The Magic of the Mind (MOM)
Program for Decreasing School Dropout

by Alfred A. Barrios, Ph.D


The Paper introduces a comprehensive program for dealing with some of the key factors causing dropout. There are four basic components to this program, called Magic of the Mind (MOM), each addressing one of these key factors:

  1. building self efficacy in the students;
  2. teaching the students learning skills;
  3. teaching stress management to the students; and
  4. building self-efficacy and stress management skills in the teachers.

Initial tests of the program at East Los Angeles Community College with (predominately Mexican American) students on scholastic probation have provided strong evidence of the program's effectiveness. Over a 1 year period, the MOM group increased an average of 3.8 grade points (Grade points = GPA x units completed) and had a dropout rate of only 16% compared to the learning-skills-only control group which decreased an average of 5.45 grade points and had a dropout rate of 56%. Similar controlled studies are planned to test the program's effectiveness at the elementary through high school level. The program's effectiveness at this level is already supported by considerable anecdotal evidence.

The major reason for the program's success is felt to be its dramatic belief-building capabilities. By providing immediate positive feedback in all the techniques used, a very strong belief is developed in oneself especially in one's ability to achieve, and this is for both students and teachers.

The Magic of the Mind

There is no doubt about the continued need for a more effective solution to the school dropout problem. It is felt that many of society's current problems can be traced to the high number of school dropouts. As pointed out by Senator Ted Kennedy [1988]: "Society pays for dropouts, too, through lost tax revenues, increased welfare costs and crime."

According to Braun [1993] the cost of school dropouts in the U.S. in terms of costs of imprisonment, welfare support, low wages and lost taxes is as high as $300 billion annually. And this high loss has been with us for some time now. For example, as reported in Jones [1977], the Select Senate Committee on Equal Educational opportunity found that for the year 1969, 24-34 year old male drop-outs cost society $71 billion in lost tax revenues and the men themselves lost $237 billion in purchasing power. In addition, billions of dollars more were lost in welfare expenditures.

Perhaps the crime and violence problem is the one of greatest current concern. Fear is escalating exponentially as gangs of juvenile dropouts and soon-to-be dropouts in cities all over the U.S. wreak havoc and death amongst the populace. A recent Los Angeles Times article [Nazario, 1994] reported that according to government data, the number of teenagers arrested for violent crimes jumped 50% between 1985 and 1991 and teenage deaths due to homicide rose 100% during this same period. According to the article:

"Teenagers fared particularly badly in California where hopelessness and an ample supply of guns combined to produce a powder keg. Arrest rates for juvenile crimes rocketed 60% between 1985 and 1991, giving California the fourth-worst ranking for juvenile crime in the nation. In addition, the proportion of California teenagers graduating from high school in four years dropped to 62% in 1991 from 67% in 1985."

The connection between failure in school and crime has been known for some time now. As far back as 1977, Jones [1977] pointed out that the unemployed person who is a dropout is 6 to 10 times more likely than a non-dropout unemployed person to become involved in crime. An incredible 82% of america's prisoners are high school dropouts ["The demographics of school reform", 1990]. And in some states, such as Texas, this percentage is as high as 90% ["Dropout Dilemma", 1990].

As a result of the escalation in crime, the majority of people are now calling for much greater numbers of prisons and an increase in the amount of prison time and punishment for violent criminals. Fortunately, there are some who are seeing beyond this and are pleading that a greater proportion of the increased expenditures for crime prevention and imprisonment, amounting to billions of dollars, be directed more towards improving our educational system.

In the words of hard core convict Wilbert Rideau responding to a Time magazine [Aug. 23, 1993] reporter's question "What do you think of Clinton's crime policy?":

"I'd like to see more efforts aimed at really improving people. Crime is a social problem, and education is the only real deterrent. Look at all of us in prison; we were all truants and dropouts, a failure of the educational system. Look at your truancy problem and you're looking at your future prisoners. Put your money there."

It may be true that some progress has been made in the past decade or two towards reducing the dropout rate, but I don't think anyone will deny that we still have a long way to go. The present article presents an overview of a promising program, called Magic of the Mind (MOM), for helping to eliminate the dropout problem.

The program attacks the dropout problem on four major fronts:

  1. building greater self-efficacy in students;
  2. effective teaching of learning skills to students;
  3. teaching stress management to students; and
  4. teaching stress management and building self-efficacy in teachers.

