NATSAP 2020: The State of Therapeutic Schools and Programs

Who is NATSAP?

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) is the largest not-for-profit membership association in the U.S. dedicated to residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding schools, and wilderness therapy programs. We serve as an advocate and resource for innovative organizations that devote themselves to society’s need for the effective care and education of struggling young people and their families. Our vision is a nation of healthy children. We are the voice inspiring, nurturing, and advancing the courageous work of our schools and programs.

Our member programs are devoted to providing effective care to thousands of individuals experiencing a wide range of mental and behavioral difficulties. That care is given under the watchful eye of state licensing departments and national accrediting bodies. Therapeutic schools and programs are part of an ever changing and evolving industry, and like the industry, NATSAP has changed with the times. Beginning in 2023, all NATSAP Member Programs must be accredited by an approved national therapeutic accrediting body. NATSAP is not a licensing or accrediting body, or authorized or established to monitor schools or programs.

Becoming a NATSAP member

NATSAP’s stringent membership requirements have evolved, just as the therapeutic field has evolved. In order to become a NATSAP member, applications are reviewed in a three step process by the Membership Director, the Membership Committee- a group of therapeutic program members with clinical and business backgrounds- and our Board of Directors.

During the application process, programs provide information on their enrollment policies, testing procedures, and facilities. We ask how the school or program conducts background checks and provides professional development for their employees. We may question the program or the state licensing organization to obtain clarity about how the program operates.

When a program wishes to renew its membership, we require them to provide us with new copies of their licensure and lead clinician’s certification. If this information is not provided, the program is dropped from membership. We prefer to see a decline in members, rather than a decline in standards.


Ethical standards

Our standards are reinforced through NATSAP’s code of ethical standards and principles, which our member programs are mandated to meet. These standards and principles are reviewed and added to on a regular basis. NATSAP’s Best Practices Committee fields ethical complaints. If a program is engaging in unethical behavior, this committee can ask for a suspension of membership (until the issue is corrected or for a specified length of time), or they can recommend that the program be removed from membership.


A data-driven approach

Since NATSAP was founded in 1999, we have been committed to demonstrating effective treatment through outcome studies. To this end, more than 65 NATSAP members contribute annually to the University of New Hampshire therapeutic schools and programs study.  In addition to the UNH study, some member programs have worked with Cornell and Stanford; others have long-running research collaborations with their local universities.


To further our data-driven approach to demonstrating positive outcomes, NATSAP has launched the Research Designated Program (RDP). The RDP status recognizes programs that supply data to evaluate a school or program’s effectiveness, and increases understanding of the positive impact of schools and programs.


Additionally, NATSAP helped fund the Golden Thread, a software package that allows members to follow a client through treatment. As a secondary benefit, the software allows educational consultants, who refer families to schools and programs, to collect data on those who initially seek services, but ultimately, chose not to attend a therapeutic program.


The therapeutic program community faces a challenge in facilitating randomized controlled studies of treatment outcomes, both RDP and the Golden Thread research initiatives provide valuable data in the face of this challenge.



NATSAP members provide treatment that is rooted in deep-seated concern for the students’ well-being and growth; respect for them as human beings; and sensitivity to their individual needs and integrity. As the field of therapeutic programs evolves, NATSAP will be there to guide the way, to change with the times, and to ensure that we continue to be the voice inspiring, nurturing, and advancing the courageous work of our schools and programs.


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