Abstract The development of adolescents with severe behavioural problems receiving residential treatment in Holland was empirically studied during 1 year. Treatment methods included a standard program comprising behavioural modification and three specific treatment programs: psychodynamic treatment, structured community living and adventurous learning. The development of the youngsters who remained in the programs ( N = 78 ) was compared with the development of the youngsters who prematurely dropped out ( N = 20 ). All programs had positive developmental outcomes, adventurous learning and structured community living yielded the most behavioural improvement and the standard program the least, and psychodynamic treatment lay in between. Despite the positive developmental outcomes, for many of the youngsters prolongation of the treatment was still needed after 1 year. Requirements for outcome research in residential care are discussed.