Do you know about Challenge Day? If not, you may want to find out if your child’s school is hosting this intrusive, emotionally manipulative, Oprah-endorsed program that promises to provide schools and communities with “experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression.” Challenge Day claims the program has been presented to a million students in 400 cities in 47 states.
By “full expression” they mean confession, lots of hugs and physical contact, and tears — the weeping and gnashing of teeth kind of tears.
The “Be the Change School Guide for Creating the School of Your Dreams” has high hopes for the program — world peace: “With the ever growing increase of violence and oppression in our schools and on our planet, we believe a commitment to these simple principles can actually create peace on earth.” They attempt to accomplish that by addressing issues they believe are common in schools, including “cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.”
Schools pay $3200 (plus travel expenses) to bring the Challenge Day program, which was the subject of the MTV series, If You Really Knew Me, to their students.
Permission slips warn parents that “students can and often do share personal difficulties and experiences with the group” and the experience can be “emotional.”
Participants are confined to a room for 6 1/2 hours during the school day. Challenge Day heavily regulates the environment. Everything from the room size, to the temperature of the room, to the windows (must be covered), to the chairs (no arm rests), is controlled. Challenge Day even dictates the number and size of tissue boxes schools must provide.
The first half of the day is made up of games that help the students to break out of their comfort zones, so that later in the day they are “willing to be vulnerable enough with one another to connect as human beings.” Later in the day students are prodded into sharing very personal hurts they’ve experienced.
One episode of the MTV series featured Royal Oak High School in a suburb of Detroit. Sela, the Challenge Day leader, says, “The goal of challenge day is to bring students together, break down the cliques that normally separate them, and give them the opportunity to see who they really are inside.” (The program focuses heavily on self-esteem and positive thinking.)
The day began with a game designed to break down barriers. Students linked arms back-to-back and gyrated with students they didn’t usually talk to. One girl remarked that the games were awkward. “I’m not a touchy-feely type person, but I had to rub my butt on someone.” Students then shared their most embarrassing moment with their dance partners.
Students then went to their “assigned” small groups. “I’m gonna ask you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath and let your eyes close.” In a deep, near-whisper the group leader asks intrusive questions, “If we really knew you, what would we know about you? What’s it like in your home? Do you feel safe there? Do you feel loved? How about when you look in the mirror? Do you like what you see? Does anybody know who you really are? Take a deep breath.”
The Challenge Day program requires one adult for every four students and encourages the school to recruit members of the community — such as psychology students from the local community — to participate. Adult leaders receive a quick, 30-minute training before the students arrive and are told how how to “identify and confidentially report students needing follow up care.” They are given a basic primer on mandatory reporting of abuse and are told that even though they are not mandatory reporters, if they hear of a “reportable event,” they should make a mandatory reporter in the room aware of the situation.
Mitch, who described himself as the class clown, says that he likes tunnels and secret passages. His group leader prompts him to share something more personal. “Tell me one thing that’s hard about being you, bro.’” He shares that he feels a lot of pressure to get into Michigan State, where his parents attended. He tears up as he shares that his grandparents just moved away. Brian, a “jock,” tells the group that the pressure he feels to succeed caused his drinking problem. Ashley, the “goth” girl says, “After hearing what [Brian] had to say, I have more respect for him.”
Nicole, who we have learned is a bullying victim, shares very personal details of her family life. “Every night my parents would fight and I used to have to sleep in cars because it was so bad because I couldn’t stay in the house with them fighting.” She said her family didn’t like her new boyfriend. “They didn’t like him so they kept calling me a slut. And I get good grades and I don’t get in trouble, and I don’t understand how I’m the slut and I’m the bad person.” She breaks down, sobbing as other students (also crying now) hug her.
“Wrap your arms around that person and give them all the love they deserve, just because of who they are,” the facilitator intones.
“Right now we’re about to get into oppression, where one group or a person holds down another group or a person.”
Students then transition to the “Power Shuffle” where they’re made to “cross the line” and confess their pain and bad experiences. “When you stand there, I want you to notice what it feels like to have been through these things and then I’ll ask you to go ahead and return.” Students are instructed to flash the international hand signal for “I love you” to show support for other students. “Cross the line if…
You or someone in your family has ever been raped or sexually molested.
Someone in your family is an alcoholic.
You or someone in your family is or has been struggling with an addiction to prescription, or illegal drugs.
