Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders
Successful Living is Healing: Cleveland's Positive Education Program
Positive Education Program (PEP) in Cleveland, Ohio, was established in 1971 to provide special education and mental health services to students with severe emotional and/or behavioral challenges. Today, PEP annually serves more than 3,000 children, birth through 21 years of age, and their families through an array of services. PEP’s model of service delivery is effective. For all four years to date where Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale measures were administered to all PEP Day Treatment Center students, scores showed statistically significant improvements from entry to most recent testing at a high level of confidence.
Articles discussing program effectiveness usually address classroom structure and behavior management techniques, both of which are critical components of PEP programs. The purpose of this article, however, is to highlight elements that are not typically discussed, but are essential to building success in students: beliefs, people, and a strength-based approach. Given the complexities of the topic, this article can only provide a brief overview highlighting some of the salient points on each.
Beliefs are the way we think about our colleagues, kids, and families, and beliefs determine how we will behave toward them. PEP is grounded in the Re-ED (Re-education of Emotionally Disturbed Children) philosophy developed by Dr. Nicholas Hobbs in the early 1960s and refined continually since. Re-ED is ecologically based. Re-EDer’s believe that a child experiencing problems within their home, school, or community is seen to have an imbalance in their ecology or ecosystem. The ecological approach requires that professionals partner with the child, family, and other significant people to build on and fortify strengths and employ solutions to problems in order to restore the ecology to a “tolerable level of discord.” PEP is committed to and is guided by the 12 Re-ED principles (Hobbs, 1982, 1994), which can be categorized under three basic belief statements (Cantrell, Cantrell, Valore, Jones, & Fecser, 1999, p. 9):
- We are emotional beings who need each other.TRUST is essential….FEELINGS should be nurtured….GROUPS are a major source of instruction….COMMUNITIES’ benefits must be experienced….
- Growth can be enhanced.INTELLIGENCE can be taught….COMPETENCE makes a difference….SELF-CONTROL can be learned….PHYSICAL experiences help us define ourselves….
- Today can be used to build health.NOW is when life is to be lived….TIME is an ally when used to make positive changes….CEREMONY gives stability….JOY should be built into each day….
The Re-ED principles are taught and disseminated to staff, students, and families, as well as shared with agencies with whom PEP collaborates. The principles provide guidance, and fuel the compassion and passion of staff to help children and families improve their lives.
People are our most important and valuable resource. Troubled and troubling children can benefit from decent and trustworthy adults in their lives to help them grow and learn. In Re-ED, this person is the teacher-counselor, a title so valued by Re-EDer’s that it is respectful for staff to recognize each other with that title regardless of their formal position (a Re-ED aphorism quoted frequently is “We are all teacher-counselors”). Hobbs wrote extensively about the teacher-counselor. He believed that professional training was important, but also speculated that there were natural qualities certain individuals possessed, based on subtle learning that occurred early in life. This subtle learning manifests itself in the presence of kids. This adult appears to have a natural affinity toward kids, who respond in kind. Although this natural connection is an important ingredient for working with kids, skill development is necessary for prevention or action when problems arise. Hobbs summarized the role:
But most of all, a teacher-counselor is a decent adult; educated, well trained; able to give and receive affection, to live relaxed, and to be firm; a person with private resources for the nourishment and refreshment of his own life; not an itinerant worker but a professional through and through; a person with a sense of the significance of time, of the usefulness of today and the promise of tomorrow; a person of hope, quiet confidence, and joy; one who has committed himself to children and to the proposition that children who are disturbed can be helped by the process of reeducation. (1966, p.1106)
In Re-ED, interdisciplinary teamwork is paramount. Parents and professional consultants empower and support the teacher-counselor by sharing their knowledge and expertise about a child through collaborating in formal treatment staffings, IEP planning and evaluation meetings, and other means of communication.
Attention to strengths builds success. Although building successful therapeutic relationships is a staff goal for all members of the child’s ecology, it is critical with the student. PEP staff carefully cultivate trusting and caring relationships with students. The Re-ED principle, “Trust is essential,” resonates with the four components necessary for success that are identified in the resiliency literature (Seita, Mitchell, & Tobin, 1996). Staff work hard to build a shared and caring relationship (connectedness), and help students know that staff will be there every step of the way (continuity). Staff also ensure that students feel very respected (dignity) and provide them with multiple successful experiences (opportunity).
Often considered our most powerful behavior support strategy, academic programming is significant in building success in students. PEP staff do not wait for the student’s behavior to improve so they can teach, they teach so that the student’s behavior improves. Accurate assessment and goal setting, precise planning, active instruction, purposeful engagement, and continuous evaluation can almost guarantee student success and increase their motivation to further engage in the learning process. Hobbs believed that school is the “business of children,” and that we need to engineer their success.
Group work in Re-ED programs has been a foundation of intervention since 1962 when the first two Re-ED schools opened their doors. Hobbs placed strong emphasis on the power of the group “in helping each member of the group grow in competence, confidence, self-esteem, and ability to meet the demands of living in home, school, and community” (1982, p. 332). At PEP, classrooms function as a unit throughout the day, meeting, playing, eating, and learning together. To develop a positive cohesive group culture, the teacher-counselor is keenly aware of group process and uses 12 cohesion-building strategies (Valore, 1992) to cultivate those processes throughout the day. The use of group meetings is probably the most powerful of these strategies. During meetings students remind each other of their goals, share successes, discuss existing challenges, and explore solutions, including how each member can help one another. Once this culture is established, it becomes an ongoing force that continually helps to guide and maintain the group’s therapeutic culture. It is this cohesive, positive, and healthy culture that influences group members to change their behavior and interactions in their ecologies.
Implementing these important elements will have a powerful effect on the student and his or her ecology. Hobbs challenges us to create a healthy and successful helping ecology:
The constant challenge is to design a daily program so engaging, so varied and new yet orderly and stable…so meshed with the growth of the child’s mind, so rich in human interchange…so joyous, so aware… that the [troubled] child finds himself immediately committed to a new way of living at once more satisfying to himself and more satisfactory to the people in his life. (1982, pp. 88-89)
Cantrell, M. L., Cantrell, R. P., Valore, T. G., Jones, J. M., & Fecseer, F. A. (1999). A revisitation of the ecological perspectives on emotional/behavioral disorders. In L. M. Bullock & R. A. Gable (Eds.), The third mini-library series: What works for children and youth with E/BD: Linking yesterday and today with tomorrow. Reston, VA: Council for Children With Behavioral Disorders.
Hobbs, N. (1982). The troubled and troubling child: Re-Education in mental health, education and human services programs for children and youth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hobbs, N. (1994). The troubled and troubling child: Re-Education in mental health, education and human services programs for children and youth. Cleveland, OH: American Re-ED Association.
Hobbs, N. (1996). Helping disturbed children: Psychological and ecological strategies. American Psychologist, 21, 1105–1115.
Seita, J., Mitchell, M., & Tobin, C. (1996). In whose best interest? Elizabethtown, PA: Continental Press.
Valore, T.G. (1992). Group process in Re-ED. Unpublished manuscript, Cleveland, OH: Positive Education Program.