Around the world, an increasing number of schools are signing up to positive psychology methods, which aims to foster well-being and happiness in young students. Positive education theory is not as new as it seems; indeed, its roots can be traced back to earlier educational movements and theory, including the relatively recent theory of emotional intelligence, which values the different ways each child processes and applies information, and which brands the ability to interact well in a social setting (inter-personal intelligence), as an important life skill we can all learn. Positive education has been an important part of life at Geelong Grammar School since 2008 and the method is likewise used in several schools at a worldwide level.
Positive Education: Tackling Difficult Issues for the Youth
Depression is one of the most pressing challenges faced by students in Australia, with recent surveys indicating that one in three girls and one in four boys are facing this condition, with many turning to violence, substance abuse and unwanted sex because they lack the confidence to say no. These issues affect academic performance but also relationships with families and economic circles. They also pose an economic burden, since rehabilitation and therapy can incur significant costs for families. Statistics indicate that 40% of children/youths aged 12-17 have consumed a full serving of alcohol, some 17% of 15-18 year olds had sexual encounters while inebriated (which they subsequently regretted). Additionally, alcohol is a factor in the three major causes of teen death: injury, homicide and suicide. Some of the most common drugs or substances taken by those aged 12-17 include alcohol, inhalants, cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy. Some 1.7% of this group have tried cocaine, and 1.6% have tried heroin. The aim of positive education is to help raise confidence, improve communication skills and improve well-being through a multi-pronged approach, in an effort to reduce the onset of mental illness and addiction, which can begin at an early age.
Key elements of Positive Education
The positive education method is usually attributed to Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who created a specific positive education programme for the students of Geelong Grammar School in Victoria. Seligman defines positive education as a method that seeks to teach children “traditional skills and happiness”. The roots of positive education, however, reach further into the past, – as early as the 1970s, when the importance of self-esteem in students first began to be appreciated and discussed. Since then, many attempts have been made to see the aim of educating as preparing the ‘whole child’ for life both within and beyond their stay at academic institutions.
Schools Teaching Positive Education
At Geelong Grammar, positive education is taught implicitly to younger students, while specific positive psychology programmes are taught to older students. At Wellington College in the UK, meanwhile, students aged 14 and 15 receive one 40-minute lesson on well-being skills every two weeks for two years. The programme helps children identify the key elements that are necessary to achieve well-being, and teaches them practical skills they can use in daily life. Other schools, meanwhile, focus on on coaching psychology, offering leadership coaching for teachers. Dr. Suzy Green, of the University of Sydney, makes the important point that while positive education and coaching psychology are two methods which are currently not used simultaneously, both can be used to improve outcomes for teachers, students and schools as a whole.
The Benefits of Positive Education
The academic benefits of adopting a positive education programme are plentiful. Geelong Grammar School identifies the following:
- Flourishing: Students who feel good, do good. In contrast, students struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression encounter significant challenges in their schoolwork.
- Positive relationships: Students are able to create nourishing relationships with their peers, which also has positive effects on their grades.
- Positive emotions: Positive emotions have been linked to success in life.
- Positive health: Children are encouraged to adopt healthy, sustainable practices which optimises their physical and mental health. They are encourage to sleep well, consume a healthy diet and engage in exercise – all these factors help young students concentrate in class and improves their working memory, cognitive functions and visual-spatial processing.
- Positive engagement: Children who are alert, curious and interested in the world and their studies achieve greater motivation.
- Positive accomplishment: Children are encouraged to identify and reach for goals.
- Positive purpose: Children are taught to take part in activities that benefit others.
- Strengths: Children are encouraged to develop specific strengths, such as persistence and self-regulation.
Through positive education, students learn about the importance of gratitude, mindfulness and resilience –values and skills they are able to take with them throughout their adulthood, where competitive work environments require the same skills for staff to flourish. It is vital that individual programmes be created for more schools, in order to meet the specific needs of students and staff alike.
Useful further reading and citations:
Recovery, Using Insurance to Help Cover Addiction Recovery Costs, accessed July, 2014.
Psychology.org.au, Positive education: Creating fluorishing students, staff and schools, accessed July, 2014.
A Grant et al, Developmental Coaching for high school teachers: Executive coaching goes to school. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research. 2010, 62(3): 151-168.
S.M. Clonan et al, Positive psychology goes to school: Are we there yet? Psychology in the Schools. 2004, 41(1): 101-110.