History and Foundations of Stress Challenge

The Stress/Challenge program was begun in 1984 by Pete Albert and Laurie Frank, a social worker and special education teacher. [more historical information] This time-tested program has reached thousands of students and staff in the MMSD. Currently the 1.0 teacher allocation and a small operating budget allows for direct service to 40-60 students a day on the ropes course and about 40 groups of students per year in the cave.

This adds up to about 4,000 students a year on the ropes course and about 1,000 students in the cave. About 30 MMSD schools a year participate in direct stress/challenge experiences with over 300 MMSD trained staff implementing a variety of programming.The program has been built on the cornerstones of Experiential Education defined and developed by Project Adventure, Inc. They are:

  • Challenge by Choice
  • Full Value Contract
  • Goal setting
  • Experiential Learning Cycle

Challenge by choice

Challenge by choice allows all participants to choose an appropriate level of challenge within an activity. These choices are supported by the group for every individual.

Full Value Contract

This is a community agreement that is created by each group. It is a guideline that allows each member of a group to feel valued and included, their strengths and limitations recognized by the group. Components often agreed on in a full value contract are (but not limited to):

  • Safety
  • Communication
  • Respect
  • Trust
  • Cooperation
  • Goal Setting

Participants in stress/challenge are encouraged to set personal and group goals related to the experience. The goals are revisited frequently and their outcome is evaluated by students at the end of the experience.

Experiential Learning Cycle

The ELC focuses on thinking about and expressing what was learned during an experience, how it relates to prior knowledge and how the new skills can be most effectively transferred to the next activity.

During stress/challenge experiences, participants are asked to relate the experience to school/home and at the conclusion encouraged to reflect on and express how the experience may transfer to the school environment. This often includes greater comfort level with classmates, new leadership identity, willingness to take safe and appropriate social and academic risks, understanding of differences, independent and group problem solving skills.


Most groups who participate in stress/challenge activities do so as part of an ongoing process of community building in their classroom. In preparation for a caving, ropes course, or other peak experience, groups are encouraged to create a full value contract, have an understanding of Challenge By Choice and set goals.

The format of classroom preparation varies. Teachers may do a sequence of activities that help students get to know each other better, cooperate with one another, solve problems as a group and develop trust.


Stress/challenge staff is available to assist teachers with selecting activities and relating them to academic content and goals.

There are over 300 stress/challenge trained staff throughout the district to help support students through the process of becoming an strong and caring learning community.

Contact Information

Carla Hacker
Physical Education & Health
Department of Curriculum & Assessment
Madison Metropolitan School District
545 W. Dayton St.
Madison, WI 53703