Psychology major Dr. Rod Nadeau introduces alternative education students to outdoor adventures
Adventure therapist Dr. Rod Nadeau does his best counseling while riding the chairlift at Shawnee Peak ski resort in Bridgton, biking the 180-mile Trek Across Maine, rafting the upper Kennebec River or kayaking on Casco Bay.
Nadeau, a registered Maine guide and wilderness first responder who majored in psychology at UMF and earned a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy at the University of Connecticut, counsels alternative education students attending The REAL School on Maine's Mackworth Island. And, he says, the great outdoors-rather than his office-is where the most progress with students is made.
"By the time they have been referred [to The REAL School], all the other counseling approaches haven't worked," he says of his students. "Because many of them have attention-deficit disorder, they can't sit still for traditional counseling. The students can be very oppositional at first, but they eventually realize they can't beat Mother Nature."
All of us, says Nadeau, are guided by the stories we develop about ourselves based on our experiences. Put simply, if our experiences have been mostly positive, we see ourselves positively, which, in turn, enhances our confidence and resilience to adversity. But, he says, students who have not been successful in school "carry within them stories of failure, incompetence and strife. Their internal narratives might sound like, 'I'm a bad kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I'm not well liked, I don't like many people, and if you try to teach me or get in my way, I'm gonna make your life miserable.'"
To help REAL School students revise their narratives, Nadeau introduces them to new and challenging outdoor adventures. Some behavior modification occurs up front, as the students must earn points for demonstrating appropriate classroom behavior to participate. But it's what happens when students overcome the elements and master recreational skills along the way that scripts new plots-ones in which they are triumphant rather than school troublemaker.
Gradually, he says, "preferred or alternative stories are created, and with time and persistence these preferred stories become the new, dominant stories for our students."
Nadeau takes the narrative revision even further by recording the students' recreational skill development on video to show progress over time.
"Initially, their success seems foreign to them and others around them, and it gets easily dismissed as a fluke," he says. "But when the students see [the videos], there's no disputing what they've achieved. Everyone should bear witness to their success."