Learning how to be in the Top 20

MARSHALL – No one ever said parenting was easy.

But thanks to Top 20 Training, there is a simple method of positively guiding children through life’s challenges.

Paul Bernabei and Willow Sweeney from Top 20 Training, a nationally-recognized education training program based in Minnesota, engaged community members with their system during a parent education presentation Tuesday evening at Marshall High School.

“They were good speakers,” said Bonnie Wasberg, parent educator for Early Childhood Family Education in Marshall. “They said things that parents needed to hear.”

Since 2001, Top 20 Training has been empowering youth and adults to make a positive difference in the quality of their lives, relationships and experiences. Along with co-founders Tom Cody, Mary Cole and Michael Cole, Bernabei and Sweeney have trained more than 10,000 students and 40,000 teachers, parents, coaches and professionals. They believe in the potential of each human being.

Using storytelling and dramatizations, the duo shared their knowledge and oftentimes, their humor, to get the message across.

“Our job in life is to help your children raise you,” Bernabei said. “It’s tough raising parents in the 21st century, but we’re going to give it a go.”

Bernabei explained that the Top 20 meant that a person was being effective in how he or she was thinking, learning or communicating. On the flip side, when someone was in the Bottom 80, it meant that person was being ineffective in how he or she was thinking, learning or communicating.

“Top 20 parents live above the line,” he said. “Or Top 20 students live above the line. You translate it however you want.”

Sweeney stressed that every person uses “thinking” whether he or she did well academically at school or not.

“If we talk about this thing called thinking, we have a better chance of controlling it,” she said. “And above the line, it means my thinking is working. My thinking is serving my best interest. It’s clear and healthy.”

When she’s below the line, Sweeney said she’s crabby. Her thinking is unclear. It isn’t working properly. It’s unhealthy and not serving her best interest.

“When I’m above the line, I have energy,” Sweeney said. “I have passion for what I do. I have a really good focus on what is important in my life, and I let the other stuff slide. I’m patient and compassionate and very productive.”

Sweeney said she’s also quite funny but not in a way that will hurt someone’s feelings. But when she’s below the line, she’s sarcastic, cynical, negative or pessimistic.

“I get very defensive,” she said. “I also tend to be exhausted but not necessarily in the way that a nap would cure. It’s like an exhaustion of spirit.”

A person can’t always be above the line, the speakers said, but it’s crucial to know where you are at, so that you can respond accordingly. If a parent regrets saying something, the speakers suggested practicing an “instant replay” and making the situation better.

It’s also important to know if you are above or below the line because mental habits are being developed.

“Some people form a negative mental habit,” Bernabei said. “It’s called complaining. And some people ‘live’ above the line and ‘visit’ below the line for a short time, while other people ‘live’ below the line and ‘visit’ above the line off and on.”

Life then, Sweeney said, looks completely different depending on whether or not someone is above or below the line.

“We’re all heard a teacher say, ‘oh, if we could bottle the energy those kids have, we could sell it,'” she said. “But on a day when the teacher is below the line, that teacher will call those same kids ‘obnoxious.'”

Making decisions when you are below the line usually results in a mess, the speakers said, because you don’t solve problems without thinking clearly. There are also countless “invitations” to go below the line. Negative people often try to bring others down with them, they said, but everyone has the ability to respond how they choose.

“I try to keep my day,” Sweeney said. “You have to make the decision to keep your day or give it away because the invitations are always coming.”

Another topic the duo spoke from their hearts about was helping kids learn from mistakes and move outside their comfort zone. Mistakes are wonderful, they said, pointing out that children have to get out of their comfort zone and be willing to make mistakes along the way in order to get to the big learning experiences.

“Then they can own it and learn the lesson from the mistake,” Bernabei said. “We have to let them make mistakes, especially when they’re young.”

The challenge, though, is that people have been taught that mistakes are a sign of failure. But in Top 20 Training, failure is an event, not a person. It’s also the beginning of success.

“I thought it was a good presentation,” said Max Torgerson, a junior at Southwest Minnesota State University. “I learned a lot that I can use in my future classroom and use in my student teaching.”

Torgerson said he’s seen the pressure students are under in classrooms.

“The thing I liked the most about the presentation was learning to accept the mistakes students make,” he said. “They used a good analogy of the inventors, how they make mistakes before they get it right.”

Some people are taught that mistakes are painful and that they should be avoided at all cost, Sweeney said, pointing out that Bottom 80 responses are to deny, blame, justify or dwell.

“How someone’s mistakes are handled when they are young ends up affecting them as an adult,” she said.

Sweeney also noted two other fears that keep kids from getting out of their comfort zone: fear of confusion and fear of OPOs (Other Peoples’ Opinions).

“Other peoples’ opinions of me are none of my business, unless they’re in my best interest,” Sweeney said.

Talking about a mistake is also considered valuable. It allows a person to learn and move forward.

“They taught us about what our culture has become and how we can take charge of not putting our self-worth on our kids, but standing up, believing and teaching them more about who they are,” Wasberg said. “We need to live above the line and be positive role models for our kids. If we think the best of ourselves, they’ll think the best of themselves.”