One of my colleagues, David Bott, and I recently spent a week together training a whole school faculty in Positive Education. The headmaster notably remarked:
“We may be primed, we may be inclined but we still need voices of experience to show us how to use this science.”
I love the mindset demonstrated here. It takes role modelling from leaders and teachers to help students develop the skills to manage their wellbeing.
On September 20th, 23rd and 24th, my team will be in California delivering our Introduction to Positive Education workshop.
If you think your school isn’t part of the problem, you’re wrong. If you have 20 students in a class, 5 are suffering from some type of mental health issue. Positive Education is a proactive way to equip students and staff with the skills not only to cope and manage, but to flourish
As you may know, the OECD does a lot of work studying education – especially in the area of predicting challenges to of the future of education. As Bob Snowden, founder of the Futures Project said in a recent conversation “OECD’s recent research indicates that the top priority in schools over the next 10-15 years won’t be one of the academic priorities as you might expect, but wellbeing.” Those of us working in the Positive Education space don’t find this surprising. We see first-hand the benefits of placing wellbeing at the heart of education, of flipping conventional wisdom placing the so called “soft-skills” to becoming the priority (feels like eating dessert first doesn’t it?) The level of stress, depression and anxiety that continues to climb in Canada, U.S., Australia and other countries of similar economic stability is a source of much confusion. When we don’t have a real problem like safety, getting enough food, or avoiding disease why is it that we don’t thrive? Why then is it so hard to take students from surviving to thriving?
One idea is that the goals students are setting, either on their own or with help of caring guidance teams parents and teachers are a root. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) has done international research that showed students who are more motivated also have greater anxiety. “Motivation seems to be more closely linked to anxiety when it is imposed by others. Students who feel undue pressure to meet the expectations of their parents or teachers, or who constantly compare themselves with others, may feel tenser and more anxious. Conversely, PISA data show that when motivation is intrinsic – when it comes from a student’s own desire to be the best that he or she can be – students may feel slightly less anxious.” We need to figure out ways of ensuring that students motivation is led by their own curiosity and meaning rather than taking on the motivation of their peers (“I applied to Stanford and Harvard”) their parents (“wouldn’t medicine be a great option for you?”) or their past performance (you should keep taking History, it’s your top subject”).
Another challenge is comparison. Recently Instagram has experimented with removing an anxiety provoking feature from its platform in Canada. The social media leader has often been accused of creating a platform where teens compare the messy unedited version of their own lives to other teens’ highly edited and curated highlight reels.
Parents are quick to point our that the rise in technology use coincides with the rise in teen depression and anxiety. I believe that technology, like money, is an amplifier of who you really are. If a student is disengaged, disconnected, and distracted the removal of technology doesn’t change these traits, Of course there are appropriate developmental guidelines from a neuroscience standpoint, but we cannot blame technology for a lack of appropriate psychological attachment. As attachment theory expert Dr, Gordon Neufeld writes “Technology is a wonderful thing: it can be used in amazing ways to enhance life, but it can also create huge problems if structures are not defined around how it is going to fit into healthy development and family life, particularly with our young. “
According to Dr. Shani Robins of Stanford, wisdom skills like emotional intelligence, mindfulness, empathy & compassion, humility, gratitude and realism must be taught. These are skills that students need to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, comparison, overgeneralization and catastrophizing that lead to mental illbeing. Check out this fabulous video about the wellbeing continuum.
Think Differently and Your Anxiety Changes
Dr. Ellen Hendrickson has fabulous tips for people who experience debilitating levels of anxiety. She reminds us that the positive features that often accompany social anxiety like extreme empathy, inclusiveness, deep connection in relationships are all still there when anxiety is avoided. Alternately, the opposite of social anxiety is psychopathy (not confidence) so those who experience zero anxiety are not very emotionally healthy! One technique she uses that I love is to personify your inner critic. In fact, I love having kids think about what their mean inner voice might look like. Some see a monster, a dark-fanged nightmare ghoul. Mine looks more like this:
Hendrickson also recommends anxiety Madlibs, a really cool technique to get to the heart of your anxiety. By making it seem like a game it can feel less personal. Use this statement:
When I ______, it will become obvious that I _______
When I put my hand up in class, it will become obvious that I am not smart
When I walk alone in the hall, it will become obvious that I am a loser without friends
When I go to a dinner party, it will become obvious that I am a boring person.
