About Top 20 Training

It’s no secret that the power of thought plays an essential role in everything from personal success and happiness to global outcomes. But all too often, many of us experience a thinking problem. It’s a big reason why our schools are out of balance, our homes are out of balance, our personal relationships, even our communities and society as a whole.

Top 20 provides simple, yet powerful concepts, exercises and materials to rebalance thinking at the most basic level. Tapping into the insights of social-emotional training, Top 20 helps bring out the best in individuals, families, teams and organizations, so that all can reach their highest potential and make a positive difference in the quality of their lives, relationships and experiences.

About Top 20 Training

It’s no secret that the power of thought plays an essential role in everything from personal success and happiness to global outcomes. But all too often, many of us experience a thinking problem. It’s a big reason why our schools are out of balance, our homes are out of balance, our personal relationships, even our communities and society as a whole.

Top 20 provides simple, yet powerful concepts, exercises and materials to rebalance thinking at the most basic level. Tapping into the insights of social-emotional training, Top 20 helps bring out the best in individuals, families, teams and organizations, so that all can reach their highest potential and make a positive difference in the quality of their lives, relationships and experiences.

We’ve trained over 1,000,000 teachers and, combined, have over 100 years of teaching, counseling and coaching experience.

Our Mission

Top 20’s primary goal is to revolutionize education in America by helping students become more engaged in school and providing teachers with a new way of seeing themselves as relevant educators in the 21st century.

In addition, because it uses common language, easily understood concepts and practical tools for dealing with everyday situations and problems, Top 20 can have a profoundly positive effect on any organization, from business to government to healthcare, enhancing relationships and experiences for all.

Our History

Many people are responsible for the creation of this Top 20 program. Throughout our lives, countless people young and old have shared their experiences, wisdom and life lessons with us. Because of this our lives have been greatly enriched. The quality of our relationships, education, and work have all been enhanced by what many people have shared with us. They have enabled us to have a great ride through life.

Besides trying to live the concepts presented in this Top 20 program ourselves, we have taught this material to thousands of students and parents at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a course called Thinking, Learning and Communicating. The course has come to be known as TLC. The enthusiastic response of our students to this material encouraged us to “spread the word.”

The development of the Top 20 program and the TLC course has involved the professional and personal journeys of five people.

Michael Cole’s work with Emotional Intelligence began two decades ago. After a less-than-stellar academic career, Michael found himself floundering in the hair-styling business. His life changed dramatically when he met Joe Francis, who mentored Michael in the Emotional Intelligence field. He and his wife Mary developed some of these ideas through their highly successful business, Salon Development Corporation.

The Coles first met Tom Cody when their two children attended Cretin-Derham Hall High School. In 1996, the Coles approached the school administrators with hopes that their Emotional Intelligence ideas could be implemented at the high school level. At that time, Tom, a math teacher at CDH since 1980, was developing Jump Start, a pilot summer program for orienting incoming freshmen. The Coles’ material was a perfect fit with Cody’s practical study skills course. When the course outgrew the two-week summer program, it was introduced into the mainstream curriculum at CDH in 2000-2001 as a 12-week class called Thinking, Learning and Communicating.

Meanwhile, Tom and Paul Bernabei had previously crossed paths as girls’ basketball coaches. Paul had been developing related concepts in his work as an educator and consultant. His work blended perfectly with that of the Coles and Tom. He joined the TLC team during its inaugural year.

In 2001, Willow Sweeney, a CDH social studies teacher, joined the team. She and Tom taught the classes on a daily basis while developing and testing the Top 20 Training curriculum. Bernabei and the Coles served as guest lecturers and program developers.

Top 20 Training was founded by Paul Bernabei, Tom Cody, Mary Cole, Michael Cole, and Willow Sweeney in 2001. They co-authored three books: Top 20 Teens: The Best-kept Thinking, Learning and Communicating Secrets of Successful Teenagers; Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Emotionally Healthy Children; and Top 20 Teachers: The Revolution in American Education. Paul, Tom and Willow have trained over 350,000 teachers, parents, coaches, professionals, and students.

The Top 20 curriculum is currently being used in hundreds of schools, corporations and organizations across the nation.


Key events in the history of Top 20 Training


Michael Cole is introduced to Tom Cody at Cretin-Derham Hall High School.


Jump Start summer program is introduced at Cretin-Derham Hall.


Thinking, Learning and Communicating (TLC) class begins with 108 students and grows to 260 in 3rd year. Mary Cole and Tom Cody co-teach first class; Paul Bernabei and Michael serve as guest lecturers; Willow Sweeney joins the 2nd year.


First Teacher Training and Parents Training.


Publication of Top 20 Teens: The Best-kept Thinking, Learning and Communicating Secrets of Successful Teenagers.


Teacher Manual for grades 7-12 is released; first national appearance at National Catholic Education Association conference in Boston.


Over 1,000 teachers trained from Idaho to Boston.


Second publication of Top 20 Teens; Grade 3-6 teacher manual published.


