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ESE504 : The Class : PEPSI : Optimizing Growth

Optimizing Growth

Using the PEPSI to Build Students

The Mirror Image of Children at Risk

PEPSI developed by J'Anne Ellsworth

Moving the emphasis from student problems to student strengths changes the base of empowerment. This change can be facilitated by providing an expanded knowledge base about human nature. Principles include the dynamics of power and control, recognizing the developmental nature of autonomy and heteronomy, personality as a pre-wired set of heritable characteristics and social referents as a communication tool. Effective empowerment of youngsters can lead to the development of a peaceful and highly productive learning community.


love is a place

& through this place of love


(skillfully curled)

all places

yes is a world

& in this world of yes


(with brightness of peace)

all worlds

e. e. cummings


Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan playing chess
One of the most poignant parts of the Helen Keller story was the introduction of a teacher, Anne Sullivan, who cared about Helen, and who would not allow Helen to be less than her potential. Sullivan provided relationship, love, opened the door to "yes". When she first came to teach Helen she found a child who was unruly, wild, and unable to speak. Anne Sullivan created a way to make contact with Helen through the sense of touch. She worked out an alphabet and during the next three years developed ways to connect objects with words, then found someone to develop a Braille typewriter. Eventually she went to Radcliffe with Helen and worked as an interpreter and secretary, assisting Helen until she graduated with honors in 1904.

Anne Sullivan had to define the purpose of education according to Helen's needs and expand and change the paradigm of education or fail in the effort to teach her. She went against the conventional wisdom of the day, refused, perhaps out of ignorance, to see her pupil as unteachable, or to allow the child's uniqueness, her heart, Helen's gift to humanity, to be wasted simply because there was no precedent for teaching the deaf and blind.

Helen Keller, Albert Einstein,Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison are historic figures who held promise that was realized and remembered beyond their lifetimes. Each was resilient and individualistic and special. Each was considered at risk. . . yet each had personal champions who believed in the greatness of personhood. Each was provided assistance, en route, empowering the person to be true to self. Each had a protagonist or mentors who believed in the hero or heroine and counterbalanced setbacks. Someone was there to provide energy for realization of unique gifts to society and facilitate achievement of personal greatness through an unflagging dream. A society that perceives children as being “at risk” rather than “in process” is in jeopardy of missing the promise of talented and gifted youth. Many children of great potential do not match social norms or expectations (Coloroso 1994). It has been an historic model to misunderstand and vilify those who are idiosyncratic during their lifetimes, and then in absentia, immortalize them as myths or martyrs if their work succeeds.

Moving the emphasis from student problems to student strengths changes the base of empowerment. This change can be facilitated by providing an expanded knowledge base about human nature. Principles include the dynamics of power and control, recognizing the developmental nature of autonomy and heteronomy, personality as a pre-wired set of heritable characteristics and social referents as a communication tool. Effective empowerment of youngsters can lead to the development of a peaceful and highly productive learning community.

It is crucial to revisit the forces that contribute to greatness and rethink how eminence manifests itself in youth and how it may be expressed in the process of family or therapeutic setting rather than in memoriam. We have a need to enhance insight and broaden our vision of greatness in embryo. We also have a responsibility to student and society to channel energy that reveals itself in a youngster who we believe shows the markers of being at risk. We cannot afford to misperceive valuable characteristics of personality or the sterling quality of emerging and developing will because of vaguely disquieting behavior (Glasser 1989). With our current emphasis, we are missing the promise of greatness as well as the signals of trouble from Charles Mansen, John Wayne Gacey and Jeffrey Dahmer. (How often does the media seek out an educator from a troubled adult’s past only to have the teacher review the student as a figure surrounded by shadow instead of substance and personality?) We want to be vigilant in recognizing the signals of children who are troubled, those who show signs of hurting themselves or others.

Many times, however, unusual patterns of actions and behaviors, “outlier” behaviors, could be seen as interesting, thought provoking and intriguing rather than disquieting or alarming (Kohn 1990). Instead of only assigning a negative valence to the behaviors we now use to define a youngster as being at-risk, we might look to see how they presage strengths. Seeing potential and hope in uncommon behaviors (Elias & Clabby 1992) may allow us to view a youth’s persistence in maintaining responses and behaviors as more than stubbornness and discrete from dysfunction.

