Ben Jones combines his counseling expertise with wilderness therapy to show students that discipline isn’t punishment — it’s learning to overcome obstacles together.
Counselor Ben Jones joined Oliverian at the start of this school year, but his healing experiences in nature span from his youth to his current career. Applying his background in adolescent wilderness therapy and a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, Ben cultivates a shared passion for the great outdoors in his students, who have the awe-inspiring White Mountains as their backyard.
Ben sat down with us to discuss how spending time outside can help address behavioral issues by replacing traditional disciplinary measures — like infractions, detentions, and suspensions — with the opportunity to practice reflection, discover agency, and exercise growth through natural adventure.
A: Recently, we had a student who was going through a difficult time, and it was clear that above all he was asking for a break from this situation which felt overwhelming. As a counselor, I knew that an outdoor excursion in the New Hampshire winter might not be the relaxation he had in mind, but I believed a wilderness overnight would remove him from the academic and social struggles he was immersed in at the moment while still encouraging him to productively work through these issues.
By planning a wilderness overnight, I had two beneficial goals in mind: to give him a chance to effectively “unplug,” literally and figuratively, and to provide a space for deeper reflection while we were in the cabin.
A: In education and in counseling, you have to be flexible, because outcomes are often different than what you had strictly planned for. Engagement might not look the way you had expected it to, and the amount of self-reflection a student is undergoing is not always visible to their instructors.
That being said, there is an unassailable success inherent in this — and any — wilderness intervention, which is that we completed the excursion and we managed that accomplishment together. In this particular scenario, we were in a cabin with a wood stove and temperatures dropped below zero degrees at night. So, we had an energy source, but it was by no means luxurious and we all experienced the same cold — there was no illusion that the trip leaders were warmer than the student.
As a result, we shared an implicit understanding that we were each going through these immediate and tangible conditions, even if the specific emotional context differs from person to person. If nothing else — and I do believe there is much else gleaned from introspection — a student leaves with this knowledge of their ability to overcome obstacles and this recognition that they are supported by a united front, a community that is truly in the trenches with them.
A: The wilderness overnight highlights the centrality of healthy relationships in making positive behavioral changes. My personal approach to discipline aligns with Oliverian’s as a whole in prioritizing community and carefully calibrating the relationships between administrators and students.
When it comes to an adolescent who has struggled in traditional school environments, the necessary first step to motivating improved behavior is to show them that they are safe, that they have found a community that welcomes them as they are. With this supportive structure behind them, a student can begin to tackle the problems that have previously caused them to lash out or to avoid confrontation.
The second step in encouraging behavioral change is to foster relationships between students and administrators that balances this support with boundaries. What makes Oliverian unique is that teachers and counselors live on-campus, making the Oliverian community a true family. With a personal connection to students, instructors are able to intervene in situations where some adolescents would not otherwise be open to intervention.
This foundational trust means we’re more than friendly faces — Oli administrators do hold students to clearly-communicated expectations and push them to overcome challenges of all kinds. Crucially, though, discipline at Oliverian is empathetic, rather than punitive. It’s a matter of saying, “We believe in you, and we’ll do this together.”