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Taking a challenge to heart (and mind)!

By Servando Patlin, MA MHP LMHC and Michael Freeman, PsyD

We recently started integrating experiential therapy into the school day for children in the Cottage Program, taking an entire classroom out to the Challenge Course. The six-week curriculum builds off of the prior week, with the ultimate goal of increasing group problem solving skills. We teach kids to “Go for the goal!” Listening, Giving Directions, Include Everyone, No Blaming and Work as a Team are the first five sessions’ goals. The last week incorporates all of the goals.

Key rules that we focus on are to: Be accountable for your actions and your attitude – AKA, follow directions and be kind.

When the activity or challenge is completed and the groups succeeds, we repeat the challenge with a new variation and add a layer of increasing difficulty. Afterwards, we gather around on log seats facing in and debrief. We have the kids do a self-rating, listen to positive and negative feedback from peers and/or adults and then process any emotions or melt-downs if they occurred.

What has been so gratifying is seeing how the kids pick up on another peer’s distress and watching them try to help that child solve a problem. These groups provide a different element to social skills training that you cannot achieve within an individual therapy session, because each activity provides opportunity for in-the-moment use of skills with feedback at the conclusion. Kids see how skills on the course can be applied in other settings, which is really the whole point of experiential learning or therapy.

Everyone can benefit from a group challenge activity. The best part is observing how the kids handle success and failure. We’ve had some pretty challenging activities but at the same time we’ve witnessed some amazing acts of kindness, teamwork, and overall positive attitudes.

Special note: With CEO Lee Grogg’s retirement in March, the challenge course has been named in his honor as the Lee E. Grogg Challenge Course. Lee wrote a grant for the Challenge Course in 2001 and Ryther was awarded $50,000. As Lee said,

“A Challenge Course provides real insight and teaches people in ways that serve as a powerful intervention tool in changing thinking and behavior.”

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