“Teachers and researchers in positive psychology are natural allies. At its core, education is about nurturing strengths, about growth and learning. Furthermore, psychological and social well-being are key concerns for teachers and other educators and for people working in the field of positive psychology” (Shankland & Rosset, 2017).
This quote illustrates the natural pairing of psychology and education which has persisted for as long as psychology has been a field of study. More recently, positive psychologists have advocated for positive psychology in schools alongside traditional psychology. This movement can be called positive education.
This article will cover what positive education is and why it matters, as well as how to use it to benefit everyone in a classroom, from the students to the instructor.
This article contains:
- Why Focus On Positive Education?
- How To Get The Most Out Of Your Classroom Conversation
- Happy Teacher = Happy Class
- 6 Activities For Emotional Learning
- Positive Teaching: Moodtrackers And Other Worksheets
- 10 Mindfulness Activities For Kids
- 10+ Positive Psychology Exercises For Teens
- A Take Home Message
Why Focus On Positive Education?
According to Seligman et al.’s 2009 paper, Positive Education is a response to the gap between what people want for their children and what schools teach. That is, most parents want their children to be happy, healthy, and confident, but schools only focus on achievement, discipline, and academic skills. These are of course important, but so are positive mental health outcomes.
To fix this gap, Positive Education is proposed, where schools teach achievement and accomplishment along with positive psychology-informed mental health skills. In other words, positive education wants to bring positive psychology’s goals of well-being and mental health support for everyone into the school setting.
Psychological interventions have been around in schools since at least the 1930s, so it makes sense to supplement the already-existing traditional psychology in schools with positive psychology (Shankland & Rosset, 2017). Seligman and other positive psychologists are also not alone in the belief that schools should aim for student well-being. For example, philosophers as far back as Aristotle have considered happiness to be the end goal of education (Kristjansson, 2012).
Other people working in education have also historically been interested in student well-being, so positive education is not necessarily a groundbreaking innovation. This does not condemn positive education efforts, however, and in fact just shows that positive education aims to solve problems in traditional education that have needed solving for a long time.
Teachers themselves believe that teaching is “inevitably linked” with the emotional health and well-being of the students being taught (Kidger et al., 2010). In fact, Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs even indicates that emotional support may be a sort of prerequisite to higher-order functions such as learning.
Recent research has confirmed the same, as offering emotional support early in a school year can lead to improved instructional quality later in that school year (Curby et al., 2013). In other words, positive education is not a focus on mental health instead of academic achievement but is a focus on mental health in order to set the stage and give students the opportunity for academic achievement.
How To Get The Most Out Of Your Classroom Conversation
Classroom conversation is possibly the most important aspect of student engagement, but students participate at various levels with most classrooms being dominated by the same voices each class period. One way to increase classroom conversation and discussion in a reading-based class is the QQTP approach (Connor-Greene, 2005). The QQTP approach refers to assigned daily response papers entitled “question, quotations, and talking points”.
In classes where daily readings are assigned, these response papers consist of students writing down:
- A question about the day’s reading
- A “compelling or controversial” quotation from the reading
- A brief outline of talking points from the reading the student can use for discussion
This approach ensures that students not only read the previous day’s assigned reading, but that they are prepared to actively discuss it in class rather than passively listening to others talk about it. Student response papers can also be used as starting points for class discussion if a class is still being quiet. Students who have used the QQTP method rated the first and third components (a question and an outline of talking points) as the most useful aspects of the method.
Another way to increase student discussion is to offer participation credit. Grading based on participation, however, can be disadvantageous to students who are more naturally shy. One solution to this is to offer group participation credit. One study exhibited this by separating classrooms into small groups composed of both high-participating and low-participating students and offering credit to the entire group if all of their members participated on a given day (Taylor et al., 2014). Those researchers found increased participation levels in low-participating students with this group-based credit system.
This method also had the added bonus of high-participating students teaching low-participating students how to participate more often, so that the group would receive their shared credit.
Happy Teacher = Happy Class
Positive education is not just for the sake of the students. One commenter has argued that not only should student happiness be the aim of education, but that teacher happiness should also be the aim of education (Noddings, 2003). This author also claims that happy teachers will directly lead to happy students, by helping their students associate education with happiness, as the teachers do.
Even teachers who believe that student well-being is a crucial part of teaching can feel burdened if asked to attend to both the academic and emotional needs of their students. If teachers are being asked to increase their workload, then steps must be taken to ensure their happiness as well. This is another reason to focus on teacher happiness as well as student happiness. After all, as indicated above, teacher happiness is related to student happiness.
Research has even shown that teacher wages can affect their teaching outcomes. Specifically, teachers who felt that their wages were unfairly low were in classrooms which were rated as having lower levels of emotional support (Cassidy et al., 2017). Conversely, teachers who earned higher wages ended up with students who exhibited more positive emotional expressions and behaviors.
In other words, both perceiving oneself as being underpaid and actually making less money are associated with worse student outcomes for teachers. These findings indicate that raising teacher wages would likely lead to improved emotional outcomes for students.
6 Activities For Emotional Learning
Social and emotional learning are often-overlooked aspects of education. Emotional learning is important, however, as a “protective vehicle to prevent problematic youth behaviour and promote mental health and wellbeing” (Reicher & Matischek-Jauk, 2017).