Once you have the obvious blank filled in you can
realize it’s not true,
realize it might be true and have a strategy
ask what’s the worst thing that can happen and think about how to cope if it comes true
I wish these were my words. They came from Mark Turner, the new head of my sons’ school. They are the words that convinced me he is awesome.
He was talking to parents at our school and explaining that after students have forgotten the history of Canadian pioneers and the Pythagorean theorem, the lessons we sometimes call soft skills will be what remains. These are the parts of education that are truly important to a student’s success and happiness.
This lesson was reinforced when we held a research event on campus at Geelong Grammar School that included 2 current grade 12 students and 2 students in their 3rd year of university. When asked about their experience of Positive Education classes at the school all four agreed that despite moments of resistance (that included eye-rolls and groans about gratitude letters and mindfulness) they all use what they learned in “Pos Ed class” every single day.
One of the great challenges in the field of Positive Education is telling people what it is in a simple sentence. I often find myself saying “it’s difficult to define and easy to do”. This video from my colleagues at Flourish Dx is a really good beginning! It talks about empowering people to be mentally healthy. “Beacuse mentally healthy workplaces work better” Take a peek…
Want to learn more about increasing wellbeing at home, at school or at work? Contact me.
Canada isn’t the only Country experiencing a mental health crisis. Globally, the total number of people with depression was estimated to exceed 300 million in 2015. A similar number suffer from some type of anxiety disorders. And many experience both simultaneously (comorbidity). The consequences of these disorders on families, individuals, workplaces and schools are massive. Depression is ranked by WHO as the single largest contributor to global disability (7.5% of all years lived with disability in 2015); anxiety disorders are ranked 6th (3.4%). Depression is also the major contributor to suicide deaths, which number close to 800 000 per year (WHO, 2017)
As a mother of four I have watched as my children and their classmates are expected to cope with levels of stress far beyond reasonable. The normalizing of this stress has created a frog in the pot situation. If you drop a frog into boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog won’t notice the heat until it is too late. (sorry frog lovers) Watching the children in my community, the friends of my sons and daughters, become agoraphobic, failing to make it through on year of University after graduating at the top of their high school class, or not sleeping or eating I was inspired to find some answers.
In 2006 a few teachers at Geelong Grammar School were noticing the same challenge,an increase in depression, anxiety, and stress at the school. They discovered research out of UPENN that was making positive impact on wellbeing which in return decreased stress, anxiety and depression. Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, brought his family and research team to Geelong Grammar School (GGS) and provided the catalyst for what would become one of the most significant innovations in the world of educational psychology. By 2008, the term ‘Positive Education’ had been coined at GGS and the first large-scale training of GGS staff was underway. These first steps eventually led to the creation of Geelong Grammar’s Institute of Positive Education which employs 25 full time staff and has trained over 10,000 educators around the world from over 500 different schools and organizations.
The Positive Education Approach
Positive Education is a whole school approach to student and staff wellbeing that brings together the science of Positive Psychology with best practice teaching, to encourage and support individuals and communities to flourish.
Positive Education has transformed the way GGS approaches education, delivering a greater depth and breadth of exceptional education. In an ever-changing society, schools must adopt new roles that help support our students embrace the complexities of next-generation learning and living. Mental illness and psychological distress continue to increase, with initial onset during formative years. Positive Education has complemented and enhanced GGS’s holistic approach to education, by supporting, protecting and empowering students to strengthen their relationships, build positive emotions, enhance resilience and enable the exploration of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Through committing to Positive Education, GGS has shown that schools can, and should, consider health, wellbeing, and flourishing to be as important as traditional academic learning.
In consultation with world-experts in Positive Psychology and based on Seligman’s PERMA approach we developed a ‘Model for Positive Education’ – an applied framework comprising of six domains: Positive Relationships, Positive Emotions, Positive Health, Positive Engagement, Positive Accomplishment, and Positive Purpose.
This model has been augmented with four fundamental active processes that underpin successful and sustained implementation of Positive Education: Learn It, Live It, Teach It, Embed It. These processes bring the Model to life in a school and are grounded in and informed by GGS’s extensive, unique experience in assisting schools around Australia and the world to implement sustainable change.
