Workshop Finds Deviants Among Tufts Students

by Sophie Oppenheimer and Sarah Trist RD LD

During your life as a graduate student, as you run from class to class with your Tupperware, have you ever wondered how others manage to meet deadlines and still have time for extracurricular activities?

There are always a few students who, despite taking extra course loads and working twenty hours a week, manage to get eight hours of sleep, exercise daily, eat home-cooked meals, and keep their rooms clean. This is more than good time-management, as these students also appear to accomplish these things while maintaining a sense of inner peace and a relatively low stress level.

One might refer to these students as “positive deviants” – people who deviate from the norm in a positive way by finding solutions to common problems within a community, despite having access to the same resources as their peers.

Last month, the Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) held a workshop for Tufts students and faculty in order to introduce students to the concept of Positive Deviance (PD). During the workshop, students participated in a community-driven discovery process (a mock PD Inquiry) to identify positive deviant strategies used to manage time and reduce stress.

Prior to the workshop, participants took a survey detailing the effect stress has on their lives. Reviewing the results in the workshop, it was clear that stress is a real problem at Friedman, and at the same time, there were students within the workshop who had developed approaches to overcome it.

It should be made clear that focus on the individual’s innate abilities is less important than the actual strategies the individual employs. Highlighting approaches rather than individual ability allows for community members to realize that they, too, can overcome the problems they face.

For example, in the case of stress and time-management at Friedman, students identified strategies such as sharing reading responsibilities with peers (either by splitting readings or reading aloud to each other while another cooked dinner), or managing stress through ten minutes of meditational yoga before bed.

These strategies were discussed and community action plans were developed. The outcomes of the workshop are yet to be determined, but possible suggestions were student-taught yoga/meditation classes or a designated relaxation/nap area on campus.

But how does this fascinating behavior change model apply to our career interests?

The concept of Positive Deviance first appeared in nutrition research literature in the 1990’s through a book written by a Tufts University professor, Marian Zeitlin, called, “Positive Deviance in Nutrition.” Zeitlin documented cases of well-nourished children in poor communities and advocated for the use of the PD concept to amplify already existing solutions to childhood malnutrition.

Intrigued by Zeitlin’s ideas, Jerry and Monique Sternin worked to operationalize the PD concept as a tool to promote behavior and social change. The Sternins successfully implemented a PD intervention in Vietnam, achieving a 65-80% reduction in childhood malnutrition, reaching a population of 2.2 million people. (Pachon)

Since its debut, Positive Deviance has been successfully applied to a variety of issues across the globe, including HIV/AIDS prevention, smoking cessation, maternal and child nutrition, girl trafficking, child soldiers, sustainable agricultural, business management, school retention, and hospital-acquired infections, among others.

As nutrition and health professionals, we are often trained to seek out problems in a community and develop solutions to solve them. By focusing instead on existing solutions within a community, the PD approach allows us to develop community-driven and sustainable interventions to address complex issues. For those of us planning to work to affect healthy behavior change in any sector, PD can be a valuable tool to inform interventions.

How can students get involved or learn more about the positive deviance approach?

The Positive Deviance Initiative is a network organization dedicated to amplifying the use of the PD approach worldwide. PDI offers workshops, trainings, technical support and online resources, and collaborates with many organizations in various sectors to measurably enhance the lives of vulnerable people around the world. Students can learn more by visiting the PDI website at www.positivedeviance.org, or send an email to contact@positivedeviance.org.

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