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).
Somewhat similarly, OPT is organized around two big goals: that a person can figure out how to be happy, to enjoy life as much as possible, given the circumstances one is in, and that the person can help other people to be happy. The happiness we are talking about is the lasting sort, that comes, for example from meaningful work or good relationships, as contrasted to, for example, the pleasure from some junk food. The two big goals can be expressed as kindness to self and kindness to others; self-care and caring for others; loving one's neighbor as oneself.
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.
On a societal scale, the mental health and positive functioning of communities can prevent wars, promote innovation, interrupt environmental degradation -- can create better places in which to live. A world in which human beings both want to and are able to help themselves while helping others is a wonderful world to imagine.
Improving our abilities to enjoy life and help others enjoy theirs is not just a job for people who have a diagnosis and go for treatment. Such improvement deserves to be on the to do list for all.
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.
OPT focuses 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.
Particularly for students, any inability to keep up with certain academic skill sets - most notably, reading, writing, and math - can produce 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 - are greatly influenced by academic skills.
The influence 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.
So though we might think of these as two separate skill sets, the psychological and the academic, the truth is that proficiency in each helps in attaining proficiency in the other.
Some people resist the idea that traits like joyousness and courage are "skills." We define a skill as something that one can do with varying degrees of proficiency -- proficiency that can be increased by learning (for example, instruction, modeling, practice, and reinforcement). There is a huge amount of evidence that working at traits like these can improve them.
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 a list, to see how they did, and celebrate their successful generation of ideas.
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.
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".)
True commitment to this sort of skill-building demands that we find ways to devote hours to it; the more, the better.
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!
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!)
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.
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).
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!
Here are some examples of 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?"). This builds the skill of generating multiple ideas. It's a predecessor to generating options for a choice point, or generating pros and cons for an option -- it exercises a skill crucial to decision making.
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). This builds concentration ability, empathy, and social conversation skill.
Brainstorming Options. Tutor and student generate options in response to a hypothetical provocation. Research has found that people who can generate more options tend to do better in life.
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. This exercise builds the ability to choose one's self-talk according to what works best, rather than being stuck in habits that may not be useful.
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. This allows fantasy rehearsal of useful and good patterns of responding to situations.
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). This builds skill in rational dialogue for making joint decisions and resolving conflicts.
Goal Setting and Goal Monitoring. Tutor and student practice setting goals and monitoring progress towards them. This focuses the student's mind on what the desired accomplishments are.