Big Ideas, Rationale and Methods

This page is organized around some of the ideas that are most central to OPT's efforts, and to psychoeducation in general. We take no personal credit for these ideas; some of them date back, possibly, to humanity's earliest years! For more details on certain of the ideas, and for some relevant citations, see the Research page.

On "The Mission"


Idea: Strengthening mental health should be a priority for us all.

As the WHO definition of mental health implies, mental health is not just an absence of disorder or dysfunction. It is a positive thing, and it can be made even more positive! Therefore mental health is relevant for all of us, whether or not we have a "mental health problem" per se at any given moment.

The types of positive functioning that the WHO definition highlights - recognizing potential, handling stress, making contributions to society - are such important things. Who among us cannot afford get better at this stuff?

What is mental health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community" (WHO, 2014). 

The emphasis, in other words, is placed on positive functioning: a person's ability to create happiness for him or herself and to create happiness for others. 

On an individual level, strengthening mental health can help people flourish in school or work. It can help people form and maintain positive relationships. It can help people resolve conflicts calmly and nonviolently. It can help people make good decisions - the sorts of decisions that will let them take care of themselves and take care of others. It can help people make the most of the talents they have and the knowledge they've acquired. It can help people enjoy the successes they have, the people they know, the world they live in. It can help people be resilient in the face of adversity. 

Of course, even that individual level is fundamentally interpersonal. On a grander, more global scale, the mental health and positive functioning of communities can prevent wars, promote innovation, interrupt environmental degradation, etc. In a sense, all efforts to make the world a better place come down to matters of mental health and human functioning. Because really, what problem out there - poverty, disease, destruction and violence - does not involve human fault in some way? And by the same token, what problem cannot be tackled when humans function together well, better, and then even better still?

It's likely that psychoeducation won't save the world. But until our society can find a way to more systematically equip its individuals and its communities with the skills - all of the skills - that will let them function at their very best, humanity has little hope of saving anything! 

Idea: Mental health depends on certain skills.

How do we work for positive and more positive functioning? Whatever piece of positive functioning we choose to focus on, there are skills that enable it. Handling stress, for example, is made possible by organization skills; fortitude and frustration tolerance skills; work capacity and concentration-related skills; anxiety reduction skills; decision-making skills; and joyousness, enjoyment of accomplishment, and self-reinforcement skills, among others. Building positive relationships is made possible by kindness and empathy skills, friendship-building and social skills, fortitude and frustration tolerance skills, joint decision-making and conflict resolution skills, loyalty skills, and courage and independent thinking skills, among others. And these skills are themselves made up of component skills; joint decision-making skill, for example, involves skills like toleration, or non-bossiness; rational approach to joint decisions; option-generating; option-evaluating; assertion; submission, or conciliation; and differential reinforcement.

We at OPT focus on 16 major skill categories (productivity, joyousness, kindness, honesty, fortitude, good decision, nonviolence, respectful talk, friendship-building, self-discipline, loyalty, conservation, self-care, compliance, positive fantasy rehearsal, and courage), as well as a full list of 62 component skills.

Idea: The skills that make up mental health – and therefore mental health itself – can be strengthened by normal educational methods.

What are these methods? They include

  • instruction: reading or otherwise receiving information about the skills - what they are, why they're important, how to use them, etc.;
  • modeling: being exposed to many different models of the skills and their use;
  • practice: using the skills more directly, and in a variety of ways;
  • and feedback: getting reinforcement in practice, or getting suggestions for better practice.

For example: Those who are learning decision-making skills can read about the science of decision-making. They can listen to model conflict resolution conversations, and they can read about model decisions made well. They can practice generating options for various situations, and they can compare their options to those on an authoritative list (or to those a mentor comes up with, perhaps). 

Idea: Academic skills are also critical to mental health. 

