What is OPT?
OPT is the Organization for Psychoeducational Tutoring, Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to use psychoeducation (the teaching of psychological skills) to increase people's abilities to be happy and to help others to be happy. We consider academic skills such as reading and math to be a special case of skills that promote happiness, and we teach them. But we also teach the sorts of skills that people often learn through psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavior therapy. These skills include friendship-building, anger control, conflict-resolution, self-discipline, anxiety-reduction, kindness, decision-making, and others. These skills are the same ones that are crucial for character education or social and emotional learning.
OPT is not a “clinical” organization; its tutors or preceptors are not therapists or counselors. We use educational methods, including written curricula and standard practice exercises. The tutors are trained non-professionals, who are usually in college, and who learn along with their students. The students are children, often aged about 6 to 10, who can use improvement in psychological and/or academic skills. The tutoring sessions are all carried out in half-hour phone sessions.
What is a session like?
Sessions are one-to-one between tutor and student. A typical session involves three or four parts. The first is “alternate reading” from textbooks or manuals we have created that give models and instructions on psychological skills. The tutor and student take turns reading sections of these manuals to each other, aloud, and the student answers a comprehension question after each section. The second part is doing “psychological skills exercises.” Psychological skills exercises allow students and tutors to practice useful patterns of thought, emotion, or behavior, often with imaginary situations. For example, in the “brainstorming options” exercise, the tutor and student take turns generating options for what one could do in a certain problem situation. In the “skills stories” exercise, tutor and student take turns making up stories that are examples of the psychological skills on our master list. The third activity is unstructured chatting between tutor and student, not to solve any problem, but just to enjoy social conversation, since this is a very important psychological skill in itself. For those children who can benefit from systematic instruction in reading, the fourth activity is to follow a detailed and systematic reading curriculum that we have developed and tested. From the beginning of the reading curriculum, the stories that the student reads are meant to model positive psychological skills.
The sessions between tutor and student are carried out by telephone. At the end of each session, they confirm an appointment for the next session.
Time on task
We like for sessions to take place 6 times a week, for thirty minutes each, throughout the entire year. Tutoring usually lasts for at least a year, and sometimes for several years.
One of the reasons that OPT exists, and that it delivers sessions by phone, is to achieve lots of time on task in learning psychological skills.
How long does it take to learn skills such as mathematics or playing a musical instrument? At least hundreds of hours – people who become real experts put in thousands of hours. But research studies of psychotherapy for anxiety or depression or anger control often deliver services for only 15 to 30 hours. For many people, this just isn't long enough to master the skills necessary for psychological health. Educational studies have come to very unsurprising conclusions such as that students who spend more time on math make more progress at math. We believe it's the same way for psychological skills.
Why are sessions conducted by phone? So that if you're a parent, your children can participate daily without your having to transport them anywhere. So that you can be a tutor without having to live nearby or transport yourself to a workplace. So that if you are a donor, we don't spend your money on buying or renting office space.
Why not Skype? Because the student already has something to look at: a book. A screen with someone's face on it tends to be more of a distraction than an addition.
We encourage parents to take advantage of psychoeducational materials that we make available. Some of these are meant to help them to be more effective parents. We plan to regularly ask parents the extent to which they are using various positive parenting tactics. We also welcome parents' participating as much as they can in the psychoeducational mission with their children.
Where did the ideas in the curriculum come from?
The ideas came from a wide variety of thinkers and therapists and researchers. The manuals for our project were written primarily by Joseph Strayhorn, M.D., a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. He has benefited from the collaboration and advice of his daughter Jillian Strayhorn, who has been a psychoeducational tutor for 15 years, and who has served as executive director of OPT from its founding until mid 2017. He has also benefited from collaboration with his daughter Emily Strayhorn, who has been a psychoeducational tutor for 12 years. Dr. Strayhorn gleaned ideas from studying psychotherapy and psychoeducation and working continually to help people learn psychological skills, in a career that has so far spanned over 40 years.
Dr. Strayhorn was educated at Amherst, Northwestern, Duke, and the University of Pittsburgh. Jillian Strayhorn is a graduate of Cornell and is pursuing graduate studies in prevention science at Penn State University.
We are studying how good the results are for this new service delivery method. We would like for all students and their families to allow us to use the data we collect, to study our results. This research involves simply keeping track of, and analyzing, what happens, and involves no random assignment, no placebos, and no deception. Questionnaires and tests and other measures help us in decision-making while conducting the tutoring, as well as generating research data.
We pay tutors $15 an hour for the tutoring sessions. We charge families $200 per month, if they can afford it, which barely covers the tutor's wage. The remaining costs, for hiring, supervision, training, payroll, textbooks, insurance, and this website, so far have been covered mainly by donations.
Because we are a charitable organization, we have delivered services on many occasions to families who can not afford to pay the full fee, or who can not afford to pay anything at all. We will continue to do this as long as funds are available.
We visualize a world in which it has become routine for people from all walks of life – not just mental health professionals and their clients – to spend time teaching and learning psychological skills with each other. We foresee that it may be possible, through a massive investment of effort and energy into this enterprise, and probably not without it, to overcome age-old societal problems including violence, cruelty, war and the threat of war, poverty, and the pervasiveness of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
If you are interested
There is a wealth of additional information on our methods on the other pages of this website.
If you are interested in becoming a tutor, you may contact Joseph Strayhorn at 607-319-0880 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. There are several advantages of becoming a tutor. A couple of these are being able to help someone, and learning a lot about what we think is by far the most important subject. There's one major disadvantage of becoming a tutor: having to “wear the ball and chain” by keeping regular phone appointments almost every day, for a long time: at least a year, despite exams, vacations, stress in your own life, and so forth. At any given time, we may or may not have openings for tutors but you are welcome to contact us at any time.
If you are a parent and you are interested in your child's becoming a student, you may contact Dr. Strayhorn at the same phone number or email address: email@example.com, or 607-319-0880. There are many benefits to a child's receiving tutoring. One is that your child spends many hours studying and practicing crucial mental health skills that could be life-changing. Another is that your child spends many hours reading aloud, which improves not only reading ability, but also speaking ability. A third is that your child has a positive relationship with a caring person. The major reason to think twice is that like the tutor, your family also takes on a major commitment to hold the sessions regularly and to keep appointments, despite homework, extracurricular activities, being tired from school, and so forth. At any given time we may or may not have slots open, especially for no-cost scholarships, but you are welcome to contact us at any time.
If you would like to donate anything to this organization, we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and donations are (according to our understanding of tax laws) tax deductible. One advantage of donating is that you would be contributing to a cause, i.e. psychoeducation, that arguably will be a crucial and central ingredient in improving the human condition. A second advantage is that we are a very lean and low-overhead organization. A third advantage is that you would not be put on a list to be pestered for further donations. Contact us as above, or by mail at 205 Willard Way, Ithaca NY 14850.
Contact: Joseph Strayhorn, M.D.