There is a huge impetus at the moment toward putting well-being and mental health at the heart of our children’s school experience. This is such a positive and encouraging development, and many educators and agencies are now discussing what this might mean and how we can go about it.
As part of my M.Sc. in Applied Positive Psychology, I have been researching this issue and looking at how theory and evidence from Positive Education, which is the application of Positive Psychology to the education system, can help to inform us. Professor Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, defines Positive Education as traditional education which is enhanced by approaches that have been shown to support well-being and flourishing. Firstly, it is important to understand that well-being is a multi-dimensional concept, which is influenced by many different factors.
Many of these are outside the realm of the school, including societal, environmental and family issues. Of course, as a society, we need to be examining these issues and making the vital changes required. However, it makes sense to look at the research and see what schools can do to nurture and enhance well-being. Research shows that a two-part approach is most effective: Creating a whole-school culture of well-being. Teaching children evidence-based well-being skills and strategies and embedding them in day-to-day life. What does a whole school culture of well-being look like? A key aspect is our understanding of the word ‘culture’. To me, this word implies an ethos or value system, it is so much more than a set of guidelines or a programme. It is underpinned by a shared understanding of what is valued and deemed important within the school community. Respectful and supportive relationships within the whole-school community should form the basis of this culture, this applies to both staff and students alike. Acceptance, equality and valuing of all members of the school community is another key aspect. How are we showing our young people that we value them just as they are, irrespective of their academic talents or achievements? Of course, schools need to value and applaud achievement, both academic and non-academic, and this is often reflected in rituals, prize- giving ceremonies and displays. However, schools also need to take a holistic approach and find ways to celebrate and show that they value the many other qualities of their students.
Positive Education places great emphasis on developing and valuing students’ individual strengths, such as kindness, gratitude, optimism, creativity, emotional intelligence, curiosity, bravery, honesty, leadership, humour and forgiveness. These strengths should also be valued and embedded right across the whole school culture. Having embedded them within my own classroom practice this year, I’ve seen just how powerful this can be. Research shows that children thrive in school environments that foster their need for autonomy, competence, connectedness and belonging. Putting these needs at the forefront of whole-school policies and culture means ensuring the voice of the child is listened to, that children are given opportunities to exercise a sense of control and choice, that high expectations are conveyed and that children are supported in the development all of their competencies.
Having a deep sense of belonging and contributing to a nurturing, positive and supportive school community can provide a powerful base for a child to reach his or her potential and to flourish in so many different ways. As part of my research for my Master’s Degree, and in my role as the co-author of a new well-being skills-based programme for schools that is currently in development, I have been lucky enough to talk to many teachers and principals and visit schools in which I have witnessed wonderful work and initiatives to support a whole school culture of well-being. This work is inspiring and uplifting; I believe we need to start discussing and sharing what is being done in many schools already, so that other teachers and principals can be guided by this, without feeling overwhelmed by another initiative in our already busy and complex education system. Combining this work with research from Positive Education, and also with the development of a comprehensive skills-based approach, can provide us with a clear pathway towards prioritising well-being for all members of our school communities.