School as one example The school setting is being used to provide examples, since virtually all readers have been involved in education. The concepts and techniques of moving the emphasis from student problems to student strengths have been successfully applied in school settings, and appear to translate well to other social settings. In most American social environments there is emphasis on competition, that is, a few who are masters, purveyors and enfranchisers of the desirable (winners, leaders, “A” students, with many who do not share in the power or glean the greater benefits by way of membership (followers, also ran. Bottom 75%). Typically , the power structure consists of a leader and followers rather than a journey of togetherness. This is not an effective environment for at-risk youngsters (Johnson and Johnson, 1994). It may not be efficient for the majority of youngsters, since it provides limited experience in becoming self empowered thinkers. The emphasis is commonly on compliance and conformity rather than creativity and individuality. One fifth of our youngsters are not completing high school (Anderson, 1985), and of those who go on to college, approximately one half do not complete that course of study (Bowman 1986).

We do not know how much greatness we are missing through current practices, but we know that this represents a significant number of youth at risk. Changing the educational setting to assist youth who we see as ‘at risk’ may have positive impact on all youth in the educational setting. Beliefs about the purpose of education influence the structure we develop and work to keep in place. If children as subjects to be managed, then youth who resist rules and guidelines are seen as a threat. If a child refuses to be managed, the next option that is frequently invoked is removal from the social situation (Canter, 1984). Many classrooms have wall-sized banners declaring “I have a right to teach.”

This injunction endows the teacher with the right to remove children from the classroom - to the hall, the office, special education rooms, or school suspension or expulsion. If the youth attempts to manipulation the new environment, to achieve personal ‘needs’, teachers may view it as personal infringement, perhaps as cheeky, disrespectful, a threat to stability. The youth who is being taught to be true to self and who has the freedom to do so is the person who more clearly has the potential to continue a life of education and contribute life to society. (Montouri, & Conti 1993).

Integrating individual needs with group needs, the inculcation of knowledge with the personal sense of fulfillment, the need for contemplative reflection with earnest and purposive interaction in search of answers provides the cooperative integration balanced with the competitive nature of personal “a-ha” Gaining strengths from the at-risk At-risk children bring an array of attributes which can be turned to advantage. Many of the youngsters hear the pattern of self strongly (Ornstein 1993). Many have the ability to stay in an autocratic system and remain aloof and centered on a different perceptual reality. Many have a strength of will that is unshakable. In the face of adversity, they can cling with incredible strength and determination to an inner voice of resolve. Many are resilient, having braved incredible personal assaults, yet continue to hold to a kernel of unshakable faith in self, a hope for a bright future, a will to live and contribute. In these young people who still hold hope, we can find unique and creative coping mechanisms, survival skills, strength of will and indomitable character.

Unfortunately, these wonderful personal gifts and social tools are often lost in the few aberrant patterns of self preservation that are most apparent to observers. As Frances Thompson (1961) wrote, “ ... none but I makes much of naught” (He said), and human love needs human meriting: How hast thou merited -- Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot. “ If we could view those “at risk” youngsters with a different lens, cast a more kindly light on their likeness, eke out the hidden grace and courage, these strengths could be shared, and what a wealth of character we would bequeath to others in the learning community (Froyen 1993).

What are the first steps we might take to facilitate valuing the uniqueness and wonder of youngsters we currently see and treat as “at risk”?

How will we learn to look for the deeper reflection of goodness and value that which is currently being missed? These come to mind:

1) Look for and enumerate strengths in one another rather than weaknesses,

2) Ask each youth what gift he or she has to give, then listen with the ear of possibilities and facilitate the dreams, much as did Anne Sullivan,

3) Find ways to build community wherever children are gathered, focusing on cooperation and acceptance rather than on differences and inequity

4) Use that community focus as a springboard to facilitate every participant gaining insights about one another,

5) Help youthful peers view each other as referents possessing positive traits and the strength to make the hard choices,

6) Examine and adopt a different way of looking at human nature,

7) Listen to and encourage self observed strengths and accomplishments,

8) View failed attempts as proof of effort and the desire to succeed, as a step up on the ladder of success - “practice makes perfect.”

Using light as a metaphor, we might glimpse new possibilities and pleasures in one another if we were able to see children as points of light, much like on a Christmas tree. The strings of lights on a tree frequently combine to only four of five hundred watts of light, yet how endearing the sparkle of those myriad twinkles rather than one overhead fixture.

