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Does Positive Education really live up to the hype?

Positive Education has been a buzz word of recent years. It is a branch of the science of positive psychology, placing wellbeing at the centre of learning communities to enable flourishing. Some claim that it improves academic performance but does it really live up to the hype? As a parent and a Learning Support Officer (LSO), I have seen the impact of anxiety on children and so I have so many questions. Let’s explore the research.

In Australia, an independent school, Geelong Grammar School (GGS) pioneered a positive education model in consultation with Martin Seligman. The school wanted to take a proactive approach to avoid the mental health issues that children and adolescents are faced with today. Shockingly and sadly, in 2013-2014, 13.6% (314,000) of children aged between 4 -11 years experienced a mental disorder in the 12 months prior. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase of calls to the Kids Helpline demonstrating that our children’s mental health is under threat. Unfortunately, it’s not only our youths who are suffering. Australia’s teachers and leaders are burning out and leaving the profession at an alarming rate (Henebery, 2021).

What is Positive Education and can it help?

Positive Education is “education for both traditional skills and for happiness”. It is a whole-school, multi-component, collective and collaborative approach, enabling sustained change (as opposed to unidimensional and single programs). These programs such as Learn it, Live it, Teach it, Embed it target internal and external influences at the school, classroom and individual level. Whole-school programs such as this build connectedness and a sense of belonging for students, teachers, parents and the community, creating positive and sustainable wellbeing.

This sounds tough to put into practice, especially in current school environments where time is limited and teachers are already under pressure to deliver a jam packed curriculum and to achieve high results in standardized tests. Adding complexity, there’s not one way to implement Positive Education. As each school differs and has different priorities, the choice should suit the desired school culture and the current needs. As you can imagine, this would be no easy or quick feat! The learnings of the past decade of positive education suggests that it takes 3-5 years to reap the whole-school benefits of a positive institution, requiring tenacious leaders and highly motivated and engaged staff and parents.

Do these programs really make a difference?

GGS have certainly noticed improvements in several areas. When compared to similar schools, GGS students have higher wellbeing across all school years (7-12) and reduced anxiety and depression. A large review found that school-based wellbeing programs had small to moderate positive impacts on academic achievement when compared to control groups of similar students (an additional three months of learning gain). The review also highlighted that school belonging and engagement programs had the greatest impact. These social and emotional programs also improve social skills, behaviour, attitudes, emotional skills and academic performance from Kindergarten to high school. I’m keen so see high quality research that includes schools with cultural diversity, in low socio-economic environments and with neurodiverse populations. Ultimately, we want our children to be happy in school.

Character Strengths Intervention

The benefits of particular interventions to use in the classroom (and at home), have been researched. Identifying and using a student’s signature character strengths has benefits such as promote resilience, increase positive emotion and a sense of meaning and purpose and have been studied across cultures. Following this character strengths intervention process, here are four steps to help you learn more about your own character strengths:

1. Identification: identify your own signature strengths by completing the free VIA Classification survey. Become familiar with your strengths and the different strengths.

2. Recognition: Identify when you are using your strength in your daily life. Recognise strengths in others (and mention it to them!)

3. Action: when completing tasks, identify how you can utilize your strengths in your life. Here is a fantastic list of suggestions on how to incorporate your strengths into your daily life, including movie suggestions!

4. Reflection: write down when you used your strength throughout the day

You may find that doing this will not only allow you to become familiar with character strengths to enable better teaching (whether you are a teacher or a parent) but may also contribute to your motivation and enjoyment levels. Try these steps and let me know how you go in the comments!

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