Why Choose an Educational Consultant? Interview with Jennifer Heckman

We had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer (Jennie) Heckman, Educational and Therapeutic Consultant. Dr. Heckman is an owner/partner of Educational Consultants, LLC helping families identify appropriate educational and therapeutic options. Dr. Heckman received her doctoral degree in Educational Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University in 1987 and returned to graduate school to pursue a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto (now known as Sophia University) in 1995. Jennie can be reached at (650) 941-4662 or at heckman@educationalconnections.com


When parents are seeking a consultant, what do you recommend?


When families call me and they’re trying to figure out if they need an educational consultant, if a residential placement is a strong possibility, I strongly encourage them to work with a consultant (whether it’s me or not) – because there are a lot of very good websites out there – many of which represent programs that may not be appropriate for their child. Working with a consultant who has in-depth knowledge of the strength of various programs for addressing a particular child’s needs is vital;

trying to ascertain this, via a website and a conversation with a program admissions person – without the guidance/experience of a knowledgeable independent educational consultant (one not connected with any of the programs) – greatly limits a parents options and increases the risk of making an inappropriate choice.


While a primary responsibility in a consultant’s role is to recommend an appropriate placement for each child, the overall, often year-long, process is quite extensive and a consultant’s (and family’s) potential for success is greatly enhanced when significant trust and rapport exists with the family.


Trust, Rapport, Experience

Placing a child in a therapeutic program is a very difficult decision for any family; parents, as well as their child, are venturing into a change process that, while having the great potential for life long benefits, can be emotionally painful, frightening, and otherwise challenging along the way. When parents have a consultant whom they trust is closely monitoring their child’s placement, one who will intervene when needed along the way, and one who will provide parental support and guidance when needed, frequently anxiety is reduced and the potential for positive outcomes is increased.  


Trust is enhanced by the sense that the consultant deeply listens and is genuinely invested in supporting the young person and her family. A great deal of intimate information is shared in this process – requiring emotional vulnerability; without trust it is hard for this to happen.

While trust is enhanced by a consultant’s ability to carefully listen to – and genuinely care – about each of their families, it is clearly critical that parents have confidence in their consultant’s  knowledge base, experience, and training.


At Educational Connections, my partners and I place a high value on deeply understanding a child’s needs prior to making recommendations and then closely monitoring the child’s progress. Most often, we begin our process with an in-depth (2-3 hour) developmental history interview with the parents, followed by multiple interviews with others who know the child well and the review of all pertinent documentation. All of this information provides the foundation for our recommendations.


What questions would you ask the consultant you are interviewing?


If I were a parent talking with an educational consultant, I would definitely want them to talk about how they work with a family, and I would ask follow-up questions to understand why they work in the way that they do. I would want to be able to reach out to my consultant if I were concerned about something. I’d want my consultant to know the program where my son or daughter is placed, and be paying close attention to how my child is doing.


If the child goes to a longer placement, I would tell the parents that we have a parallel process.  It is very important that the parent align with the program. They want to avoid triangulation. The program therapist is the one that’s on the ground with the child.  You really want that relationship to be strong. The therapist is also the consultant’s primary contact with the program.


If the parent runs into trouble with the therapist, or has some other concern about the program that is not being resolved, it’s very important to reach out to the consultant to intervene.


Another concern is ethics. Is the person a member of Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)?  Whether or not the consultant is a member of this professional association, does the consultant adhere to IECA’s ethical guidelines (found on the IECA website)? An ethical issue of significant concern is if the consultant receives some type of remuneration for their referrals to one or more programs  -- thus meaning that they are not ‘independent’ from the programs. It’s highly appropriate for parents to ask potential consultants what type of relationship they have with the programs to which they refer.


In terms of transition planning, when is it a good idea for parents to start this?


Let’s say the child is in wilderness and then goes on to a longer program. Usually the kids are in wilderness for eight to ten weeks. Throughout my process of working with a family, particularly in the early stages... but also further along in the process... I  ask myself: What level of care does my experience suggest will be (is) most beneficial for the child? The first few weeks in wilderness is a time for stabilization and initial growth for the child AND a time for the parents and consultant to learn much more about the child’s needs. Given this, I like to wait until the child is approximately half-way through their wilderness experience prior to narrowing my list of most appropriate options for next steps – and, at that point, to begin thinking about transition.   


