The Positive Deviance Approach in Action

Martine Bouman
Sarah Lubjuhn
Arvind Singhal
Publication Date
September 3, 2014

Center for Media & Health (Bouman and Lubjuhn); The University of Texas at El Paso (Singhal)

"PD values the gifts and capacities of ordinary people and institutions and in doing so it relocates where expertise lies in a community..."

This report shares the research and communication strategies that informed a Dutch project on adolescent mental health at lower vocational training (VMBO) schools. This project employed the positive deviance (PD) approach to social change, a method that enables communities to discover the health wisdom they already have and to act on it. The overall aim was to identify practices that enhance the mental health of adolescent students of Rotterdam's VMBO schools who hailed from lower socio-economic backgrounds and minority immigrant groups. The research question was: What helped them deal better with the stresses and anxieties that are a normal part of life? (Please see Related Summaries, below, to read more about this project, which was developed by the Netherlands-based Center for Media & Health (CMH) in collaboration with the GGD Rotterdam Rijnmond, the Trimbos-Institute and the United States (US)-based The University of Texas at El Paso.)

The report outlines the process of detailing which of the 52 VMBO schools in Rotterdam met the inclusion criteria of this study. Following a total of 26 in-depth interviews held at 3 of the PD schools, the researchers identified 85 different micro behaviours contributing to the enhanced psychological resilience of the VMBO students. The 10 that stood out include:

  1. "Concierge welcomes students every morning at the school entrance.
  2. Parents are contacted by the school (also) when the students achieve positive results.
  3. School administration sends (self-designed) cards to all students via post to congratulate them at various occasions.
  4. A social matrix is used to focus on the positive relationships and social support systems that the student finds to be affirming.
  5. Muslim students (as most immigrants are) are allowed a free day to celebrate their Islam holiday. Non-Muslim students are invited for outdoor school activities.
  6. The team leaders and concierges know almost all the names and faces of the students.
  7. The PD schools stay in close contact with shops in the neighborhood that are visited by students.
  8. Staff members are employed who are specifically responsible to involve parents/mothers in school activities. During these meetings Turkish and Moroccan speaking staff members help the mothers with the Dutch language.
  9. A handy system has been invented with metallic hooks to flip the language posters. In addition a staff member is responsible to flip the posters every week. Through these small acts (hooks and flips), the language poster program continues.
  10. Various classrooms are decorated to give them an informal and welcoming living room ambiance."


The report concludes with reflections and lessons learned. In sum:

  • "A positive approach gives positive energy: The PD schools participate in many ongoing studies and evaluations and as they usually focus on 'deficits,' schools often are told 'they have to do better.' This time it was the other way around....Despite their busy schedules, directors, team leaders, teachers, mentors, concierges, social workers, study career tutors, health coordinators, students and mothers actively participated in the PD research project. Further, staff members spent extra time and energy in spreading the results of the PD research, including publishing the report on their website, and participating in the final meeting for all the VMBO schools in Rotterdam....
  • PD is not deductive hypothesizing: The PD approach flips upside down the traditional research approach of proposing a deductive hypothesis and testing it..."
  • Mixed Method Granularity: In PD projects, often Discovery and Action Dialogues (DAD) are employed to discover the PD micro behaviors that make the difference. In this research the decision was also made to do in-depth and informal interviews in addition to participatory observations....Some of this granularity also emerged out of the photo documentation carried out in the PD schools. This was sometimes a real challenge because not all the students and teachers (specifically with a Muslim background) are amenable to being in photos. An essential prerequisite for carrying out photo documentation rested on building a trusting relationship with students, staff, and teachers.
  • Holistic approach with respect to school performances:...During the present research it became clear that a preoccupation with grades and graduation rates may take away time from activities that are critical to the mental health of the students.
  • Positive 'Deviance': During the project, the PD team in the Netherlands experienced that the term 'deviance' can have a negative connotation....The PD team dealt with this issue by translating 'positive deviance' as 'positive exception'...."

A list of PD literature and related links concludes the report.

Click here for the 10-page report in PDF format.


Emails from Dr. Sarah Lubjuhn to The Communication Initiative on September 3 2014 and September 4 2014.