The material that follows provides one example of how we might shed a different quality of light upon human nature and thus begin rethinking the image of who and what is really “at-risk.”

Human Beings, Human Nature It is important to know what makes a person feel and behave in specific ways if we hope to work successfully and with stability. It is vital to be able to recognize patterns of behavior as well as motives for behavior, both common patterns and expected responses, idiosyncratic possibilities and behaviors which signal distress or dysfunction. By recognizing the human nature elements common to youngsters, to human beings, we may facilitate growth and development as a part of increasing educational expertise. The end result is not just a change in the social setting or the interactional style, but a permanent systemic change in the way adults, youngsters and society view community. What is the basic nature of people? What drives children? Two concepts keep asserting themselves through philosophy, religion, literature, the studies of man.

The phenomena of autonomy / heteronomy (Piaget 1965; Shapiro 1981) provide perspective. In the autonomy - heteronomy spiral the child is thrust repeatedly into a push for independence or autonomy. Not only does that struggle with autonomy apply to the child-parent relationship, but it is a broadening spiral and cycle. We have decried using instinct to explain human behavior, so, in its place we might say that there is a mysterious internal spring that keeps revolving, thrusting the person, child to elder, into the quest for self, for autonomy. Ever turning, the revolution then slowly counters with a need for acceptance and understanding outside the self.

Autonomy - - - heteronomy is the motor or drive shaft.

It is the revolutions of, or pressure from, self preservation, self fulfillment and the alternating press for approval from others, a sense of fruition, that comes only through feeling love and acceptance by and for others (Piaget, 1965).

These two intertwining dimensions of human nature are basic to understanding self and society and thus are important keys for any social context as well. They are dynamic sources of human energy. They are like two magnetic forces, alternately repelling and attracting, which make up the "motor" or driving force of each individual's humanity and the social fabric of a society. When the two forces are working in concert, a balanced personality and community is the result. This gives energy to the “flow” in the system and changes conflicts from a centralized force similar to a vortex that is sucking everyone into one swirling mass that bottoms out, to an ebb and flow that slowly transforms. When one force becomes an exclusive focus, there is a dysfunctional effect.

The behaviors on the autonomous side are those which are most self involved and are seen as invasive and harder to value in relationship or community. Although the behaviors on the heteronomous side are less disturbing in community, it is not in anyone’s best interest to give too much of self away, to lack a vision of self or fail in the attempt to protect the special gifts which are uniquely that person's.

Example: The behavior of a thirteen-year-old is ideal to illustrate autonomous behavior. The youngster recognizes self as person and has a tremendous drive to get personal needs and desires met. The drive is so strong that the child destructively propels self into poor choices and inappropriate behaviors despite the wishes or needs of those around. At every turn the child displays that autonomous perspective. Every request to the youth seems to generate an irrational internal “NO!” Sulking, passive aggressive responses and anger are markers that the young adolescent has feelings of being thwarted. The immediate response tends to be an internal dash to overcome restraint, not so unlike the response of the two-year-old. The ability to perceive the needs of others is unused and unimportant as the child presses for immediate gratification and control.

Parents of young adolescents often express frustration, depression, even hopelessness, as the child refuses to comply, to be friendly, to be appeased. This look at internal need for control - for autonomy, can also also provide perspective on why people "misbehave" and what some of the payoffs may be. Frequently the changing human element leads us to misinterpret who is in control and who has been listed as being in charge or claims to be in charge. Referent: The “self” further develops as a construction of the messages from significant others as they pass through and become the “neural net” of who we are, what we believe, what we attend to and how we label the biochemical (internal) sensations we receive as well as the spin we put on external happenings.

Powerful messages come from referents. The two-year-old gets nearly all relationship messages from parents. The seven-year-old receives messages from many sources, but attends most deeply to those from parents and teacher. The teacher messages are especially strong with respect to cognitive abilities. Referent sources might be defined as those people who are fully involved in the personal life journey, those who contribute to esteem for self and esteem of others. Individuals who are emotionally intact may have the best balance between the two counter forces, who we are to self and who we seem to be to others. In fact, esteem with respect to referents, may involve a three or four dimensional view of self; how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we believe they see us and how attuned we are to others’ ideas of who we are and how proficient we are at accurately valuing their opinions (Luft 1969).