Publication of Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Emotionally Healthy Children Co-authored by Sharon Kaniess and Elaine Rilley (January)


Publication of Top 20 Teachers: The Revolution in American Education (August)


Presentation at first international education conference in Madrid, Spain


Top 20 Promotional video is produced.


First Coaches Training.


Third publication of Top 20 Teens.


Trainings have occurred in the following states across America.


Over 30,000 teachers trained.


Top 20 Training joins in partnership with the Minnesota State High School League. Many of the Top 20 Training concepts are used in the production of MSHSL’s training for coaches across the state of Minnesota.


Kevin Brennan joins the Top 20 Team of Trainers.


Partnership developed with The Master Teacher.


Top 20 Training begins a relationship with SAMs organization (National School Administration Manager Innovation Project). Top Trainers present at its National Convention 2013-2015


Develop training materials with The Master Teacher: PDXpert and PDNow (online training for teachers and parents).


The Living Top 20 website is launched as a membership online community, where those who have experienced Top 20 and want to have the concepts be a part of their daily lives can go for the resources to do so.


Seminars presented across Canada.


K-6 Smart Board Curriculum is created through partnership with St. Bonifice teachers in Cold Spring, MN.


Paul Bernabei releases his new book (co-authored by Kevin Brennan), Why Students Disengage in American Schools and What We Can Do About It.


Over 500,000 people have experienced a Top 20 Training seminar.

Who Is It For?


Top 20 Training is for students of all ages and grade levels. The concepts help any student looking for better relationships and experiences in the classroom, with friends and at home. The concepts can help with such challenges as:

  • Finding relevancy in classes that don’t seem appealing
  • Dealing with conflict with a teacher or a classmate
  • Procrastination and boredom
  • Staying focused
  • Building trust
  • Dealing with negativity

Top 20 Training offers a simple language that helps people discover critical thinking, learning and communicating skills. Whether it is through Top 20 books or training sessions, learning the concepts together provides parents and students greater benefits at a faster rate. When everyone in the family knows this language, the skills become easier to practice and implement into daily life. (SECRET: Parents sometimes benefit more from Top 20 Training than students and observe many positive changes in their own personal and professional lives.)
Top 20 Training helps parents:

  • Find ways to enhance and become a part of their child’s education
  • Obtain a shared working vocabulary of the content to help foster an environment where the concepts can be learned together
  • Communicate more effectively and improve their relationship with their children
  • Develop positive mental habits and reduce negative mental habits in their children.
  • Grow personally and be exposed to emotional intelligence.

Drawing on more than 50 years of experience coaching, Paul Bernabei and Tom Cody and Willow Sweeney share with coaches effective ways to connect with young athletes and develop their potential as individuals and as a team. Top 20 concepts provide coaches with tools to help young athletes be more successful as well as develop sportsmanship, leadership and on and off the field decision-making skills.

Sample Lesson: The level of success for an individual or team is determined by the following formula: Success = P1 x P2 x P3

P1 = Personal Power: Inside power that includes awareness of self, especially thinking and emotions

P2 = Physical Power: Athletic skill or talent

P3 = People Power: Outside power that includes what is communicated and goes out to others that forms positive or negative relationships

Top 20 Training enables athletes and coaches to create a more successful experience by providing them with tools for developing Personal (P1) and People (P3) Power.

For the past three years, Top 20 Training has partnered with the Minnesota State High School League to provide every high school in Minnesota with training or materials to help students, athletic directors, coaches, officials, parents and fans have a more positive experience from athletics and other co-curricular activities. To read more about this relationship, click here to go to success stories.


Top 20 concepts are helpful to people of all ages and professions. Top 20 training has been conducted for social workers, carpenters, chefs, car dealers, secretaries, accountants, business managers and a host of other professionals. Benefits for businesses and organizations include:

  • Reducing negativity from the workplace and creating a more positive culture
  • Building trust
  • Drawing out the talents of each team member
  • Enhancing communication and problem solving skills

Top 20 Training sessions have been conducted for numerous businesses and organizations. Some of those include:

  • 3M
  • Ameriprise
  • Behavioral Institute for Children and Adolescence
  • Bethel University
  • Cambridge College
  • Center for Diagnostic Imaging
  • Ecolab
  • Herb Brooks Foundation
  • Johnson Memorial Health Services
  • KPMG
  • Lifetouch
  • Minnesota Department of Human Services
  • Minnesota State High School League
  • National Citizens Review Panel
  • Northwestern Health Sciences University
  • Prudential
  • Ramsey County
  • RJF
  • Target
  • Thompson West
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of St. Thomas
  • Wells Fargo

How is it used?

Top 20 Concepts can be adopted in many different ways at school, home, in sports, or at the office. The most common questions we get surround how to implement at a school. Some examples that we recommend are listed below. In addition, watch the video below which features students talking about the benefits of the class and how it fit into their curriculum.

NOTE: in this example and this school, the Top 20 Training class is called TLC = Thinking, Learning, and Communicating.