Most educators would agree that a major factor in the high failure rate of students at-risk is their poor learning skills. And it would appear that providing more learning skills classes would help solve the problem. However, as pointed out by Carns & Carns [1991]:

"Traditional techniques often taught in study skill units have been shown to have limited benefits... Further review of the literature indicates that other variables may need to be considered when teaching study skill units, such as students' self-efficacy... Self-efficacy, or the belief in one's effectiveness, seems to be an important factor in student achievement behavior (Thomas & Rohwer 1986)... Self-efficacy is also defined by Thomas and Rohwer as the student's perceived self-concept of academic ability."

According to Bandura's [1977] classic study:

"It is hypothesized that expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behavior will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences".

And Bloom [1977] said essentially the same thing when he stated:

"Where a student is convinced of his inadequacy he finds no great energy to accomplish the next task, has little patience or perseverance when he encounters difficulties, and takes little care and thoroughness in accomplishing the task".

In other words, unless the students at-risk can first be helped to believe in themselves and their abilities to control or master the events in their lives - especiall with regard to their academic abilities - any attempts at helping them improve their learning abilities, such as study skills programs, are likely to fall on deaf ears. These students are so negatively conditioned against school from previous failures that any attempt at remediation is likely to fail because they will not even make the effort to try it.

However, it is not a simple task to try to change the at-risk student's academic self-concept. We are dealing with beliefs that have already started to solidify as early as the third grade [Finn, 1989] and become even more deeply entrenched with increasing age. As indicated by Chapman and Boersma[1980]:

"Clearly then the LD children in the present study are strongly characterized by their lower academic self-concepts. Moreover, these negative characteristics were well established at the Grade 3 level... Bloom [1976] and Hamachek [1978] have both pointed out that such relatively negative attitudes are generally established during the first few years in elementary school, often in response to repeated failure experiences in the heavily stressed area of reading. Thus, the present finding of low academic self-concepts associated with the LD children at the Grade 3 level is not surprising [p.75]. In addition, some studies [e.g., Kifer, 1975] have found that academic self-concept tends to be more negative in older low achieving students, presumably because their accumulated failure is greater [p.2]."

It is a mistake to assume that such deeply embedded beliefs are going to be changed by some simple "pep talk" approach. It is felt that the main reason it has proven so difficult to eliminate the high failure rate of students at-risk is that it is not that easy to change the deeply entrenched negative self-beliefs at the root of this failure.

These are desperate times and extra-ordinary measures are needed. We need to now be more open to new, non-traditional approaches if necessary since the traditional ones don't seem to have been sufficient. We need to find a more effective way of bypassing all the accumulated negative conditioning long enough to implant a new and more positive self-concept, and a way that is simple and easy to teach – which brings us to the Magic of the Mind (MOM) Program.

It is felt that what makes MOM such an effective program for decreasing the dropout rate is not only the comprehensiveness of the approach but, more importantly, its considerable belief-building capabilities produced primarily by the immediate positive feedback aspect of the techniques used. The later will be made evident as you are introduced to each of the four components of the program.

Building Self-Efficacy

The first component, developing greater self-efficacy is accomplished through a program called Self-Programmed Control or SPC [Barrios, 1985a] which, among other things, makes use of a series of simple but powerful demonstrations that dramatically illustrate to the students the power and magic of their minds. These techniques can be looked upon as belief-building techniques - belief in the power of one's mind, and thus play a key role in helping to build the students' sense of self-efficacy or belief in one's capabilities.

The demonstrations are based on the ability of thoughts to produce actual, automatic responses. This ability is first explained to the students in terms of principles of Pavlovian conditioning. Namely, that through repeated association, words and thoughts can come to act as conditioned stimuli evoking those responses they have become associated with. This Pavlovian concept is easily gotten across with the "Lemon" demonstration where the entire group or class is asked to visualize as vividly as possible biting into a very sour, tart and tangy lemon. It is not long before everyone is salivating profusely and the point has been well made that because of prior conditioning, thoughts can indeed cause automatic responses.

It is pointed out that of course we know that words or suggestions don't always produce the appropriate response. That is why good advice often goes in one ear and out the other. But the capability of words and images to produce responses is always there. All we need to do is bring it out. This, then, is what the SPC techniques do. They are a step-wise, systematic procedure for producing a gradually stronger response to positive words and thoughts. Or to put it another way, the procedure increases one's belief in what he or she is trying to program in. Belief can be defined as concentration on a thought to the exclusion of any contradictory thoughts. Thus, the stronger the belief, the greater the blockage of any contradictory thoughts and therefore the stronger the response to the thought being focussed on.