Similarly, when a child is in a residential treatment program it is inappropriate to begin thinking seriously about transition (where and when) until at least several months into the process. Much growth and healing, for both the child and his/her parents, can occur during this treatment period and premature planning of next steps is not helpful and can even sabotage some of the treatment. That said, when enough progress has been made and the program therapist, parents, and consultant are believing that the child will be ready to transition out of the program (either to home or to a ‘step-down’ program) within possibly three months, this is the time it is appropriate to begin talking about appropriate potential next steps – still, ideally, leaving the final transition date open (at least not sharing this with the child) until it is clear the child is very near being able to transition healthfully.


Do you have different treatment considerations in mind when you place an adopted person? 


In my practice, approximately 35% of my clients have been adopted, a slight majority at birth and the remainder from a few months to several years later. My understanding is that most consultants would report a comparable over-representation of adopted children in their caseloads; hence, the vast majority of programs work with large numbers of adopted children. It is so difficult for any parent to send their child away to a therapeutic program, and this angst is often significantly accentuated in adoptive parents. Often parents will say to me: “My child is adopted and already has abandonment and attachment issues, and I’m really scared about sending my child away.” I deeply appreciate this angst and, yet, there are absolutely times when more healing can be accomplished in the child and in the parent-child relationship when they’re not under the same roof. Whether or not a child is adopted, more healing can, at times, be accomplished in a highly structured and clinically sophisticated setting – including issues of abandonment and attachment.


Of course, when a child is adopted, I will seek very clinically strong programs – often with adoption groups – and specific therapists within those program who have a great deal of experience working with issues around adoption.


Why do you think there is a higher percentage of adopted kids placed in wilderness, residential, and therapeutic boarding schools? 


As I mentioned, easily 35% of my clients are adopted – and I expect there are multiple, frequently interacting reasons why this is so – some of which we don’t fully understand. What we do know is that adolescence is a critical time for identity development – where (essentially all, healthy or not) teens ask themselves “Who am I”? This is an appropriate developmental question to ponder – and while the answer can be complicated for anyone – an additional layer of complication is added when a child was for, any number of reasons, not raised by their biological family. Some adopted teens are able to move through/resolve this issue in themselves with relatively little angst but, for many others, this question can create great intra-psychic angst, resulting in – at times – a great deal of pain and turmoil.


So why are some adopted teens able to move through this existential question with relative ease – while many others are not?


I tend to quite often look at the world from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and it is from this vantage point that I ponder this question.


I am not familiar with research that looks at variations and degrees of resiliency of newborn infants – it would be wonderful if such research exists – but this would certainly be a very tough phenomenon to measure. In any event, each infant certainly comes into the world with their own unique biology and developing neurology, but they also ‘come in’ with their own unique temperament; some babies cry a lot and are hard to comfort, others are very easy going. While such factors, in and of themselves, may have little predictive qualities – there may be some factor that we can’t measure (at least yet) that relates possibly to later resiliency – which may be a factor for all children re their abilities to respond healthfully to challenges in their later lives.   


Simply stated, I suspect that some infants come into the world with greater resiliency than others; thus, for adopted children, some have a much easier time resolving within themselves identity-related questions that undoubtedly present themselves in adolescence.


A third factor I wonder about pertains to bonding that occurs in-utero. Babies have nine months growing inside of their biological mother’s uterus – and research has suggested that there may be value in a pregnant mother’s listening to classical music, reading to her unborn child, etc. Certainly, unborn infants feel (on some level) their biological mother’s heartbeat, her in/out breath, and the way she moves. When a baby is born and transferred to another mother, one who’s breath, heartbeat, and movements are at a different rhythm, I suspect this shift may be felt deeply on a clearly unconscious level. IF this is a factor – as discussed above, clearly there are likely numerous significantly interacting variables.