Particularly for students, any inability to keep up with certain academic skill sets - most notably, reading and math - can easily give way to suffering. For some, academic struggles will bring about disruptive behaviors or aggression; for others, they'll bring about anxiety and sadness; for many, they'll impair social relationships and make life in general less pleasant. Psychological skills - fortitude and nonviolence, confidence and joyousness, friendship-building and self-discipline and beyond - depend enormously on academic skills.

Of course, the dependence goes two ways; academic skills also depend heavily on psychological skills. Without organization skills, without work capacity, without self-discipline, without self-reinforcement and general enjoyment of things, without the ability to receive help and to be kind and appreciative to those offering help - without psychological skill, academic skills will be much harder to come by.

And again, we need not think only in terms of skill deficiencies here - academic skills also lend themselves well to the "positive, and more positive still" vision of functioning. Getting good at skills like reading and math can only help, and getting even better can help even more.

So though we might think of these as two separate skill sets, the psychological and the academic, the truth is that one cannot exist without the other. And working to nurture one can only be aided by work that successfully nurtures the other!

On "The Methods"

Are joyousness and courage really skills?

So often, we are led to see "cheerfulness" and "bravery" as immutable character traits, which we all just have to some degree (with a lucky few having more than others). Still, there is a huge amount of evidence that people can become more cheerful and more brave with practice and learning (for example: it is very well-established that people can become less depressed and less anxious with behavioral changes!). And getting better at skills of joyousness and courage is not just a simple matter of maximizing one's cheer or maximizing one's bravery - there is such a thing, of course, as inappropriate joyousness (for example, mania or enjoyment of the wrong things) or excessive courage (for example, needless risk-taking). 

We see the skill of joyousness in terms of these component skills: enjoying aloneness, pleasure from approval, pleasure from one's own kindness, pleasure from discovery, pleasure from others’ kindness, pleasure from blessings, pleasure from affection, favorable attractions, gleefulness, and humor. 

And we see the skill of courage in terms of: estimating danger, overcoming fear of non-dangerous situations, and handling danger rationally; depending and knowing when to accept help; and independent thinking.

There is much that can be taught and learned about all of the above!

Idea: Successful skill-building takes time.

There is some common sense in this, perhaps. But lately various observers have popularized the notion that competence in a given skill takes not just time, but lots and lots of it; as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers, for example, "Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours." And even less than total expertise takes considerable time; in a survey, some musicians estimated that it would take one thousand hours to learn to play the violin passably decently, and that it would take 50 hours to learn to play the harmonica (see the Research page).

If we've decided we want to teach anger control and conflict resolution, or join decision-making, or fortitude and frustration tolerance, or self-discipline - how many hours do these skill sets deserve? More or less than harmonica-playing? (Unfortunately, the answer in practice is often "less"; see the Research page for more on this.)

True commitment to this sort of skill-building demands that we find ways to devote hours to it; the more, the better.

Idea: Skills are best built in the context of a positive relationship. 

One-on-one teaching offers many benefits. Very importantly, a one-on-one context enables individualized instruction, modeling, practice and feedback, which makes working at the student's individual challenge zone (or the area where tasks are not too hard, not too easy, but just right) possible. It also limits distractions.

But if one-on-one can also mean a strong, cooperative, and positive interpersonal bond, even better. The trust, commitment, fun, and motivation that come from such a bond can only aid skill-building! 

Idea: Skill-building material can be written for even young students' direct consumption.

So often, skill learning depends on the quality or the knowledge of the teacher. In the traditional teacher-student model, the teacher has a certain expertise, which they work to transfer to the student. But if we're working for ease of dissemination or systematization, if we're working for efficiency, such a model is not ideal. There may not be enough experts available! 

We've chosen to act upon the successes of the self-help movement. Our skill-building materials are written for the student directly, accommodating even the youngest students. Students take in the materials' teachings by reading them themselves, no expert necessary. 

Of course, as we've said, we also recognize the huge benefits of the interpersonal dimension to cooperative work, whether it involves a teacher or a tutor or a mentor or a parent or a sibling. In our telephone tutoring model, tutors do fill a crucial role: they provide the social support, the reinforcement, and the interpersonal modeling and feedback that make the student's work possible (and much more fun!). But notably: tutors of this sort can be non-professional and non-expert. (They make no claims of expertise in terms of curriculum content, but they are selected and trained to be great facilitators!)