From this definition of belief we can see that as this state of heightened belief is created in the student at-risk, it becomes easier to implant a new stronger sense of self. This is because the ever present negative self concept (i.e., the contradictory thoughts) which has heretofore kept any new positive self-concept from getting through would now be automatically blocked in this state of heightened belief long enough for the new self-concept to take a hold.

One of the first "magic of the mind" demonstrations used to increase the students' belief in the power of their minds is the "Arms Demonstration":

The students, en mass, are first told to extend both arms out in front of them, slightly above eye level, and to make sure both are even to begin with. Then with the eyes closed, they are told to vividly imagine a huge helium filled weather balloon pulling up on the left arm and a heavy bucket full of water pulling down on the right arm. After about 30-60 seconds of this, they are told to open their eyes and look to see where their arms are.

When the students open their eyes and see how far apart their arms have (automatically) separated, they are amazed and a buzz of excitement can be heard going through the room. It is pointed out to them that there is no reason in the world why the "heavy" arm should turn out to be lower than the "light" arm except that in the one case they were focussing on thoughts of heaviness and in the other on thoughts of lightness, and that this is how the mind works.

You can talk about the power of the mind or the power of positive thinking until you are blue in the face and still not be able to get the concept through to most people (especially to failure-prone, negative thinkers). But one simple demonstration like this and a light goes on. The individual can now begin to really believe in the power of thoughts, the power of the mind.

The next two "magic of the mind" techniques that are introduced, the Magic Pendulum and the Concentration Spiral, further add to this state of increased belief. In the Magic Pendulum technique the students are absolutely amazed to see the pendulum they are initially holding motionless (a paper clip on a string) begin to automatically swing in whatever direction their thoughts direct it. They are told that if their mind is strong enough to cause this pendulum to move by itself, they now know they can do just about anything they set their mind to. (It is explained to them that this movement is due to an automatic unconscious movement of their hand in response to the thought or expectation of the movement and that the greater the swing the more powerfully focussed their mind has become.) And if this is not enough to convince them of the power of their minds, the almost magical visual effects resulting from the increased focus produced by the Concentration Spiral (by far the most popular of th SPC techniques amongst the students) most certainly will.

Now the students are ready for anything that will help them to reinforce this new positive self-concept that has just been implanted. Thus, they will now be much more receptive to the next component of the program - the learning-to learn techniques.

Effective Teaching

To further insure that the new positive self-concept will take a firm hold, the immediate feedback mode is also used to introduce the learning-to-learn techniques.

One of the first things done when introducing these techniques to the students at-risk is to get across the ideas that:

  1. "A-students" or "geniuses" are not that way because they were born with an oversized brain but because they learned techniques for making full use of that brain; and
  2. if the students use these same techniques they, too, can be "geniuses".

Then to immediately get the point across that these techniques do work and are easy to learn, the students are shown a simple memory technique which they are told will allow them to memorize an incredibly long, 23 digit number (19452001555975414952345), something they would agree only a "genius" could do. When tested on the number after applying the technique, approximately 95% of the students get it perfectly, much to their amazement and delight. Thus, the point has been well made - that if they know the right techniques, something that at first seems impossible, something only a "genius" could do, is now quite simple. It is emphasized to the students that the learning of techniques for memorizing long numbers isn't the important thing here. What's important is that they now realize that if they know the right short-cuts they too can be "geniuses". Now their appetite is whetted and some additional, more practical short cuts and other ways of developing their mental capacity are next shown to them.

The learning-to-learn techniques taught to the students cover a variety of memory techniques, vocabulary building, test taking, problem solving, and above all reading and studying improvement techniques. In each area, the immediate feedback approach is again taken. For instance, when the SQ3R (Scan, Question, Read, Recite, and Review) method for improving reading and studying ability is introduced, students are given an immediate in-class SQ3R assignment followed immediately by a quiz using questions similar to those in the SQ3R assignment. This in turn is followed by a series of SQ3R homework assignments and quizes.

Teaching Stress Management

There is a strong message in the current literature that a need exists to develop programs to increase students' abilities to cope with stress. Low self efficacy, low self-esteem, underachievement, violent behavior, substance abuse and physical illness are just a few of the symptoms (as well as causes) of student stress [Chandler, 1985; Omizo & Susuki, 1988; Segal, 1983; Henderson, Kelby & Engebretson 1992]. Thus, if we are to have a comprehensive approachfor effectively dealing with the dropout problem, we must also include an effective stress management component.