As a stand-alone class or elective
Many schools, seeing the importance and value Top 20 adds to student development and school culture, have added Top 20 classes to their curriculum. Some of these classes meet every day for a quarter or semester. Some meet once weekly for the entire year. Teachers draw upon the lessons presented in the Top 20 teacher manuals for developing these courses.
As part of another class
Many teachers are incorporating Top 20 concepts into other content classes they are teaching. These include social studies, English, science, math, foreign language, art, physical education, religion and health. Teachers select concepts that have particular significance for their content area and make their subject matter more meaningful for their students.
Because some Top 20 concepts help students be more engaged in school, some teachers are incorporating selected Top 20 lessons at the beginning of the school year or semester. These teachers, choosing to present Top 20 concepts during the first week or two of their regular classes, sometimes cover more course content because the Top 20 concepts have prepared their students for learning. Covering concepts like Listening Levels, Nonverbal Communication, Stupid and Relevancy often removes barriers to learning.
Different grade levels
Certain topics can be taught at different grade levels. One school teaches all the thinking concepts to 6th grades, all the learning concepts to 7th graders and all the communicating concepts to 8th graders.
Multiple subject grouping
Teachers of various content subjects can work together to present several Top 20 concepts to their students. For example, a social studies teacher, an English teacher and a science teacher, all of whom teach the same grade level, can each select 3-4 different topics to be presented to the students. This allows the students to get 9-12 topics yet only requires each teacher to present 3-4.
During advisory or homeroom
Several schools are finding Top 20 content to be a valuable use of advisory time. Concepts can be broken into shorter time segments in order to fit into the advisory/homeroom time allotment.
After school or co-curricular activities
Teachers or volunteers of after school programs and coaches or moderators of co-curricular activities can incorporate Top 20 topics into those formats. An after school program might also provide the basis for creating a ‘study hall’ structure for time after school where Top 20 is taught and time is spent tutoring students who need extra help with specific subjects or study skills. Coaches can select specific topics (Above and Below the Line, Listening Levels, Mistakes) that would help students be more successful in sports or other activities. (The last four chapters of Top 20 Teachers: The Revolution in American Education focus on coaching sports teams or moderating other activities.)
Summer school
Top 20 as a summer school class has been offered for incoming high school freshman, especially those who may need a boost in order to succeed in high school. A summer orientation including Top 20 topics would benefit all students looking to maximize their potential for academic and social success in school.

Top 20 actually began as a summer school class to help students who were likely to struggle as they began high school. However, the principal quickly saw a universal application of the material and offered the class as an elective to all freshmen. Soon the majority of incoming freshmen signed up for the class.

Above and Beyond

This section is dedicated to highlighting SOME of the MANY things the Top 20 team is doing to spread the wisdom of Top 20 Training in ways that are ABOVE and BEYOND what you might expect. Much of us this is driven by people coming to Paul, Willow, Tom, and Kevin and saying things like, “could you train our whole town,” or “in addition to our all of teachers, the coaches would like to be trained” or “shouldn’t we just start our own Top 20 School?” Read below to learn more about how these ideas are now a reality.

Becoming a Top 20 School
A Top 20 school is intentionally implementing Top 20 principles and practices in order to fulfill the mission of a Top 20 School: to create a safe and healthy culture for all members of the school community where they develop their potential to think, learn and communicate more effectively in order to make a positive difference in their lives, relationships and experiences for others and themselves.
The mission of a Top 20 School is to help students, parents and staff become more aware of the power they possess within themselves to more often be the best version of themselves individually and as a community. All members of a Top 20 School know and are committed to achieving this mission. Although this mission may never be perfectly attained, it is always intentionally sought. Members of the school enjoy and celebrate growth towards this mission’s fulfillment and correct thoughts, beliefs and practices that are roadblocks to its achievement.

Let’s Train a Whole Community! – The Fairmont Project
Since 2012, Top 20 has partnered with the community of Fairmont in southwestern Minnesota. Led by Police Chief Greg Brolsma, the Chamber of Commerce, and business leaders, and school leaders, the Fairmont Project has resulted in several training sessions for students, parents, teachers, employees, senior citizens, religious leaders and coaches. Over 100 Fairmont residents, identified as Champions, continually promote Top 20 principles and practices throughout the community. Some of these efforts have included a Top 20 parent support group, regular newspaper articles, programs on local TV, and a Top 20 float in the annual summer festival parade. The Fairmont Project is being extended throughout Martin County in 2015.
Let’s Train the Coaches too! – Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL)
In an effort to support education-based co-curricular activities experienced by high school students, Top 20 has partnered with the MSHSL to provide training and materials for young athletes, coaches, parents and athletic directors. High School League executive director Jody Redman has teamed with Top 20’s Tom Cody to create and deliver curriculum aimed at identifying the real purpose behind high school athletics: the human development of young people. All Minnesota high school coaches are now required to participate in some training (live or on-line) that includes Top 20 principles and practices.

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