Experiential Learning

Cal Farley’s strives in everything we do to provide nurturing and healing to the hurting children we serve. The time they spend in a campus environment that emphasizes faith in God, participating in their community and superior education equips our young people with the emotional tools and real-world training to become eager learners and productive workers long after they’ve left our campus.

Among the ways young people living at Cal Farley’s learn the skills they’ll need to obtain and maintain a successful career is the Experiential Learning Program, or E.L.P. Through E.L.P., our youth are exposed to a broad range of vocational fields, from traditional trades like woodworking or horticulture, to the latest high-tech fields such as robotics and rocketry. In E.L.P., Cal Farley’s youth learn invaluable skills and participate in positive mentoring relationships through intentional educational courses.

E.L.P. is designed to foster a young person’s innovation and provides a more individualized learning experience. It also raises our young people’s awareness of the near-limitless number of careers available to them after they leave Cal Farley’s.

Youth participating in the program learn in small teams, working together toward common project goals. This process creates an atmosphere of camaraderie between youth and staff, which reinforces the work being done with our youth in other areas of their life at Boys Ranch.

Beyond learning skills and building relationships, though, youth in E.L.P. receive certifications that reflect their achievements in their chosen area of study. These industry certifications prove valuable both as a tangible symbol of their accomplishment, and make our young people more desirable to post-secondary educational programs or potential employers after they leave Cal Farley’s. Young people who came to Cal Farley’s feeling worn down by life or limited by their past circumstances leave us empowered to accomplish great things!

This kind of success doesn’t happen by accident. Caring Cal Farley’s professionals have designed a very specific curriculum to provide our young people with practical vocational knowledge in an environment that reinforces the six key values embodied in Cal Farley’s Model of Leadership and Service: safety, belonging, achievement, power, purpose and adventure.

So, who participates in the Experiential Learning Program?

To be in the program, a child must be at least 14 years old (older for some programs) and be judged by his or her youth care team to be ready to handle the responsibility involved. Younger children can join Experiential Learning Clubs, which expose them to a variety of program areas. Youth who want to participate in a given area go through an interview process. This serves two key purposes: First, it allows the child’s care team to ensure he or she is prepared to take on the challenges of the program he or she has chosen. Second, the question-and-answer process allows our youth to learn professionalism and interview skills that will help them when the time comes to apply for a job in their adult lives.

More than 20 courses comprise the E.L.P., including fields like agriculture, automotive, equine, engineering, culinary and more. Each is led by dedicated staff who have the professional knowledge and skills to provide our youth with the real-world skills to succeed in a career within that field. E.L.P. inspires Cal Farley’s youth to find success within their Boys Ranch community, but also encourages their long-term success as independent young adults.

Community As Lab


Visit Our Community As Lab Website

In 2010, Cal Farley’s staff pondered how residents could extend science and arts learning outside the classroom. As they heal emotional wounds, youth also could develop hands-on skills to use in their future lives. The result was the development of the Community-as-Lab program.

“Community-as-Lab is an effort to use the whole community as a learning lab for the youth,” said Cal Farley’s Executive Vice President Mark Strother.

Essential to the program, Strother said, is understanding how the approach empowers residents by letting them make choices based on their interests. This helps engage them in their activities and shows them the power of their unique talents.

“One of the main motivators in school,” Strother said, “is when you see the application in the real world. Getting residents involved in all of these things can motivate them back in math class, science class, history and writing.”

Another way this highly accessible program benefits Cal Farley’s residents is through the positive relationships they develop as they learn from staff mentors and their peers.

“They gain a sense of belonging, relationship,” Strother said. That’s a real key factor.”


Xavier, 17 (pictured above), participates in the three-dimensional design lab, where he regularly sees his ideas come to life. A recent example is a series of computer tables Xavier and his peers designed and built from interlocking pieces of wood without using supporting hardware. Xavier said the skills he’s gained — turning a concept into a design, rendering it in 3D software and then physically creating it — are enjoyable, but they also helped him realize how the things he’s learning now lay the groundwork for his future.

