Gap Year Experiences We Need

Gap Year students, like teens in general, are a study in contrasts. They want more independence, but still need structure. They want less supervision, but still benefit from having some experienced adults around. They want to take more risks, but ultimately benefit from an environment that provides some measure of safety. Unfortunately, while Gap Years have been growing in popularity, the right kind of organized experiences to nudge these students into adulthood has lagged behind.

Independent Living

Many teens don’t want a “structured” Gap Year travel program. And they aren’t ready or don’t want to travel independently. They want to be independent but haven’t acquired the skills or don’t have the fully functioning frontal lobe to make certain decisions.

Many of these students would benefit from simply having a place where they can learn adulting skills like doing laundry and living with roommates. Yes, they get this when away at college, but some are not ready for that step – and parents would prefer to wait to spend tuition money until kids are mature enough to handle the independence. Students also benefit from doing an internship or job of some kind – but ideally in a “facilitated” situation where a mentor can guide and coach. The ideal experience would also include weekly life skills sessions – on budgeting, how to self-advocate, how to network, the importance of taking initiative, and so on. These sessions would bring cohorts of students together at certain times during the week, and remind them that help is available. But in this setting, mostly students could be left alone to practice independent living. 

We know of only one U.S.-based program providing this type of experience. Dynamy – while focused on accommodating the needs of students with learning differences (see last section, below) – does a tremendous job offering more of what we think is needed.

Domestic Arts Activities

Gap Year students who aren’t interested in trekking and outdoor activities and looking for a group living situation don’t have a lot of options to choose from in the U.S. It would be good if there were more programs offering experiences such as learning to cook (one called The Food Gap is just starting up, but doing semester travel in Europe). There are also programs focusing on the arts outside the U.S. but very few structured arts experiences here in the U.S. It would be wonderful for organizations to structure learning activities involving film, theater, dance, painting, music and other arts which include housing and some form of mentoring/ supervision. These programs could even be shorter than a full Gap semester – say 4-6 weeks – which would make them more affordable. (Blackbird Academy in Nashville, TN offers a well-regarded hands-on course in sound engineering, but courses are six months and cost $23,000 without housing).

Near-Therapeutic Programs

There is also a need for more programs that sit somewhere between traditional structured Gap Year programs and true therapeutic programs (we know only of Dynamy). This would be a U.S.-based, on-site experience specifically geared to accommodate teens who are neurodivergent but not in need of a therapeutic experience with a high ratio of mental health professionals. These students have some mental health challenges and need more support than non-neurodivergent kids – and are still likely to go to college. What they really need is “pre-college prep” – learning to be away from home but also having fun, with some opportunities to learn to be independent. They want to be included and accepted, and become more confident in their approach to life. They do need more reminders – their executive functioning skills are not there yet – but by and large they want to be treated like typical teenagers. This is achievable when certain support systems are in place. For students coming out of high schools focused on diverse learning styles (e.g., Proctor Academy in New Hampshire, or Fusion schools), it’s almost like a “transition” year to help them gain more maturity before heading off to college.

Certainly the availability of many more types of organized experiences will help accelerate student interest in Gap Years in the U.S. One of biggest opportunities right now is to support the unique needs of neurodivergent teens, and we look forward to seeing more of these programs develop in the future! 

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