Some activities for emotional learning can be drawn from the Maytiv preschool program for positive psychology education (Shoshani & Slone, 2017):
- Identifying personal sources of happiness
- Expressing gratitude
- Free expression of different feelings in movement, art, speech, and facial expressions
- Describing happy memories
Other activities to support emotional learning include (Abry et al., 2017):
- Morning Meeting (Starting every morning with a class meeting where students can share about their weekends, or teachers can share a message, or some other activity)
- Academic Choice (Giving students multiple choices to reach some educational goal, such as giving an option between writing an essay on a topic, or making a video on that topic, or giving a speech on that topic, or some other form of learning)
Positive Teaching: Moodtrackers And Other Worksheets
For teachers who are ready to begin implementing positive education into their classrooms, here are a few worksheets to get started:
Daily Mood Chart
This daily mood chart helps students track their mood throughout the day (and can be modified to only include the school day). This simple self-report chart will help students better understand their mood throughout the day and week. Teachers can also use it as a group mood chart to track the class’s engagement levels.
Positive Steps to Wellbeing
This one-page worksheet is simply a list of things to keep in mind for well-being. It includes tips on keeping perspective, exercising, relaxing, sleeping, connecting with others, and more. This would be a good worksheet to hand out for students to keep in their lockers or folders as a constant reminder and could also be hung up in a classroom.
Three Good Things Worksheet
This is a worksheet for the Three Good Things exercise, which asks someone to list three good things that happened to them every day, and to reflect on those things. This worksheet contains space for two weeks of entries and a space for reflection. After each day, one should reflect on why the good things happened and how they can change their behavior (if necessary) to make those good things happen more often.
10 Mindfulness Activities For Kids
Mindfulness is important in the classroom, because teachers and parents “frequently ask children to pay attention but give them no instruction as to how to do so” (Shankland & Rosset, 2017).
Some mindfulness activities for kids in the classroom include:
- Mindful Bell (Ringing a bell and asking students to listen until they can’t hear the bell anymore, as a way to quiet down a classroom)
- Brief Body Scan – FOFBOC (Feet On Floor, Bum On Chair, where students start by focusing on the feeling of their feet on the floor, then working up their focus to their weight on the chair)
- Mindful Breathing – 7/11 (Inhaling for 7 seconds/counts, exhaling for 11 seconds/counts)
- Caring Mindfulness (Students are asked to think about their own desire to be happy, then their classmates’ desires to be happy, and then students are asked to wish for their classmates to be happy)
Other activities to promote mindfulness in kids in the classroom include (Black & Fernando, 2014):
- Mindful Bodies and Listening (Kids simply sit still in a relaxed posture)
- Heartfulness: Generosity (Students discuss and visualize ways to be generous)
- Mindful Seeing (Carefully observing a single object for a period of time)
- Slow Motion (With awareness, slowly moving arms and slowly standing from a seated position)
- Mindful Walking
- Mindful Eating
10+ Positive Psychology Exercises For Teens
Some positive psychology exercises which can be used for teenagers in the classroom include (Shankland & Rosset, 2017; Seligman et al., 2009):
- Identifying Strengths (Asking students to think about someone they admire, then asking them why they admire that person, in other words, what their strengths are)
- Strengths 360° (Having students ask friends, teachers, parents, and others to identify the student’s strengths)
Cultivating Strengths (Having students identify their top strengths, then find new ways to use one of those strengths daily in the classroom)
- Secret Strength Spotting (Having students secretly observe another classmate in the classroom for a week, and writing down strengths they observe during this time)
- Keeping a Gratitude Journal
- Gratitude Letter (Having students write a letter to someone they are grateful for)
- Gratitude Graph (Students are asked to write one or more things they feel grateful for on individual sticky notes, these notes are then plotted on a classroom graph with categories for people, places, events, etc.)
- Gratitude Box (Students are asked to write things they feel grateful for on strips of paper and drop those pieces of paper into a box, then all the strips are read aloud at the end of the week)
- Cooperative Learning Groups (Splitting up the class into small groups to work on a specific task or topic, then teach that topic to the other small groups in the class)
- Active Constructive Responding (Having students practice active, as opposed to passive, and constructive. as opposed to destructive, responses)
- Supportive Sticky Notes (Having students write on a sticky note something they appreciate about a classmate, then sticking that note somewhere that the classmate will see it, such as on their locker or desk)
- Secret Acts of Kindness (Students are secretly assigned partners, then asked to be more caring to that person for a period of time)
- Three Good Things (Students are asked to write three good things that happened to them each day for a week, then reflect on why each good thing happened and how they can cause it to happen more)
A Take Home Message
Some of the earliest applications of psychology were in education. Similarly, some of the most obvious applications of positive psychology are in education. Positive education is not necessarily a completely new idea, but it is a reaffirmation of what parents and education advocates believe should be the end goal of education: student happiness. If thinkers as far back as Aristotle have believed that happiness should be the main aim of education, positive education is a necessary movement.
Indeed, research shows that children who are happy and emotionally supported have better emotional and academic outcomes. For that reason alone, schools should implement positive psychology’s teachings into their classrooms. While implementing these teachings, however, schools also must take care not to overburden their teachers. Research shows that teacher well-being modifies the emotional and academic outcomes of their students, so teacher happiness as well as student happiness should be the main goal of positive education.
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- Black, D.S., Fernando, R. (2014). Mindfulness Training and Classroom Behavior Among Lower-Income and Ethnic Minority Elementary School Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(7), 1242-1246. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9784-4
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