“It’s fun, but … you need knowledge to actually use it,” he said.

Xavier said he recalled once — before his involvement in C.A.L. — asking his math teacher when he would ever use what he was learning in the real world. C.A.L. has given him the answer.

“I use it (in the design lab) all of the time,” he said, “so, it’s really helpful in showing you what you’re going to do in life.”

Xavier said his experiences in the C.A.L. program helped him decide what career he wants to pursue after Cal Farley’s.

“I want to be (an) engineer,” Xavier explained. “If I wanted to make a chassis, I could 3D print one or make it using wood. And, I would apply those skills that I learn … here to make my goal and vision happen.”

Self-defeating Patterns of Behavior

Have you ever noticed how ‘other people’ (not you of course) do things and say things that quite obviously makes things worse for themselves instead of better. They appear to have a genuine lack of awareness that these behaviors are counter-productive and self-defeating.

The short clip below involving a dog protecting his bone is a perfect representation of the blindness of self-defeating behavior and the self-inflicted pain it can cause. Like the dog protecting its bone, our children are protecting themselves in ways that without any understanding to others looking on appears to be counter-productive and self-harming.

In our work with youth we understand that behavior has meaning and purpose and is needs based. We view their sometimes outrageous behaviors as their best attempt to meet one of the basic needs for safety, belonging, achievement, power, purpose or adventure. With this understanding in mind, we incorporate therapeutic interventions so that the youth in our care gain insight into their self-defeating patterns of behavior and think about and incorporate healthy ways to express their emotions to get their needs met. Some of the interventions we utilize at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch include Life Space Crisis Intervention and The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.

Crazy dog bites its own leg!.mp4

A Good Read – The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

boybook-iconDr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy and Maia Szalavitz, an award-winning health and science journalist are the authors of this pivotal work about trauma and the developing brain. The book is collection of stories of some of many the children and families Dr. Perry has worked with during the span of his career as a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist.

Why we love this book:

1. Each chapter is a distinct case history and is written in an engaging narrative format.
2. The stories explore many crucial concepts related to neurodevelopment including the stress response system (freeze, fight, or flight), associations and attachment.
3. With each case study, Dr. Perry breaks down complex concepts into small, understandable pieces making this book a great learning and teaching tool.

Why You Should Read This Book:

Statistics clearly illustrate if you work with children you will likely encounter more than a few that have been exposed to trauma, violence, chaos and neglect. The Boy That Was Raised as a Dog illustrates how the different types of trauma effect emotions, behavior and a child’s ability to learn, and create and maintain relationships.

Throughout the text Dr. Perry offers clear explanations regarding how adults may help troubled children by developing an understanding of the children’s histories and through the creation of relationships with them.

This short read is a great place to begin building a knowledge base about the brain and an excellent starting point for guiding your work with children and families from hard places.

The Brain and Sleep

  • When the brain is asleep the brain is not resting. (Medina)
  • Sleep is one of the most important ways we integrate memory and emotion.  Dreams occur when the sophisticated area of our brain is uninhibited enough to allow the lower areas of the brain to run wild with imagination and feelings. (Siegel)
  • Dreams are a mixture of memories in search of resolution.  They are leftover elements of the day’s events, sensory information taken in while we’re asleep, and simple random images generated by our brain during the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stages of sleep.  (Siegel)
  • Before memories can be fully integrated they must go through a process called “consolidation,” which seems to depend on the REM phase of sleep. (Siegel)
  • For people who have experienced trauma, REM sleep is often interrupted. This may be partly responsible for their memories remaining unprocessed. (Siegel)
  • These unprocessed memories may cause sensations such as flashbacks, nightmares and a sense that the trauma is ongoing rather than in the past. (Siegel)

Taken from Brain Rules by John Medina & Mindsight by Daniel Siegel

Eric Whitacre – Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 2.0, 'Sleep'