You have ever witnessed someone being brutally beaten or killed.
You have ever thought seriously of, or if someone you care about has ever seriously thought of, or ever attempted, committing suicide.
“The next one is for the women only. Please cross the line if any man or boy has ever whistled at you, cat-called you, hit you, slapped you, beat you up, disrespected you in any way or tried to keep you from doing anything simply because you were born a female.”
All the girls cross.
“Women, what’s that really feel like when our brothers, our fathers, our friends — those men we want to love and trust — hurt us?”
“Men, look over there. Really look at their faces. That could be your mom, your sister…one day it could be your daughter.” Most of the boys and girls (and leaders) are crying.
Throughout the day the students experience extreme emotional highs and lows, all led by the facilitator, who is obviously well-trained in emotional manipulation. Many have noted that Challenge Day closely mirrors the processes of Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT), which is often linked to the human potential movement. Timothy Conway, PhD, described LGAT this way,
The trainers are well-trained to be adept at “working the crowd,” pushing their emotional buttons—building people up and breaking them down, praising them and insulting them, inflating them and deflating them, saddening them and gladdening them, scaring them and relieving them, agitating them and relaxing them…Through it all, people will predictably bond with each other—just like inmates or hostages in a prison, Marine recruits at bootcamp, or any group of people put into a helpless position of stress.
Conway said that the method promotes group-think and likens it to Stockholm syndrome. “People in confined seminars can very easily and quickly be turned into a pack of sheep with a “herd-like” mentality and emotional needs. Dynamics of inclusion or else marginalization and even ostracization are exploited to insure that most people will conform with the agenda and identify with the trainers and their aims.”
One person described the pressure to conform to the group at Challenge Day:
Kids were asked to sit in a circle and one-by-one go around and share an experience in which they were hurt. The boy recounting this story did not want to participate in that exercise. Then one boy announced that he was “gay” and most of the kids began to clap. Someone then told the group to stand up if they supported and accepted the “gay” boy. Next, a girl announced that she was bisexual. The standing and clapping continued. Only two students remained seated, but finally, because of the extended standing and clapping, the boy felt pressured to stand. He feared if he didn’t stand, someone would say something to him.
An adult mentor in a Cleveland school was very emotional about her experience as a Challenge Day leader:
For the first time in my life I cried in front of everyone. I did not feel embarrassed, I felt safe. Finally I was not afraid to be myself. I stepped out of my comfort zone, I had finally broken free.
We then broke off into our groups. For the first time I felt safe to be honest about my past. I began my sentence with, “If you really knew me you would know this about me.” Each person in the group was given two minutes to speak. To hear the students problems and their suffering ripped me apart. We held hands, we hugged, and we all cried together.
This was an adult leader in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) that spent $395,000 in stimulus funds to pay for the Challenge Day program to “improve school climate” — in a district where just over 50% of the students graduate on time. Only 38.2% of fifth graders score proficient in reading and 24.9% score proficient in mathematics in the CMSD and they saw fit to spend $400 grand on a day-long psycho-manipulation program.
In their book, One Nation Under Therapy, Christina Hoff Sommers and Dr. Sally Satel write about the dubious results of such therapeutic programs in schools (HT: Illinois Family Institute):
There are many who believe that therapism in the schools is a benign, constructive influence that comforts children, calming their fears and enhancing their feelings of self-acceptance. The evidence, however, does not bear this out. On the contrary, the therapeutic regime pathologizes healthy young people. It encourages remedial measures for nonexistent vulnerabilities, wastes students’ time and impedes their academic and moral development. American students are, with few exceptions, mentally and emotionally sound; they are resilient.
And therein lies one of the glaring problems. “Normal” students — those without secrets to confess or major problems to share — get caught up in the group therapy net. In essence, they’re coerced into coming up with something to please the facilitator so they can be included in the process, convinced that there must be something wrong in their lives.
While the goal of ending bullying, cliques, gossip, and other such behaviors is laudable, subjecting vulnerable students to the emotional whipsaw of Challenge Day may do more harm than good and may be dangerous to emotionally fragile students. In addition, the program is intrusive, lacks the privacy safeguards normally expected in counseling situations, and is designed to coerce and manipulate students into reacting in predetermined ways. Meanwhile, it diverts time and money from subjects the schools are actually tasked with teaching — those oldies, but goodies, like math, reading, and writing.
If your child hasn’t yet been subjected to the program, be prepared — it may be coming to your community.