As I’m about to walk into my son’s school to discuss how they can best support him to be successful in high school, I keep thinking “What is success?”, “What does it look like?”, “What do I want them to know about my son?” The more I think, the clearer it is to me that success is not reflected in test scores, which college he will attend, or how much money he will make. When I think about my children’s success I think about them having the ability to solve problems, to adapt to different situations, to have empathy, to know how to interact with others in a positive way, to be assertive, and most of all, to be resilient.
Two important indicators of success are adaptability and resilience. Throughout human history and human development, the ability to adapt to changes and bounce back from setbacks has been crucial for survival and personal growth. In this time where everyone gets a trophy and a sense of entitlement seems to be the norm, teaching our students the social-emotional skills needed to develop a growth-mindset, take responsibility for their actions, learn from mistakes and recover from disappointments, is of the utmost importance.
Looking at what is wrong with people’s mental state and how to “fix” it has been my focus for many years while practicing in the clinical mental health field. When I transitioned into working in a school setting and was able to see first- hand all the potential embodied in children, I became passionate about the field of Positive Psychology, “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, believes that the gold standard to measure well-being is what he calls “flourishing.” The 5 pillars of flourishing are summarized in his PERMA model. PERMA stands for:
- Positive Emotions – Feeling positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, interest, and hope;
- Engagement – Being fully absorbed in activities that use your skills but still challenge you;
- Relationships – Having positive relationships;
- Meaning – Belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than yourself;
- Accomplishment – Pursuing success, winning achievement and mastery.
The Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School (GGS) in Australia, with Dr. Seligman’s guidance, has developed a whole-school approach to well-being based on Positive Education. The Institute’s Model for Positive Education comprises six related domains:
- Positive Relationships – Social-emotional skills to create, promote and nourish relationships. Key Topics: kindness, leadership, teamwork, forgiveness, and empathy.
- Positive Emotions – Skills and knowledge on how to experience and build positive emotions. Key topics: positivity, gratitude, self-control and emotional intelligence.
- Positive Health – Practice habits for optimal physical and psychological health. Key topics: physical wellbeing, self-awareness, mind-body connection, and resilience.
- Positive Engagement – Promote complete immersion in activities by understanding what engagement is, how to achieve it and the role it has in individual wellbeing. Key topics: motivation, creativity, curiosity, and flow.
- Positive Accomplishment – Enable individual growth through striving for and achieving meaningful outcomes. Key topics: goal setting, growth mindset, grit, and decision making.
- Positive Purpose – Understanding, believing in and serving something greater than yourself and engaging deliberately in activities to benefit others. Key topics: core values, character development, and sense of meaning.
The World Government Summit, in collaboration with the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), published a report in 2017 on The State of Positive Psychology. David Bott, the Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education, shared the strategies for implementation as well as research findings in the 10 years they have been using this approach. He explains that “all new staff joining GGS, both teaching and non-teaching, complete a four- day introductory course in positive education prior to commencing their employment, and existing staff receive the equivalent of one day of training each year.”
The ongoing staff training is indicative of the focus on making the well-being benefits of positive education accessible to both staff and students. In addition, parents are also offered regular opportunities to learn about Positive Psychology and are encouraged to model it in their interactions with their children. In regards to the teaching component, it is delivered in two ways: explicitly, through formal classes to learn skills that will allowed them to cultivate well-being (as explained above in the six- domain model); and implicitly, by infusing well-being concepts into other subject areas so all the academic goals are approached and attained supporting students’ flourishing. However, what brings it all together, is the broader vision of embedding the positive education model of well-being and flourishing into school culture.
There is ongoing research utilizing psychological, physiological, and behavioral measures to determine the effectiveness of the Positive Education model in schools. A longitudinal study of a GGS student cohort, led by Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick from the University of Melbourne, found the following:
- Ninth grade students within the GGS Positive Education program experienced significantly improved mental health (decreased depressive and anxiety symptoms) and well-being (e.g., life satisfaction, positive emotions, engagement, meaning), and described the Positive Education program as a major contributor for feeling more resilient, confident, and self-accepting in their ability to achieve goals.
- Ninth grade students used specific well-being strategies taught through the Positive Education program to help them respond effectively to everyday life events, including resilient thinking, taking personal action to handle challenging situations, using strengths, and expressing gratitude.
- Tenth grade students showed a significant increase in levels of growth mindset, meaning, and hope.
- Tenth grade students reported significantly higher levels of well-being, social relationships, and physical health.
- Tenth grade students’ heart rate variability increased significantly from pre to post assessments, indicating greater adaptability to environmental cues and thus greater resilience.
- Over the three-year study, GGS students, relative to comparison students, reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness, gratitude and perseverance.
“Critical to the ongoing success and broader acceptance of Positive Psychology is the growing body of evidence indicating that carefully implemented positive education programs reduce the incidence of mental illness and promote well-being among young people.” According to David Bott, the Positive Education program at GGS is among those showing the most promising results, with decreases in GGS students’ levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as increases in their self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, and optimism.
Schools can and should be the microcosm to enable students to flourish and to promote their well-being. Schools can play an important role in helping students develop the social-emotional skills needed to be more self-aware, own their story, develop positive connections, have a sense of meaning and purpose, and be able to overcome obstacles by seeing them as opportunities. In addition, by identifying children’s strengths and building on them, we can help them not only discover who they are, but also encourage them to become who they are meant to be. It’s only then that they will be able to achieve real success in life.
Bringing the science of Positive Psychology into schools, by utilizing the PERMA model in combination with a strength-based approach, is an effective way to place well-being at the heart of education. However, this is not just another curriculum to teach, it requires a shift in both the school culture and the focus of our educational goals. It needs to first be learned and practiced by the school community at large including parents, teachers, administrators, and school staff and then brought to students as it becomes embedded in the school culture.
Placing a stronger emphasis on promoting students’ wellbeing can help prepare them to face the transitions and challenges they will encounter throughout their lives. It will foster empathy, resilience, and adaptability, but requires meaningful and substantive changes to our educational approach and focus, to place flourishing at the core.
Yudith Furman is the Director of Counseling at Brauser Maimonides Academy, focusing on helping students to become more self-aware, increase empathy, and be more resilient, and provides support to teachers and parents. Yudith is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Qualified Supervisor for the State of Florida and was recently certified as an Applied Positive Psychology Practitioner.