Through regular training opportunities, staff and parents ‘learn’ about Positive Psychology and are encouraged to ‘live’ the principles of Positive Education by modelling the behaviours in their actions and interactions with each other and with students. ‘Teach it’ refers to the delivery of Positive Education skills and knowledge to students via two distinct pathways. Dedicated or ‘explicit’ Positive Education classes are taught to students from Grades 5 through 10 and are devoted to cultivating wellbeing; providing students with time to reflect meaningfully on the relevance of concepts to their lives. The ‘implicit’ teaching of Positive Education refers to the infusion of wellbeing concepts into pre-existing subject areas so that academic objectives are approached in ways that also support flourishing. ‘Embed it’ refers to the broader vision of creating a whole-school culture and community for wellbeing. The Learn It, Live It, Teach It, Embed It processes are additive, synergistic, and dynamic as they continually augment and inform each other.
Although it remains a mystery why Australia is so far ahead of North America in the realm of proactive mental health, I am delighted to help North Americans to avoid reinventing the wheel. We are pleased to announce the first of our North American training dates has been set.
World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: global health estimates (No. WHO/MSD/MER/2017.2). World Health Organization.
According to organizational leadership expert Ira Chalieff, the best way to view the leadership relationship is through the lens of influencer/follower. This makes sense in the workplace, but could it also work in an education setting? Could teachers be influencers and students followers?
Schools condition students to obey. Expulsion for nonconformity is a very real threat. According to Chalieff “the conditioning begins at an age when children are still utterly dependent on their parents for survival and experience considerable anxiety about the consequences of not obeying. Our institutions play on this anxiety and, wittingly or not, reinforce it until followers often do become the timid creatures we emotionally reject identifying with.” Children need to be taught to attend but do we want children who pay attention because they are curious and excited to learn or do we want children who see the end goal as sitting still and quiet and behaving well?
Much of our early conditioning about leaders takes place in a school setting. Students experience a class where they are held responsible for their behaviour but teachers, administrators, and other adults are not seen being held responsible for theirs. The power of this early sets students up to believe contradicting or questioning a leader is not even an option. How can educators use their leadership to model being a good follower too?
What do Educators Need to Model?
Self-Awareness in a teacher means both the ability to see yourself accurately as well as to know how your students see you. It also means not assuming you know what it’s like to be a student today.
Clear and Effective Communication Finding the sweet spot between lecturing and listening allows students to feel as though participants in and not recipients of education.
Open-Minded Thinking kids today love to think outside the box and the future will need flexible thinkers. Allow students to explore alternate solutions, let them learn from mistakes. Teach them to connect the dots, not just to collect the dots as Seth Godin says in his podcast.
Lead by Example There is no room for “do what I say, not what I do.” If you want respect, show respect. If you want grit and resilience, show children how you bounce back from failure.
Teaching Pupils to be Courageous Followers
A courageous follower has a clear internal vision while being attracted to a leader who embodies a manifestation of their goals- translation, kids want a teacher who models achieving the things they see as important. It may not be your role as Humanities teacher, but rather your awesome sense of style or the boxing work out you love that is you best way to connect. Note: APA citation or rote memorization are rarely on this list. You are being compared to YouTube millionaires who are 23 years old. You don’t have to have a YouTube Channel or 20,000 Instagram followers but you should learn the language these influencers use- it works for a reason!
When a student steps into the role of courageous follower, they have a small level of autonomy while remaining fully accountable for their actions. They concede certain authority to a leader (like schedule and curriculum) but they feel like partners in learning rather than the subordinate in a dominant/subordinate relationship.
Courageous followership by definition means performing two polar opposite roles somewhat simultaneously: implementer and challenger of the leader’s ideas. Schools have yet to find consistent ways to encourage students to push the boundaries respectfully.
There is also a massive challenge to teens- they want to be part of the “in group” and yet the individuation required to challenge the beliefs of the group and its leadership is what makes for success.
This is where social media influencers connect with students in a way you might want to learn.
Teens love swag. Give them a little something, it goes a LONG WAY in relationship development.
Teens hate to be told what they “should” or “should not” do or think. Instead ask them to comment, like or share just like a social media campaign.
Relate it to their life. My son asked his math teacher why what they were learning in 10th grade was important. The math teacher answered, “It will all come together in 11th grade”. Epic fail, Not only did the teacher not answer my son’s question, he failed to connect math to real life when a kid actually cared.