The MOM program helps students to both decrease and cope with stress in several ways. First, there is the stress reduction that comes from the increased degree of self-efficacy and self-esteem produced by the program. Being more self assured and having a greater sense of control lessens the anxiety that might previously have been produced in situations where one's abilities are being tested or questioned. Secondly, the students are taught a set of positive mental attitudes aimed at helping them to roll with the punches: Learning to look for the good in a bad situation; learning that if you look for the good in others, you are more likely to bring the good out; if you make a mistake realizing that everyone makes mistakes and that you should learn from it what you can then forget about it; learning to look for the good or positive in oneself. These are some of the attitudes taught which help to lesson the stress reaction to various stressors in life.

Finally, use is made of a simple inexpensive biofeedback device called the Stress Control Biofeedback Card [Barrios, 1985b]. This device helps to condition in an automatic relaxation response in times of stress - a safety valve so to speak - whether these be school-related (exams, giving a talk in class, studying, etc.) or life-related. It acts as an excellent relaxation training tool by showing the students that they change the color of the card (the stress level indicator) anytime they're stressed by simply applying one of the quick relaxation techniques on the back of the card. In addition to helping the students learn to relax, it also adds to their new sense of control and self efficacy - when they see that they can indeed change the color of the card through their own inner powers.

Decreasing Stress and Increasing Self-Efficacy in Teachers

It is felt that one of the major advantages of teaching the MOM program is that the instructors also get to benefit personally in many ways, especially in terms of being able to decrease their stress as well as increase their own self-efficacy.

This occurs both directly and indirectly as a result of the program. Directly, because as one of the prerequisites for teaching the MOM program, instructors are encouraged to apply the various components of the program for gaining greater control over their own lives, especially their teaching effectiveness and their stress levels. And indirectly, because the less stressed and more successful their students become, the less stressed and more successful they begin to feel.

And of course these positive changes in the teachers can only help them be more effective with their students. This is so, both in terms of increasing their own belief in the program as well as making them that much more effective at teaching.

The following excerpt from the Summary Progress Report of one of the instructors taking the SPC class for teachers at Cal State University Los Angeles will give you some idea of the benefits of SPC for teachers:

"I would like to take this opportunity to say how much I have enjoyed your program and that it has helped me tremendously. My summary progress report does not begin to evaluate the changes that have occurred since I began becoming less tense, my main goal.....As a result of being less tense (I have had the tendency to become very tense at school when the kids, I feel, are not learning or following standards), I have found myself getting more work done at school, getting reports and records done on time, and I feel my teaching has improved. My more relaxed attitude has affected the kids in that they seem more relaxed and cooperative. I have found things do not irritate me as much (such as Jack singing "Old MacDonald" in the back of the room and kids coming in late, no notes, no homework, etc). I also am less tense with my peers...I can honestly say now I am a more relaxed person, although I hope to become even more so. There are many other minor changes I have noticed in my personality and attitudes which are all positive. I still practice SPC daily and will continue. One very positive indication I have that I have achieved some control over tension is that I don't feel the necessity to take Valium anymore. It actually made me ill when I did and I was using at least 10 mg. daily."
[Barrios, 1985a, p.33]

That this was not just an isolated response was indicated by some of the overall results of the SPC instructors workshops:

"Perhaps the most impressive indication of the personal benefits of SPC for instructors are the Willoughby Test score changes resulting from instructors' workshops. The Willoughby Personality Questionnaire (see Appendix A) was originally designed as a measure of neuroticism but is a fairly good indicant of overall self-confidence and ability to deal with stress and cope with life (Wolpe, 1958). The Lower the score on this test the healthier the state of mind... In the first instructors' workshop - four sessions held at Golden State College - the average Willoughby score dropped from the 62nd to the 32nd percentile in the period of four weeks. This type of improvement has continued right up to the latest class for teachers at Cal State University, where the average Willoughby score dropped from the 77th to the 40th percentile during the six-week class. (Barrios, 1985a, p.33)"

Results Achieved Thus Far With Students

The first results achieved with the MOM program were described as near-phenomenal by the Dean of Students at East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC) where the first complete application of the program was begun as part of a Title III program to help disadvantaged Mexican American Students [Barrios, 1972].