Alternate Reading

Our curricular books and manuals are written for the student's direct consumption, but with cooperative work in mind. What does this look like in practice? 

The books are "programmed," meaning that they're written with short sections of text, each accompanied by a straightforward comprehension question. Tutor and student carry out "alternate reading" - they take turns reading sections out loud, and the student answers the questions, while the tutor provides feedback and reinforcement.

This way, the tutor and student are able to read the books together over the phone. The student takes in a lot of curricular teachings, while also getting great practice at reading fluency and comprehension. 

Idea: Skills with real-world relevance can be strengthened through fantasy rehearsal. 

Athletes, musicians, and other performers use this strategy all the time. Some call it mental rehearsal, but the method is the same: going over patterns of behavior in one's mind, to prepare for use in real life. 

With this strategy, we can strengthen psychological skills for future use. We can work with hypothetical situations (e.g., someone spills grape juice all over the homework you spent hours on), and we can practice patterns of response to those situations (e.g., we can list options for how to handle the spill, then we can consider pros and cons of those options, etc.). The idea is that with enough practice of this sort, students will be much better prepared for tricky situations as they come up (e.g., when - surprise! - a similar sort of frustration takes place). To use an analogy, if psychological skills are muscles, then this kind of mentally rehearsed practice is a push-up or pull-up, designed to build overall strength, which can be called upon as needed.

We carry out this sort of practice through psychological skills exercises; there are at least sixty-two types of exercises in our curriculum. Tutors and students add to their exercise repertoires gradually, working for mastery of each new exercise (something than often takes tens, even hundreds, of iterations of the exercise). 

Idea: Social conversation is both a key psychological skill and a key source of skill-building opportunities. 

Social conversation represents a serious piece of almost every one of our telephone tutoring sessions. Part of the purpose of this is to promote tutor-student bonding (so that that positive relationship can best facilitate skill-building, as we've said!). Part is to give students direct practice of social conversation skills (including greeting and parting rituals, listening skills, appropriate self-disclosure, etc.). And part is to give tutors the chance to carry out key modeling and reinforcement, which can help build any number of psychological skills (from friendship-building skills to kindness skills to fortitude skills, etc.). 

Thus from our perspective, social conversation is not a distraction from work. Done right, it can be just as goal-oriented as any work task! 

Some Example Psychological Skills Exercises

The Divergent Thinking Exercise. Tutor and student take turns generating a bunch of different ideas in response to a prompt (e.g., "A person is surprised. Why?"). 

The Reflections Exercise. Tutor and student take turns as "speaker" and "listener," where the speaker talks, pausing periodically, and the listener gives "reflections" in the speaker's pauses (repeating back what they've understood the speaker to be saying). 

Brainstorming Options. Tutor and student generate options in response to a hypothetical provocation. 

The Twelve Thought Exercise. Tutor and student takes turns generating the twelve thoughts (e.g., "not awfulizing," "goal-setting," "learning from the experience," etc.) in response to a hypothetical provocation. 

STEBC Fantasy Rehearsals. Tutor and student carry out fantasy rehearsals, describing a Situation (S) and the Thoughts (T), Emotions (E), and Behaviors (B) involved in handling that situation, then Celebrating (C) how the situation was handled. 

The Joint Decision Role Play. Tutor and student carry out the steps of a conflict resolution conversation for a hypothetical conflict (Dr. LW Aap: Defining the problem, Reflecting, Listing options, Waiting, listing Advantages and disadvantages of the options, Agreeing, and using Politeness the whole time). 

Goal Setting and Goal Monitoring. Tutor and student practice setting goals and monitoring progress towards them. 

The Three Parts of the Typical OPT Tutoring Session

  1. Social Conversation
  2. Alternate Reading
  3. Psychological Skills Exercises