In adolescence, parent and teacher messages are strong, but many youngsters heighten the volume and density of peer messages, and in effect tune others out. This allows parent and teacher messages to be discounted in favor of best friend or gang communications. In effect, the adolescent has many referent stations, but the peer stations have the million megawatt signaling strength. Under socialized youngsters, those who have not established a sense of trust in others, typically seem unable to develop relationships with people. Instead, they appear to move toward defining themselves with “things”. Obtaining money and wealth, regardless of using legal or illegal means, is used to shore up and define self worth. It gives a sense of power. Still others adolescents define self worth through a sense of might - physical, emotional or spiritual power over fellow beings. Some turn to costuming themselves, tattoos, nose rings, controversial music, movements, dance or daring. Some turn to stimulation - sex for sensation rather than relationship, mood altering substances, food, the adrenaline rush from speeding, daring, falling, fighting, killing.

If the teacher is not a referent, has failed to establish relationship with the student, or the student is not receptive to or is untrusting of teacher messages, then the messages are more likely to be viewed as controlling. Control messages are almost automatically countered by the student. The more students entrust us with their world view, the more powerful a referent we become and the more deeply valued are our communications. A teacher who becomes part of a student’s inner circle has great potential for enhancing learning, but simultaneously has responsibility to realize that a few words or actions can disenfranchise the student’s desire to learn, can anger, enrage or vilify. This is an essential awareness to entertain in this model permitting innermost feelings and tender emerging shoots of self inquiry.

Changing the Setting

A central focus on students suggests building a relationship with children and young adults that features training, then educating each to become a competent human being and capable citizen who eventually becomes a partner in the learning community (Mischel 1979). Controlling or managing the environment moves to a more secondary position. We act from the presumption that students have predisposed universal tendencies and states of being and we also assume that students have individual gifts, talents and tendencies that are unique and that each who shares in the community of learning will bring change, richness, texture and complexity. We recognize that this idea of management literally involves helping each student set up the optimal structure for self and, simultaneously, that each participant [teacher as well as students] learn to blend self desires with needs of the learning community (Johnson & Johnson 1994).

Skills for socialization and attention to individual and personal development become mutually valuable. The teacher attends to acquiring a deeper understanding of human personality and honing the ability to value idiosyncratic aspects of each student. Content is not neglected, but it becomes more complex. After all, learning is not a linear task, but rather an intricate and interwoven evolution of product and process, thinking and relating, sharing ideas and reframing concepts based on new perspectives. The following is a list of suggestions for interspersing healthy self and wholesome community into the learning environment, aiding all members without labeling some as troubled and without disrupting the flow of learning content.

1. Increase the structure in the setting and help members of the system practice appropriate behavior within that setting.

2. Model appropriate behaviors, providing means so members or self may make restitution for errors. Resist punishing self or allowing others to feel punished.

3. Become proactive in management techniques:

Teach the concept of members having self-control and being in charge of themselves, their bodies, their time, their work.

Base management on constructive and positive statements.

Recognize and honor those who are giving a good accounting of their time and energy -- and remember to include self.

Teach and then enforce members valuing one another -- "Do unto others as you wish others to do unto you."

Learn to ignore inappropriate behavior and refuse to spend time communicating dissatisfaction to errant members.

Focus on motivations for what appears to be inappropriate behavior and ask about the needs of the person and explanation for dysfunction rather than nagging at symptoms or labeling from discomfort.

Allow motivational practices and nurturance to become a major focal point of energy and time by honest communicating and valuing.

In order to have esteem in DOING, people must be able to DO. Therefore, more than ever before, concentrate on accelerating real accomplishment of important system and life skills.

Use multiple learning and communication style approaches so that each person has an opportunity to develop and use personal strengths.

Develop self understanding and recognition of how others perceive you.

View self as teacher / educational leader who uses rules and consequences in a shared governance and always as a means to facilitate learning.

Consistently verbalize, for members who break the rules, that what they are doing is not appropriate, but their being is safe and lovable.

Work on esteem needs for the self as well as working on the esteem needs of others. In giving self messages, be certain to follow the same general guidelines - - change behaviors, accept self; recognize the doing as inappropriate and make corrections, then let yourself get "off the hook".

Project self as a likable person, using referent power to gain love, respect.

4. Implement a working style that highlights each person as an important individual. Remember to include self.

5. Emphasize the importance of working at a task and coming to completion, and include the step of self appreciation for a job well done.

