Using positive psychology to boost pupil wellbeing
Go straight to
Positive psychology has been described as a scientific study of subjective wellbeing. This is the technical term for what we would call ‘happiness' and the factors that enable us as individuals in order to grow and develop and sustain ourselves in a positive manner.
Key to this approach is the focus on what actually works for us as individuals, as opposed to the continual analysing of what has gone wrong or what we are not good at.
This is particularly important given the current prevalence of mental health issues among our young people. The fact that approximately 1 in 10 young people suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, which would amount to three pupils in every class, is reason enough why the school-based staff should focus on the development of key skills to promote resilience and happiness.
Mental health should clearly be linked to, or described as, an increase in the general degree of happiness, vitality, sense of self-worth and achievement alongside an individual's concern and empathy for others.
Within a school-based context this would suggest that any curriculum should actively prevent unhappiness, for example bullying, violence and conflict, while encouraging learners and those supporting them in schools to achieve their goals, to feel love, to feel joyful, to be energetic and to care about others (Weare 2000).
In recent years there have been a plethora of initiatives in terms of supporting the emotional wellbeing and social and emotional skills development of young people. This includes the development of healthy schools policies which include mental, social and emotional health, i.e. policies that actively prevent bullying, violence and conflict. There has also been a focus through the PSHE/SEAL curriculum on including and developing personal and emotional literacy skills among staff and pupils alike.
The creation of supportive environments where all individuals actively and openly care for each other has also been promoted as best practice.
The goal of positive psychology is basically to enhance human strengths such as optimism, courage, honesty, self-understanding and interpersonal skills. This is the opposite of focusing on what Dr Martin Seligman calls ‘focusing on the broken things and on repairing the damage of past traumas'.
Positive psychology provides a means of helping the individual to use inner resources as a buffer against setbacks and adversity in life whenever these crop up. Developing such skills helps to prevent individuals from becoming depressed. As Seligman states, ‘it's not about how to heal; it's about to have a great life'.
Seligman and his associates developed an intervention designed to instill a sense of optimism which they defined as a positive way of construing the failures and setbacks that normally occur in life. This is similar to approaches utilised in cognitive behaviour therapy in which participants are encouraged to construe failures in a more positive light.
For example, if you consider that failures are stable and pervasive then they will last forever and subsequently undermine everything that you try to do - this will ultimately lead to depression. However if we can train young people and ourselves to view such setbacks and difficulties as temporary or affecting only a small part of our lives then the depression can be averted.
In a recent project involving university students, psychologists screened students using a questionnaire that measured their optimism and resilience. The students who scored the lowest for optimism were then randomly assigned to either low intervention or to a workshop designed to develop their skills which would boost optimism.
Key among these skills taught in a workshop was the cognitive therapy approach known as disputing. Students were taught to recognise their own negative automatic thoughts about themselves and to then argue against these thoughts as if they were disputing them as an external critic.
Of the 126 subjects who took part, 119 controls were then followed up for 8-10 years. It was particularly pleasing that during young adulthood those who had participated in the positive psychology programme when they were in college were half as likely to have had episodes of moderate uni-polar depression (13%) as with the control subjects (27%). Similarly the subjects who had taken part in the workshops had half the rate of generalised anxiety disorders compared with the controls.
Any positive psychology approach in schools therefore needs to focus upon ensuring that young people have optimum opportunities to experience positive emotions. This will ensure their ability to attend to lessons, increase working memory and verbal fluency and also ensure an increased openness to information. Seligman highlights three essential areas that are key to happiness and wellbeing. These are:
- hope and optimism
- happy memories.
All three of these can be seen to improve learning in the classroom.
Building hope and optimism is clearly a key aspect of education. Pupils will generally learn if they feel hopeful about their own skills and their future lives and it is optimism which ensures that both young people and adults can develop resiliency skills; bouncing back from adversity and remaining in control of their own emotions and behaviours.
Resilience is something that develops through positive relationships and it is vital according to positive psychologists that young people have the opportunity to develop these traits in living, what is termed a ‘connected childhood'. This involves having at least one adult who believes totally in their worth and abilities and who also has the capacity and commitment to redirect the pupil towards being productive, successful and happy.
Key to promoting and maintaining this optimism is the concept of flow. This is defined as a sense of deep engagement in an activity during which time passes extremely quickly and the individual is able to work at full capacity.
Nothing distracts them as they learn and make progress towards their ultimate goals. The aftermath to this state is truly invigorating as the individual will feel happy and relaxed with a sense of achievement. This is something that we should strive for with all our pupils.
However, translating this kind of absorption into more formal learning settings can be a challenge in that it is easier to achieve flow in activities which are self-selected and intrinsically enjoyable.
What is essential is that challenge is relevant to the task. If it's too great the pupil will feel anxious or frustrated whereas when it is appropriate, i.e. there is a good balance between the skill in the challenge, then the young person will succeed and begin to achieve this state of flow.
Happy memories, are as Seligman stated, ‘extremely important for ensuring happiness and wellbeing; the way that we feel about the past and our experiences can clearly impact both positively and negatively on how we feel and function at the present time'.
Pupils in classrooms who only remember how badly they did last time are likely to underperform this time - this is basic common sense.
What teachers need to do is to encourage pupils to pay attention to what they did well and what they got right particularly when struggling with new challenges.
Useful references and resources
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, HarperCollins
- DCSF (2009) Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, DCSF
- DCSF (2007) Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning for Secondary Schools: Staff Development Booklet, DCSF
- Dweck, C. (2000) Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development, Psychology Press
- Green, H., McGinnity, A. and Meltzer, H. (2005) Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain, Palgrave
- Seligman, M. (2004) Authentic Happiness, Free Press
- Seligman, M. (1995) The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin
- Weare, K. (2000) Promoting Mental, Emotional and Social Health: A Whole School Approach, London: Routledge