Can Intensive Wilderness Programs be a Catalyst for Positive Change for Young People at Risk of Future Offending, Educational Disengagement or Poor Wellbeing?

Author: Ivan Raymond

Raymond, Ivan, 2016 Can Intensive Wilderness Programs be a Catalyst for Positive Change for Young People at Risk of Future Offending, Educational Disengagement or Poor Wellbeing?, Flinders University, School of Education

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This study systematically operationalised and then assessed the following research question: Can intensive wilderness programs be a catalyst for positive change for young people at risk of future offending, educational disengagement or poor wellbeing? The conceptual organisation of the study was informed by the positive youth development literature, with the evaluation framework underpinning the main study categorised by a positive psychology model titled Life Buoyancy. While program marketers and evaluators widely describe wilderness programs as a “catalyst for change”, this construct has not been systematically assessed within the literature. The study operationalised this catalyst descriptor through the Transtheoretical Model (TM; Prochaska, Di Clemente, & Norcross, 1992).

The research included the design (including expert engagement), piloting (n = 71) and validation (n = 503) of a matched youth- and teacher-report tool titled the Behaviour Change Questionnaire (BCQ). The BCQ’s rating scale operationalised the motivational dimensions of the TM, with the content restricted to student behaviours indicative of educational disengagement within mainstream educational settings. The BCQ was included within a quasi-experimental evaluation (pretest posttest follow-up design) of Operation Flinders, an Australian-based wilderness program for male and female young people aged between 13 and 17. The evaluation included youth- and teacher-report measures predictive of (1) offending (e.g., aggressive impulses, antisocial cognitions, attitudes to police), (2) educational disengagement (e.g., classroom behaviour and self-esteem, attitudes to teachers, educational risk taking, motivation to change) and (3) wellbeing (e.g., future aspirations, optimism, self-efficacy, self-esteem, intrinsic and extrinsic value orientation, satisfaction with life). Longer-term outcome trends were assessed through electronically coded behavioural measures (e.g., school explained and unexplained absences, attendance, suspension/exclusion data).

To answer the research question, propensity score matching (PSM) was applied to match treatment (n = 345) and control groups (n = 209) across the measured covariates (n = 71) and address non-equivalence in the control group. PSM models (each with 20 multiple imputed data sets) were developed for: (1) the entire sample (matching with replacement), (2) entire sample (matching without replacement), (3) offending risk group (matching with replacement), (4) educational disengagement risk group (matching with replacement), and (5) poor wellbeing risk group (matching with replacement).

Across all groups, Operation Flinders program attendance was not associated with statistically significant and differential improvements, relative to a control group, on short-term measures conceptually related to reduced offending, higher levels of educational disengagement, enhanced wellbeing, motivation to change and problem awareness. The most consistent pattern of program effects was for participants at the highest risk of future offending. Small but non-significant effects for this cohort clustered most strongly on the behavioural outcomes, with longer-term outcomes trending in a similar direction. The study found no consistent evidence for program attendance and increased motivation to change. Emerging evidence suggested that there may be a complex relationship between motivation to change and participant risk profile and behavioural type.

While the study does not offer strong empirical support for the use of the “catalyst for change” descriptor, the heuristic and applied value of the descriptor remains supported.

Keywords: wilderness therapy, intensive wilderness programs, adventure therapy, youth-at-risk, stages of change, Transtheoretical Model, educational disengagement, intentional practice, wellbeing, offending, young person, Life Buoyancy Model, adventure therapy, motivation to change, positive psychology, resilience, school, behaviour change, Behaviour Change Questionnaire

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Education
Supervisor: Professor Larry Owens