Positive Education: The School of Wellbeing

School children collage

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Teaching children to flourish intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically

Imagine sending your kids off to school and them learning reading, writing, arithmetic and flourishing. That’s the concept of positive education, a trend that’s popular in Australia and England, and gaining traction in the United States.

Positive education is about merging flourishing—positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment—with traditional education. While many schools focus primarily on academic performance, positive education is about developing your child’s sense of well-being and social responsibility. While the idea of helping students build on their strengths and nurturing their resilience and well-being has been at the heart of Montessori and Steiner approaches for some time, Dr. Martin Seligman is leading the effort to bring positive psychology into more schools.

Martin believes the need for positive education is growing with the worldwide prevalence of depression among young people. So he works with staff, parents and students to teach his PERMA model—the five elements of well-being—with the ultimate goal of helping students flourish.

  1. (P) Positive Emotions—Feeling positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, interest, hope
  2. (E) Engagement—Being fully absorbed in activities that use your skills yet challenge you
  3. (R) Relationships—Having positive relationships
  4. (M) Meaning—Belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than yourself
  5. (A) Accomplishment—Pursuing success, winning achievement and mastery

Some examples of positive education in schools include positive behavior initiatives (teaching empathy and compassion), curriculum designed to increase confidence, and strength projects for children.

Michelle McQuaid, a teacher of positive education in Australian schools (and Live Happy blogger), believes “success is achieved when a school leadership team collectively supports the idea of making the well-being of students as important as their academic achievements and inviting, connecting and empowering the whole school community around this idea,” including administrators, teachers, parents and students.

“My vision is for children to receive an education that teaches them how to flourish intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically. For this to happen, they need to be a part of an education system that is flourishing—where leadership teams feel challenged and supported, where teachers feel engaged and appreciated, and parents feel confident and empowered,” McQuaid says.

What Parents Can Do

  • Praise children for effort rather than intelligence. When you tell a child “You are so smart,” they don’t understand what they have done and how to repeat it, so they fear making mistakes or view failures as being dumb. When you praise effort, children understand they can influence the result, and learn to view failures as learning opportunities.
  • Provide a consistent family routine.
  • Take an interest in what your children are learning.
  • Encourage special interests.
  • Turn off the TV and encourage children to have free playtime where they use their imagination and creativity.
  • Give kids achievable jobs at home to develop a sense of responsibility and self-mastery.
  • Celebrate who your children are, not just what they achieve.
  • Help your children discover their strengths, including character strengths like kindness.
  • Show your children how to master challenges and overcome frustrations with an optimistic and not pessimistic approach.
  • Teach and show your kids how to go on the hunt for gratitude. Share things that are going well.
  • Keep lobbying your children and educators to create a learning environment that allows your child to flourish.

What Schools Can Do

  • Assess what you are doing well already.
  • Adopt the PERMA model.
  • Embed positive education into your school strategy so it becomes your school culture.
  • Evaluate your results to assess your effectiveness.
  • Connect with other educators and schools to share your positive education journey and benefit from their knowledge, resources and experiences

Sandra Bienkowski, owner of The Media Concierge, LLC, is a national writer of wellness and personal development content and a social media expert.