“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
School can be a time of great challenges, intellectual, socioemotional and physical and with the unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression in the world today, proactively raising children to effectively handle stress and adversity is the best antidote we can provide.
The aim of positive education is to promote a world of positive mental health and human flourishing through addressing school communities (Norrish et. Al, 2013). This involves educational institutions focusing on developing skills for well being and social responsibility as well as academic achievement (Oades, Robinson, Green, & Spence, 2011).
Positive Education uses the PERMA model, in conjunction with the Values In Action (VIA) Strengths Classification and resilience practices which form the fundamental pillars of creating positive institutions.
The PERMA model is, in summary, an acronym which was first presented by Seligman et al. (2009). It stands for 5 elements of well being namely Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.
While the introduction of the Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson and Seligman, 2014) began a movement into character strength education independent from previous religious, cultural, or political worldviews (Linkins et al., 2015).
Along with this is the idea is having the understanding that positive character is not innate but nurtured from a child’s values. This worldview helps to reveal a child’s natural abilities. Education can then effectively nurture these strengths and virtues and engage a child’s positive character development (Linkins et al., 2015).
The result of which is attention on each child’s individual strengths, tendencies, and goals, which in turn eliminates the need for competition whilst increasing social cohesion and collaboration in and outside the classroom.
The Positive Education movement helps prepare students to complete their formal schooling with the ability to manage their emotions, know and develop their strong suits, and emerge as well-rounded human beings, ready to handle life’s challenges outside of the classroom.
Research conducted over the last two decades has suggested that these sorts of initiatives lead to higher levels of creativity, leadership skills, and emotional intelligence in students. Furthermore, the improvements in academic performance and mental health have been significant.
The proven success of these interventions has led to increased research and the formation of organizations to consolidate and corroborate the efforts among different schools. Two of the leading organizations are
The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) is just one of many institutions developing uniform practices and policy reform. It aims to bring teachers, parents, academics, student, schools, colleges, universities, charities, companies, and governments together to promote positive education.
The second is Positive Education Schools Association (PESA). A school association working on embedding Positive Psychology into school programs, aiming to improve student well being and academic performance. This association helps schools and individual teachers to gain access to resources, the latest research, and enabling connections to the leaders in the field of Positive Psychology.
In 2013, Canadian-American journalist Paul Tough wrote a book called “How Children Succeed” (https://www.amazon.com/How-Children-Succeed-Curiosity-Character/dp/0544104404) , in which he thoroughly justifies that pure intelligence and academic competencies are not enough for students to succeed in school. He argues that grit, resilience, and other character traits should be emphasized in schools, much more than they are now.
A study performed by Furlong, Gilman and Huebner (2009) states that “a key premise of effective schools is building resilience and strong interpersonal relationships”. Resilience skills include problem-solving, autonomy, social competence and sense of purpose for the future. In the ideal positive education setup, students would be given autonomy of choice responsibility for actions and learning from a younger age.
In these types of classroom settings, students are also treated differently when it comes to praise and discipline. A study by Hurlock (1925) found praise to be a more effective classroom motivator than punishment regardless of age, gender, or ability.
Many kinds of research have been conducted to find out whether positive psychology can help students increase their well-being and do well in school and the results have been astounding. Below are just some of the noteworthy benefits of positive education:
Happy students make high achievers
A study performed by Fisher (2015) found that happier students pay better attention, are more creative, and have greater levels of community involvement. The same was true for how positive education improved engagement, created curiosity in students, and helped to develop an overall love of learning (Fisher, 2015).
Positive Education promotes positive human behavior and success
Clonan et al. (2004) found that the incorporation of positive psychology in learning environments served as a preventative focus, and helped students be successful. Positive education also showed to have a lasting impact and change on student behaviour compared with traditional education practices.
Teaches students how to make themselves happy
In some schools with Positive Education, young boys and girls aged 14 to 15 completed a 40-minute timetabled lesson on the skills of wellbeing every 2 weeks for 2 years. The results of which showed students gained a full understanding of what factors helped a life thrive and flourish and had learnt practical skills they could use every day (Green, 2015).
Sadly, there is a very high rate of depression among young children and teenagers. They experience little life satisfaction, resilience, and meaning (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009).
Positive psychology interventions that are used in Positive Education include identifying and developing strengths, cultivating gratitude, and visualizing the best possible self (Seligman et al., 2005, Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). A meta-analysis with 4,266 participants found that positive psychology interventions increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms significantly (Sin and Lyubomirksy, 2009).
Makes teachers’ lives easier
Positive education benefits the teacher, too. Positive education creates a school culture that is caring and trusting, and prevents problem behavior. Positive institutions have also been found to support engagement with students and facilitate perseverance in their academic material (Fisher, 2015).
Higher motivation among students
In relation to achievement goals, expectancy beliefs, and value it is found that task goals associated positively with optimism resulted in a highly motivated student (Fadlelmula, 2010). Research has shown that motivation may be consistent and long-term if it is always paired with positive psychology interventions.
The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) (https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/services/penn-resilience-training) was developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Results from 19 controlled studies of PRP found that students who receive PRP were more optimistic, resilient, and hopeful. Their scores on standardized tests increased by 11% and they had less anxiety approaching exams.
Greater Success in Career
Development of strengths, such as perseverance, curiosity, and kindness, has been strongly correlated with academic performance, as well as success in the workplace. Moreover, recent research suggests that emotional intelligence may be the most accurate predictor of how well an employee will fare in a work environment.
In the time since Martin Seligman established the basic tenets of positive psychology, they have been implemented worldwide in many different ways. While the objective of positive education is giving students the tools to make meaningful relationships, feel good, become well-rounded, and bring positivity to everything that they do is common among all positive institutions, each has its own approach to doing so.
Some institutions have taken a whole school approach such as Geelong Grammer School and Perth Collage, there are also programs such as the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and Penn Resiliency Program which are content rather than context specific.
While some schools seek to point out when students display certain strengths and acknowledge and encourage them, others take a more direct approach. At the Geelong Grammar School, specific time blocks have been set aside in their normal coursework (math, history, etc.) to teach and cultivate positive emotions and character traits.
Most importantly, there should be solid relationship between teachers, faculty, parents and students to ensure the support and collaboration needed each child to flourish. In this way, the positive institution becomes a community where flourishing and positive mental health are as important as academic achievement.
In essence, positive education for children in elementary school can be employed if using the positive psychology interventions of ‘gratitude, optimism, flow, virtues, language, character strengths and appreciative inquiry’ (Waters, 2014). It is also expected that well-being be one of the factors that indicate school success.