactful wilderness experience for your child like we have for so many others.

Who can come to Summit Achievement by transportation service

 Throughout most of Summit’s history we have required that all students enroll willingly, or at least reluctantly.  This has meant that they arrive with their parents and are willing to get out of the car and participate in the enrollment process, despite maybe not being thrilled about the prospect of 6-8 weeks in a wilderness therapy program.   This position of ours regarding transported students is in stark contrast to the rest of the field of wilderness therapy that routinely takes kids by professional transport.  We are now changing our position and will accept certain students (see below) through assisted enrollment.


Most wilderness therapy programs have many of their students enroll via youth transportation services.  What this looks like is skilled professionals who will show up at the student’s home, usually early in the morning, and take them, either willingly or unwillingly, to begin treatment.  The reputable transport companies are skilled at minimizing the potential traumatic effects of this process, and this service helps families that feel their child will benefit greatly from a wilderness program but cannot get them to agree to get on a plane or in the car.


In turning to the research that exists, outcomes of students enrolling in wilderness programs resistant to treatment has been studied, and the results caused us as a program to reconsider our stance(OBH Research Findings: Engaging Resistant Clients | Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council).   Over the last few years we have allowed a few students to enroll by transport when they meet the following specific criteria:

  •         Their primary treatment issue is depression and/or anxiety
  •         They are only oppositional and defiant in the home
  •         They have a track record of being compliant and respectful outside of the home

In these instances, we have allowed students to come via transport, and in tracking outcomes of these enrollments we have realized that they often are very favorable.  Thus, we have decided as an organization that we will allow students that meet the above criteria to arrive at Summit Achievement by a professional transportation service.