An influencer is more powerful than and educator. Think back to when you were in school. Most of us can identify 1 or 2 teachers who had a powerful impact on our lives. More often than not, this impact is not at all related to curriculum or content but how that teacher made us feel or what they inspired us to think. They might have illuminated a bias or encouraged perspective-taking. Maybe they listened or dared us to think bigger. Those teachers are the real influencers. In closing, teachers might want to take this lesson from influencer marketing:
“Engagement is the new impressions. It matters as much, if not more, than someone’s reach.”
Engage your students in a way that makes them want to keep showing up. I’d love you to share examples of how you and your school are doing this in the comment section.
“In order to develop normally, a child needs the enduring irrational involvement of one or more adults in care of and in joint activity with that child. In short, somebody has got to be crazy about that kid.” ~Brofenbrenner
Parenting is hard. Kids don’t come with a manual and what works well for one is absolutely wrong for another. It can become even trickier when kids hit school. Educators do have training and experience but not with your child. Here are a few suggestions about how to navigate parenting your school-aged student in a way that best supports their strengths and sets them up for a positive experience.
Take the lead. I suggest a short (no novels please!) email explaining what you think is useful for your child’s teacher to know in order to successfully form a relationship with your child. Mine look something like this:
Welcome to team Maddox! We are excited that Maddox is in your class and wanted you to know a few things about him that might be helpful.
Maddox is a popular kid who is also a successful athlete, you might not notice that he can be highly sensitive to criticism
Maddox has a massive sense of justice which can be both a strength and a weakness (as we all know life isn’t always fair)
praise is the best way to reward Maddox
Maddox has an autoimmune disease and may be absent when it flares up. He is comfortable speaking with you about this.
Maddox’s strengths are loyalty, kindness, perseverance, and hard work
Don’t helicopter or snowplow. We’ve all been tempted to solve all the problems for our children before they happen; flying on the edges of their life and swooping in (like a helicopter) to save the day. It’s easy to believe that keeping your child free of stress and adversity means they are having a wonderful childhood. Research has shown this is just not true. When a parent bulldozes (or snowplows) any obstacle that comes toward their child, the child does not learn effort, perseverance, resilience or how to fail.
Remember, context matters. You only know your child at home.You know more about the strengths and challenges historically. For moms and dads sending their child to school for the first time it’s important to remember you know how they behave at home, or maybe in a daycare setting but this isn’t always how they behave at school. My chatterbox, Tygre, was so quiet on her visiting day at our school that the other children all asked me “can she talk?” when I picked her up. Other kids who may challenge more boundaries at home are rule followers in a classroom setting.
You are all on the same team, why not speak the same language. In positive education we use the language of strengths- character strengths. Research has shown that when a community all understands the language of strengths, students flourish. (Lavy, 2018) I highly recommend reading The Strengths Switch- How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Lea Waters.
Advocate for your child. Teachers are busy. Not just busy- they have overcrowded classrooms that they resource themselves while delivering curriculum in a way that must compete with iPhones and YouTube in order to stay relevant and engaging. In your child’s career as a student, they will run into a teacher who is a bad match for their learning style. Two simple suggestions that can help your child to thrive when an instructor isn’t a good match:
Check that your own bias isn’t impacting your child. My first son, Maddox, had a social studies teacher who was a really bad match for his learning style. When his brother Braxton landed in the same class 4 years later, my knee-jerk reaction was to ask for a switch. Instead I zipped my lips, didn’t mention the history to Braxton and let him decide how he felt about this teacher. Turns out, he got along well in her class and was motivated by the exact same style that had been demotivating for his brother.
Find another teacher on campus who can fill the void. If you drew the short straw for math teachers, find a tutor or education assistant or a sport coach who happens to love math who can model love of math for your child.
*If the match is causing your child to lose sleep, to feel like they aren’t smart or to start avoiding school by faking sickness then it’s time to suggest a change. By change I am not suggesting a change of teacher. Talk to the principal or school counselor and ask for their advice or suggestions. They have a wealth of educational psychology knowledge that can make all the difference! Change your child’s mindset. Change the teacher’s opinion of your child. Change the seating in the classroom. Work together until you find something that changes your child’s experience from negative to positive. (Have an open mind- solutions don’t happen overnight but they do happen!)
To circle back to Brofenbrenner’s quote, ask yourself who at school has noticed the unique and wonderful attributes that others might not see in your child. The answer will point you to your best allies on a path forward that includes finding other role models, mentors, and positive educational experiences that all lead to your child thriving at school. And at the end of the day, that’s all most parents can ask for!