We can all flourish! Positive education in schools.
Both globally and in Finland specially, there is growing interest in positive education. Positive education can be broadly defined as the applied science of positive psychology in an educational context. It views school as a place where students not only cultivate their intellectual minds, but also develop a broad set of character strengths and competencies that, together, support their well-being. A key tenet of positive education is that those skills and mindsets that promote students’ positive emotions, positive relationships and other elements of well-being can be explicitly taught in school.
Educating the whole child
Today, it is essential that we have a holistic approach to education. That means that we must prepare the whole child and, in addition to academic competence, develop students’ skills, habits and mindsets that build their social and emotional resources. By acquiring these skills, students become active influencers on their own well-being, which is also the best antidote for globally increasing adolescent depression. In addition, the holistic approach is strongly justified, because cultivating students’ overall flourishing may also lead to benefits for their academic skills development and performance. There is good evidence to suggest that students who thrive and flourish are also likely to demonstrate stronger academic performance (e.g., Howell 2009; Suldo et al. 2011). Well-being enhances intrinsic motivation, engagement, good behaviour and social integration. Thus, flourishing is not a goal competing with academic development, but rather a complementary one (Norrish, Williams, O’Connor & Robinson 2013, 150).
Well teachers, well students
Positive education is not just about increasing students’ well-being. Its fundamental goal is to promote flourishing and positive mental health for the whole school community. A majority of positive education research and interventions have, to date, focused on strengthening student well-being in the classroom, but the target should be broadened to include schools’ staff members as well.
When school personnel have high levels of social and emotional well-being, it has a positive influence on students. Flourishing teachers have the resources to make efforts for better classroom climate and high-quality teaching that leads to student success. A teacher’s well-being positively impacts students’ well-being, learning, achievement, engagement and sense of belonging.
From a work community perspective, employees’ psychological well-being relates to their job satisfaction, job performance, work engagement and organisational commitment. Moreover, numerous meta-analyses have indicated that happy employees are more productive, creative and innovative, in addition to being cooperative and helpful. Best of all, happiness at work is contagious. One employee’s well-being affects that of the entire staff.
Applying positive education benefits teachers in many ways; for instance, it may lead to a reduced workload. A classroom culture based on positive education is likely to improve and deepen the relationships with students, reinforce the positive and caring atmosphere in the classroom and prevent problem behaviours. The strengths-based and positive orientation also provides a perfect tool for building warm and rewarding cooperation with parents. However, there is also a need for more systematic implementation strategies among the staff. The best results will be achieved when the well-being of the work community is addressed as extensively as the well-being of students, and by including objectives and assessment tools in the process.
The PERMA framework
To successfully promote well-being among both students and staff, schools need a strategy. By adopting a meta-framework, it is possible to create a coherent approach for implementing positive education over time. Such a framework helps the entire school community to see how each positive education practice fits into the larger picture of mental health. (Waters 2020). One theoretically validated framework that is applicable to the school environment is Seligman’s (2011) PERMA theory of well-being. Under the PERMA framework, flourishing is defined in terms of five components: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
Building on the PERMA theory, positive education initiatives and activities are based on these five well-being components. Together, these form an interconnected and cohesive system that promotes the well-being of the school community in a long-term and systematic way. At its best, the five PERMA pillars can be embedded in the school’s positive education strategy, so that they are woven into the DNA of the school and academic learning and well-being become truly integrated.
Positive education techniques for students and staff
The PERMA framework is a relevant strategic approach for promoting the well-being of students and personnel alike. As a part of these positive psychology practices, employees are able to find the most appropriate and effective tools for strengthening their personal mental resources. In addition, many pedagogical practices used in classrooms are applicable among the staff. ‘What went well?’ exercises engender equally good emotions in students’ morning meetings as they do in staff meetings. Likewise, keeping a gratitude journal can help both students and teachers to count their blessings. In the same way, mindful breathing techniques benefit all members in the school community, and it is just as important for adults in schools to identify their character strengths or to practice praise and positive feedback as it is for students to do so. The entire school might also be excited to compete with one another by performing acts of kindness or practice active constructive responding by, for example, holding ‘But Free days’ (Peterson 2013).
Learn, live and teach
The goal of promoting flourishing in schools is certainly worthwhile, but it does not happen in the blink of an eye. Such positive education strategies come to life gradually. These efforts should begin with thorough staff training in which the whole school community has opportunities to understand and engage with the science of well-being. After that, the staff is encouraged to test new skills in their own ways in their own lives, and to act as authentic role models for students. Providing students with time to discover and explore the key domains of well-being can happen via two pathways: explicitly, in positive education classes, and implicitly, by infusing the well-being concepts into the content of the curriculum throughout all lessons. At its deepest level, a positive education school culture means that the components of well-being are supported and nurtured within individuals and the community in all daily settings and activities. The beneficent power of positive education grows according to the magnitude at which it is implemented. The more broadly we focus on the good, the more it increases.
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About the author:
Dr. Eliisa Leskisenoja has broad experience in the field of education. Before taking on her current position as a lecturer and teacher trainer at the Oulu University Teacher Training School, she worked as a teacher for over twenty years. She has also served as a project manager for the Finnish Teacher Education Development Programme at the University of Lapland.
Dr. Leskisenoja’s PhD research focused on positive educational practices in Finnish classrooms. She has vast expertise in applying positive psychology to different educational contexts and work communities. In addition to her position at the Teacher Training School, Dr. Leskisenoja now works as a researcher, speaker educator and author who has published numerous books and articles on positive education.
Dr. Leskisenoja conducts workshops, training sessions and webinars for educators, parents and leaders. She lectures on positive emotions, positive relationships, character strengths, engagement, growth mindset and positive organizations and leadership. She has a passion for facilitating a continuum of positive education in Finland. Her scientific and educational interests focus on promoting well-being and flourishing in all educational settings, from early childhood to adult education.