6. Provide ways for members to alert you or each other to tasks which feel too difficult, and work out ways to tackle tasks that capitalize on the energy and motivation that comes from success, avoiding the destructive feelings and lack of task commitment which come from abject failure.

7. Nourish members in understanding the excitement and buoyancy of energy that comes from a great challenges met and a "mountain"climbed.

8. Recognize that disruptive youth need more assistance and practice in acquiring socialization skills than those who have a knack for socialization and enjoy cooperative practices, so provide assists, modeling and time for acquisition.

Summary Viewing each individuated youngster as a primary focus of education, shifts the management role to enhancer of each student. As maintaining one specific definition of student becomes more secondary and less a personal agenda, we feel freed to empower students to enter into the process of shared management. That includes management of self, acceptance of diversity in self and others, and willing participation in the learning community by all. The idea of “at-risk” is replaced by looking to understand and honor, assisting and caring rather than labeling and disengaging.

Understanding self, looking for, recognizing and valuing individual strengths and personalities, and building healthy, diverse individuality within community becomes imperative. These changes involve thinking about power. Power has a give and take element involved. Control does not. In a relationship, it is possible for power to be shared, or for a person to see themselves as sharing power. That sharing can be misinterpreted as willingness to be controlled. In a submissive class, the teacher is asking students to give permission to teacher to make the decisions, and also takes responsibility for learning or lack of it. Such control, by its very nature, lends itself to abuse.

Most stark experiences children recall in school have to do with their trust or self empowerment being stripped. We each only have our “self” and it is a delicate dance of shifts in power, control, manipulations, a carefully orchestrated dance of paradox - moving between self survival and the continuation of the social order; between self fulfillment and the realization that fulfillment of self comes through attainment of personal relationships with others. It is a set of intricate maneuvers, moving between full immersion in self absorption and the belief that those who lose themselves are those who find themselves, that the ultimate lesson in life may be the journey to realization that every dance is more powerful as a conjunction. The dance of wills becomes a touching performance of student and teacher growth, and the classroom, a learning climate rather than a battle ground. In our pursuit for excellence in education we have frequently lost perspective on the importance of keeping the heart, the relationship, the human dimension in the definition of education. Not only is it important to emphasize its place, it is also important to balance it with the other facets of the education we will promote. To truly understand people, we must also understand the importance of the individual’s ability to discipline the mind, to know and to think, to feel ultimately able to use the powerful tools of self in conjunction with a disciplined mind, not only for self gain, but in service to humanity. Published originally in Proteus: A Journal of Ideas.

Works Cited

Anderson, R., Hiebert, E., Scott, J. & Wilkinson, I. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers. Washington, D.C: The National Institute of Education. Bowman, E. (1986).

Losing the war of letters, Time, May 5, 68.

Canter, L. (1984). Assertive discipline: A take-charge approach for today’s educators. Santa Monica, CA: Canter and associates.

Coloroso, B. (1994). Kids are worth it!: Giving your child the gift of inner discipline. New York: Avon.

Elias, M. J. & Clabby, J. F. (1992). Building social problem-solving skills: Guidelines from a school-based program. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ellsworth, J. (1995). Two faces of esteem: Being and doing. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 22, (1). 19-25.

Froyen, L.A. (1993). Classroom management: The reflective teacher-leader. New York: Macmillan.

Glasser, W. (1989). Control theory. In N. Glasser (Ed.), Control theory in the practice of reality therapy: Case studies. New York: Harper & Row.

Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1994). Learning together and alone: Cooperation, competition, and individualization (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kohn, A. (1990). The brighter side of human nature. New York: Basic Books.

Luft, J. (1969). Of human interaction Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books.

Mischel, W. (1979). On the interface of cognition and personality: Beyond the person-situation debate. America Psychologist, 34, 740-754.

Montouri, A. & Conti, I. (1993). From power to partnership: Creating a future of love, work, and community. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Ornstein, R. (1993) The roots of the self. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Piaget, J. (1965). The Moral judgment of the child. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Shapiro, D. (1981). Autonomy and rigid character. New York: HarperCollins.

Thompson, F. (1961). The Hound of Heaven. In A treasury of the world’s best loved poems (p. 166). New York: Avenel Books.


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Course developed by J'Anne Ellsworth


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