In this study, use was made of a pool of 194 students on scholastic probation who were required to take a nine week study skills class. The students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group, of 105 students, was placed in a class where the MOM program was taught. The other group, a total of 89 students, was placed in five other classes, taught by five regular learning skills class instructors. An analysis of variance showed that there was no significant difference between these two groups when comparing their grade points for the previous semester. (Grade points = GPA multiplied by units completed). The following results were obtained:

  1. Over a 1 1/2 year period the average grade points increased 3.80 points for the MOM class while decreasing 5.45 points for the learning skills only (control) group. (The grade points for the semester following the class were compared with the grade points from the semester prior to the class). An analysis of variance showed that the total difference of grade points was statistically significant at the .02 level (F=6.50). As can be seen, not used were the grade points for the semester during which the study skills classes were given. This was done to avoid contamination of the results that would have occurred by including the students' grade for the study skills class itself. Also, the students in both groups took comparable classes for the previous and following semesters so there was not contamination of results that might have resulted had the two groups taken completely different sets of classes.

  2. The average dropout rate was 16% for the MOM group vs 56% for the control group.(I.e., 84% of the MOM group went on to either graduate from ELAC or transfer to a four year college as compared to only 44% for the control group).

Note how the decrease of 5.45 grade points and 56% dropout rate for the learning skills alone group corroborates Losak's [1972] conclusion regarding the ineffectiveness of most remedial programs.

One additional finding of interest was that a high percentage of the MOM students overcame their substance abuse habits - a significant side benefit of the MOM class. The results of an anonymous questionnaire given to MOM students at the end of the class showed that in those students indicating excesses in the following areas these percentages cut down:

Food 78% 100 of 129
Cigarettes 73% 52 of 71
Television 86% 120 of 140
Alcohol 92% 59 of 64
Marijuana 72% 31 of 43
Other Drugs 83% 16 of 19

No concentrated attack had been made on the excesses. It is felt to have occurred mainly because of three major changes producedby the program: The general increase in the ability to relax; the greater enjoyment of other areas of life (resulting from a greater self-confidence); and a greater amount of self-control. Most excesses can usually be traced to a deficit in one or more of these areas.

Corroborating the above results is the data from subsequent MOM classes at UCLA for 372 disadvantaged students (primarily African-American and Mexican-American). For these students, the average Willoughby score - a measure of self- confidence [Wolpe, 1958] - improved from the 63rd to the 25th percentile and the average Study Habits Inventory scores [Wrenn & Larsen, 1955] rose from 11.92 to 73.42, where 15 is the median score for a standard group of college freshmen [Barrios, 1985a].

Although the MOM approach was first introduced at the community college and university level, it has since been introduced with highly encouraging results [Barrios, 1985a] at school levels ranging from kindergarten through high school as well as in community based programs like Head Start, WIN and CETA. (For the lower grade levels, e.g., K-3, only parts of the program were used). The results of the program with high school students and Head Start parents, for instance, and the fact that it can be taught effectively by others were presented in the report submitted to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which funded the original study [Mireles, 1971]:

The results have been highly encouraging. For example, at Garfield High School, the principal, Mr. Welsh, was so impressed with the response of the students from negative to positive outlooks, that he has requested Project USTED to conduct classes as soon as possible for his instructors, students and classified personnel in addition to his parent advisory group... The Psychology 22 (SPC) class being conducted in the heart of the barrio for Project ABC Head-start mothers has brought the response from several parents that if they had taken this course twenty years ago, they would not have gone through a life of low self-esteem. They requested that their children not be allowed to spend valuable years of their lives repeating their own mistakes. They have asked that we set up similar courses at the elementary schools where their children attend. Dr. Barrios did not visit these classes at any time, thereby indicating that it was the course and its content, rather than the special gift of any particular instructor who was responsible for the results of the course. This, we feel, is a major breakthrough!

The following is one of the typical high school student comments reported in the study:

"My feelings towards this class have improved considerably. Atfirst, I thought it was just going to be another class to rap with the chicks and make fun of the teacher. In other words, a boring, out-dated, unendurable class. Not so! Lately I've become very interested and those words, coming from me, should be considered excellent.

"I've improved my self-image, I am participating actively in class, I'm not afraid of speaking out. In short, it has given me a positive attitude towards life. In contrast to before, where I was pessimistic, grouchy, and rowdy. Recently, I've noticed my outlook towards life has improved greatly... I only wish there were an abundance of these classes, with more teachers like Mr. Paez... As for this excellent class, I cannot express my delight and my gratitude. All I know is that the federal government should really go head on and stop pussy footing around - there is no better class that I know of in high school."

Plans are underway to supplement the above anecdotal evidence with large-scaled controlqled studies to test the effectiveness of the MOM Program at the elementary through high school level. It is expected that the results of these studies will be similar to those achieved at the community college level.


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