Getting the happiness formula right in the classroom

Employing positive psychology in schools can have lifelong benefits. AAP

Former Australian of the Year Pat McGorry has campaigned to bring attention to distress suffered by many young people in our increasingly stressful society.

Twenty six percent of young Australians experience mental illness. It is critical that we equip our youth with the skills to build their own resilience in order to prevent mental illness.

We also need to equip our youth with the higher order cognitive, social and emotional skills that allow them to connect meaningfully with their communities.

After all, we are counting on the youth of today to become the people who solve the multi-faceted challenges threatening our future. For this we need to foster a generation of youth who are be able to generate change on personal, social, national and global levels.

The role of schooling in creating such individuals is critical. As such, calls have been made for schools to adopt a new paradigm of education for the 21st century that promotes the development of the “whole person” and not just academic learning.

The Curriculum Standing Committee of National Education Professional Associations posits that “the broad overarching purposes of a twenty-first century curriculum should be to strengthen civil society and participative democracy, to promote individual development and social cohesion, to develop economic prosperity and environmental sustainability and to prepare students for active global citizenship.”

The new field of positive education has a key role to play in the reinvention of schools as described above. Simply defined, positive education is education for both traditional academic skills and for the skills that foster well-being.

A key tenet within the field of positive education is that the skills and mindsets which promote well-being can be explicitly taught, facilitated and assessed by schools.

Just as there are formulas and practices used to teach the skills of literacy and numeracy there are formulas and practices that can be used to teach our students the skills for well-being.

The field of positive education has included research into important topics such as resilience, positive emotion, engagement, character strengths, relationships and meaning.

Research has shown that positive education can lead to outcomes for students such as higher well-being and higher academic achievement. Additionally, learning the skills for well-being at school can have long term effects on career success, job satisfaction and income.

Importantly, there is early research to suggest that positive education can be used to cultivate empathy, altruism and pro-social behaviours.

With respect to well being outcomes, high school students who were instructed to keep a gratitude journal for a term were more optimistic about the future, had higher states of alertness, attentiveness, determination and energy, reported more positive attitudes toward school and more positive attitudes towards their families than students who did not keep gratitude journals.

Additionally, longitudinal research with students in grades 7 to 10 found that those students who experienced frequent positive emotions in school were more likely to display higher social support seeking.

Students enrolled in social and emotional learning programs rank 14 percentage points higher on achievement tests than students who do not participate in such programs.

Professor Barbara Fredericksons’ work has shown a clear link between positive emotions and cognitive skills such as brain storming, problem solving, perspective taking and creativity. All of these cognitive skills facilitate the student’s ability to learn.

Neuropsychology research supports the contention that well-being enhances learning. When students feel good their brain releases dopamine which enhances attention and improves various aspects of memory.

Positive education has developed scientifically validated techniques that schools can use to boost a student’s positive emotions and, thus, enhance their academic achievement.

In addition to boosting positive emotions, positive education programs also look to foster students’ personal qualities in a way that enhances academic achievement. For instance, longitudinal research using 140 eighth-grade students found that self-discipline predicted final grades, school attendance, and standardized achievement-test scores.

Scientific studies have found that academic achievement was positively related to the character strengths of perseverance, fairness, gratitude, honesty, hope, and perspective.

The positive education movement has shown that these personal qualities can be fostered by schools. This type of research brings hope to many students, who may not have the traditional academic abilities that have typically been fostered at school as a way to ensure success.

Furthermore, research also shows that the benefits of positive education do not end when the student leaves school. In a 15 year longitudinal study, happy teenagers went on to earn significantly higher salaries than their less happy peers, controlling for grades and family income whilst at school.

Positive emotions have also been linked with higher social interaction and higher interaction quality. These interpersonal states are critical for the collective approach that is so clearly needed to solve our global challenges.

To date, the research has built up a convincing case for the success of positive education in schools. Perhaps this is in part due to the natural alignment of the positive education approach with the calls for schools to reinvent themselves in the 21st century and to provide education that develops the ‘whole person’ via opportunities for social, cultural, emotional, and intellectual development.

However, for the positive outcomes above to be sustained and wide reaching, school systems and universities need to be thinking more strategically about how to embed positive education into the culture of teacher training, school leadership training and system-wide educational initiatives.

It is critical that positive education is woven into a wider curriculum, rather than being seen exclusively as a “well-being tool” and housed within pastoral care programs.

Education systems need to support the change towards 21st century schools and positive education movement by expanding the metrics upon which they evaluate school performance. Well-being should be an accepted indicator of school success.

At the school level, leaders need to consider the use of systems theory approach to embed positive education through curriculum, co-curriculum and pastoral care programs.

Whole school approaches are required where all staff (teaching and non teaching) are trained in positive education techniques so that the principles of positive education are modeled and supported throughout the entire fabric of the school.

Frameworks are always helpful as a way to guide the implementation of any new education initiative. In this case, Professor Martin Seligman’s PERMA model would be a useful framework for assisting school leaders to foster positive education in schools.

The PERMA model argues that there are 5 enabling conditions for well-being including positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. This model establishes a framework that embraces the promotion of one’s own well-being and achievement whilst simultaneously fostering a concern for others and the capacity to participate in civic responsibilities.

The Curriculum Standing Committee of National Education Professional Association’s report on “Developing a twenty-first century school curriculum for all Australian students” posits that the remit of schools is to develop successful learners who are confident individuals and responsible citizens.

Positive education offers a scientifically validated approach to ensure such outcomes are achieved.