In the nearly 20 years that positive psychology has officially been a science, one of the biggest areas it has impacted is education.
There is no standard for implementing the research findings of positive psychology into the classroom (it might even defeat the purpose if there was), however, there are many practices which have been successful and are shared among schools which are aiming to apply positive education in the classroom.
What is Different About Positive Education?
Positive education typically involves focusing on the individual’s strengths, tendencies, and goals to prepare them to leave school with the ability to manage their emotions well, know how to use and develop their strong suits, and emerge as well-rounded human beings ready to handle life’s challenges.
“Teaching is the greatest act of optmism”.- Colleen Wilcox
As mentioned previously, positive education provides a less rigid and typical scale for students to measure themselves against, which eliminates the need for competition amongst peers and allows for stronger collaboration.
A big component of this individualized style of learning involves teachers identifying and developing their students’ socioemotional skills, also referred to as character strengths.
Development of these strengths, such as perseverance, curiosity, and kindness, have been strongly correlated with improved 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.
“Emotional intelligence begins to develop in the earliest years. All the small exchanges children have with their parents, teachers and with each other carry emotional messages.” – Daniel Goleman
Schools have taken many different approaches to integrating strength-building into their standard curriculum. While some schools seek to point out when students display certain strengths and acknowledge and encourage them, others take a more direct approach.
Several of the teachers at the Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, Australia have dedicated specific time blocks within their normal coursework (math, history, etc.) to teach and cultivate positive emotions and character traits. One of the particularly interesting approaches in regards to teaching character strengths is used by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of charter schools, it is called the Character Growth Card.
The Character Growth Card
In 2013, Canadian-American journalist Paul Tough wrote a book called “How Children Succeed“, in which he thoroughly justified that pure intelligence and academic competencies were not enough for students to succeed in school.
He argued that instead, grit, resilience and other character traits should be emphasized in schools, much more than they are currently being taught. Not only does this just make sense (in terms of raising happy, productive kids), but doing so, actually leads to better short -term academic performance.
The acclaimed charter school network, KIPP, took many of these ideas and made them an official part of how they do things at their high schools. They used a character “report card”, where students were assigned grades not only for academic subjects like math and history, but also for how they well they performed (according to teacher observation) on a series of seven character traits that they took from the Virtues In Action research of Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson.
It is now called the Character Growth Card, emphasizing the importance of growth instead of the grade. KIPP’s system enables formal discussion and measurement of traits in addition to the traditional academic subjects.
But can we really teach these skills? KIPP does it in a few ways: teachers model the positive behavior, call out positive examples of the character traits in
KIPP says yes and does so in a few ways: teachers model the positive behavior, call out positive examples of the character traits in action and discuss the traits openly and explicitly. There is no formal curriculum around “zest” or “gratitude”, but KIPP faculty believe that calling out examples of behaviors and modeling these traits when they naturally occur goes a long way.
Not everyone seems to think that KIPP’s method is the best. In this critique, Jeffrey Snyder argues that we don’t actually know how to teach character strengths and that numerically measuring it can do more harm than good. But, even critics of KIPP’s approach agree that calling attention to character and applying positive psychology in schools is a huge step forward.
Other Positive Education Practices
The tenets of positive psychology have been used to create several other teaching techniques that have proved to be extremely effective. One of these is the jigsaw classroom, a technique in which students are split up into groups based on shared skills and competencies.
Each student is assigned a different topic and told to find students from other groups who were given the same topic. The result is that each group has a set of students with different strengths, collaborating to research the same topic.
The influence of positive psychology has even extended to the classroom dynamic. In the ideal setup, more power is given to the students in choosing their own curriculum and students are given responsibility from a much younger age.
In these types of classroom settings, students are often treated differently when it comes to praise and discipline. A study of praise conducted by Elizabeth Hurlock found praise to be a more effective classroom motivator than punishment regardless of age, gender, or ability.
And when it comes to effective disciplinary practices, positive psychology has its own innovative approach as well.
In a given school year, approximately 100,000 students will be expelled from public schools throughout the United States. Some of these students will not be able to return to a school in their entire state, and most others will be forced to leave their local public school for up to an entire school year. And when it comes to suspensions (where the student stays home for up to 10 days) the yearly count in the US rises to 3 million.
Considering how many days of school and learning are lost to expulsions and suspensions, progressive school administrators around the country are starting to rethink how we discipline our kids.
Sure, the offending behavior may have compromised the safety and learning environment of other kids. But what can help the child learn from his or her mistakes, and not repeat their behavior once back in school? And if expelled, how are they likely to behave in their new environments?
Many would argue that these types of punishments serve to further alienate these children physically and emotionally from their peers, only making them more likely to repeat their harmful behaviors.
But what if there was another way? There is! And it is called “Restorative Practices”.
The idea behind restorative practices is that a behavior warranting disciplinary action is such because that behavior had a specific effect on the school environment, and thus that effect is what is should be the primary focus of the disciplinary action.
For example, in a minor case, Maria’s excessive speaking out loud during class disrupts her peers’ ability to focus. In a traditional disciplinary setting, the teacher might simply ask Maria to stop talking, or give her a “time out”.
By contrast, in a restorative practice, the teacher would question Maria as to why she is speaking out of turn, explains what effect she’s having on the students around her, and whether she thinks it’s fair for the other students to be on the receiving end of that behavior.
In the extreme case, where a suspension or expulsion might be in store, such as the classic case of a student provoking and participating in a fight, the restorative practice would naturally be more formal.
The child would participate in a meeting with other students and adult leaders in the school. They would discuss what spurred the student to start the fight, how it affected the others involved, and what might the student do instead if he found himself in a similar position–with a similar temptation–in the future. The student might also be assigned activities or programs that would help prevent further fights.
The next question is, does it work?
According to one school district, “89 percent of those who go through restorative practices do not re-offend”. It also helps that the system is inspired from the “restorative justice” practices of the criminal justice system, so it is not a new concept.
And when it comes to helping children actually learn and develop from their mistakes instead of facing arbitrary and potentially destructive punishments, it is a step in a logical direction.
Where Are We Now?
In the time since Martin Seligman established the basic tenets of positive psychology, many have been implemented worldwide in different ways.
The objective of giving students the tools is to make them feel good, have meaningful relationships, become well-rounded and bring positivity to everything that they do. This is common among all positive institutions even though each has its own approach to doing so.
For example, Perth College (an Anglican school for girls in Western Australia) trains its staff in positive psychology and coaching and have full units for ethical issues and social justice. Other schools, however, utilize what is known as the Montessori system, which emphasizes student-led, project-based curriculums in order to enhance creativity and hands-on learning.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Envolve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Research conducted over the last two decades has suggested that these sorts of initiatives lead to students growing up with higher levels of creativity, leadership skills, and emotional intelligence. Furthermore, they even lead to improved academic performance and significantly better mental health.
With the unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression in the world today, proactively raising children to effectively handle these problems may be the best antidote we can provide.
Here’s a great Ted Talk about positive education from Dr. Ilona Boniwell.
With the success of many of these approaches, many organizations are starting to grow in an attempt to consolidate and organize the efforts among different schools. If you are curious about how to start your Positive Education journey, you can check out these networks, associations, and references below.
Positive Education Networks and Associations
IPEN is a network that aims to bring teachers, parents, academics, student, schools, colleges, universities, charities, companies, and governments together to promote positive education.
PESA is a school association working on embedding Positive Psychology into school programs, aiming to improve student wellbeing and academic performance. This association help schools and individual teachers to gain access to resources, the latest research, and enabling connections to the leaders in the field of Positive Psychology.
Our 13 Must-Read Books on Positive Education
Adams, M. (2013). Teaching that changes lives: 12 mindset tools for igniting the love of learning. Berrett-Koehler. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Bruehl, M. (2011). Playful learning: Develop your child’s sense of joy and wonder. Boston: Trumpeter. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Buller, J. (2013). Positive academic leadership: How to stop putting out fires and start making a difference. Jossey-Bass. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Canter, L. (2009). Lee Canter’s assertive discipline: Positive behavior management for today’s classroom (4th ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Crimmins, D., Farrel, A., Smith, P., & Bailey, A. (2007). Positive strategies for students with behavior problems. Baltimore: Brookes Pub. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Crone, D., Hawken, L. S., Horner, R. (2015). Building Positive Behavior Support Systems in Schools, Second Edition: Functional Behavioral Assessment (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press. Buy the book online from Amazon.
David, D., & Sheth, S. (2009). Mindful teaching & teaching mindfulness: A guide for anyone who teaches anything. Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Froh, J. J., & Parks, A. C. (2012). Activities for teaching positive psychology: A guide for instructors. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Ginsburg, K., & Jablow, M. (2014). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings (3rd ed.). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Joseph, S. (2015). Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life (2nd ed.). Wiley. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Morrison, M. (2007). Using humor to maximize learning the links between positive emotions and education. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Education. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Nelson, J., Lott, L., & Glenn, S. (2000). Positive Discipline in the Classroom: Developing Mutual Respect, Cooperation, and Responsibility in Your Classroom. Harmony. Buy the book online from Amazon.
Nelson, J., Escobar, L., Ortolano, K., Duffy, R., & Owen-Sohocki, D. (2001). Positive Discipline: A Teacher’s A-Z Guide, Revised 2nd Edition: Hundreds of Solutions for Every Possible Classroom Behavior Problem (2nd ed.). Harmony.
Please update us if you know of a new resources or books that is not shown here. You can do so by leaving a comment below. We hope this was informative and next we’d love to hear from you: what in your opinion are the fundamental skills we need to teach our children? Leave a comment below and share your insights.