Growing Minds: Developing a curriculum for wellbeing education at Regents International School, Pattaya

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In Thailand, Regents International School Pattaya – part of the Nord Anglia Education family of schools – has taken the implementation of Positive Education into its own hands by creating a unique curriculum called Growing Minds. This blog is written by Victoria Stec, Teacher of English and Growing Minds co-ordinator at Regents International school, Pattaya.

It is a very exciting time to be working towards Positive Education at Regents International School, Pattaya, in Thailand. This year I have had the pleasure – and what I consider to be the privilege – of coordinating the Growing Minds programme at Regents. This programme is designed to deliver wellbeing education for students aged 11-15. It is a truly special responsibility to have so much influence over how to guide the young minds that will become the leaders of the future. It is with great enthusiasm that I would like to share with you some of the good work in Positive Education that is being done through Growing Minds.

What can be done to kindle the innate urge within every child to learn and know? How can we provide children with the opportunity to take up responsibility for themselves and others? What can teachers do to inspire students to continually strive towards personal improvement through self-reflection and self-development? Growing Minds is a way of exploring some of the answers to these questions. This programme is more than just classical PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education): its focus is unique and covers many aspects outside of the formal PSHE curriculum.

Aspects of Positive Education that feature in Growing Minds

Creating habits for happiness and wellbeing

In one Growing Minds lesson, students listen to what experts think is the secret to happiness. A few individuals that students are exposed to include Matthieu Ricard (labelled as ‘the happiest man in the world’), Neil Pasricha (author of The Happiness Equation) and Sadhguru (yogi and mystic). Following this, students are empowered to write their own recipe for happiness based on their values and priorities. Mindfulness is actively taught in Growing Minds as a way to bring about clarity and joy, with various guided meditations to foster awareness, including body scans, mindful eating activities and breathing meditations (see Figure 1 below).

 

Promoting mental health

In another unit of work, students learn that emotions can trigger sensations in our body, such as butterflies in the stomach for anxiety, or hot cheeks for shame. They are asked to draw an outline of the human body and circle areas where they feel their emotions, then label them e.g. surprise, anxiety, pride. They then choose an appropriate colour that fits each emotion and describe the purpose of these emotions. The aim is to learn that even negative emotions serve a positive purpose in our lives – for example, anger protects us by setting boundaries and providing energy to create change, whilst sadness is like the immune system of our emotions that allows us to heal from loss.

 

Fostering empathy and social responsibility

As students grow older, their choice of words and actions begin to have a greater impact on themselves and those around them, and ultimately determines the course of their lives. With this in mind, Growing Minds includes an initiative called ‘The Silent Kindness Revolution’ in which students are challenged to perform at least three anonymous acts of kindness per week. Examples of suggestions include:

When everyone around you is gossiping about someone, be the one to cut in and say something positive about them.

If you are in a long line, invite the person behind you to go first.

Learn the names of your school security, canteen and cleaning staff, and greet them by name when you see them every day.

If you have a shirt that your friend always compliments, pass it on to them.

Additionally, there are so many inspiring examples around the world of brave and compassionate children who have taken it upon themselves to improve the lives of others; students are exposed to these positive role models by listening to the anecdotes and personal journeys of these ‘generosity heroes’.

Becoming resilient in the face of change

It is during Growing Minds where students are offered the opportunity to actively develop the specific skills and attributes which make up what Carol Dweck terms ‘growth mindset’. In one unit of work, students partake in a problem-solving project in which they identify a problem in the world that they would like to fix and plan how to resolve it. They are encouraged to maintain a growth mindset as they set about working collaboratively to come up with viable solutions.

Being resilient is also about bouncing back from challenges which affect students emotionally. In light of this, Growing Minds includes a unit on the topic of death and grief. Learning to accept mortality and to let go of things can help us to bounce back from different losses in life. Death is a part of life; learning to accept our own inevitable mortality can also help us to appreciate life in a deeper way. Students investigate what might be helpful and unhelpful to say to someone who is going through the grieving process. In addition to understanding how to support someone during bereavement, they also discover different funeral rituals practised around the world and how these ceremonies help people to process and come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

A responsive Positive Education curriculum

When developing Growing Minds, I wanted to take the time to pay careful attention to Regents students and derive the content for the curriculum directly from them. For example, when a Year 9 cohort of students became particularly disaffected. The staff consensus was that they were behaving as though they were ‘too cool for school’. I explored possible reasons for this disaffection and tried to find out as much as I could about adolescent cynicism. I determined that students may have felt they were unable to succeed when faced with the challenges of life and tried to avoid the situation by acting as if they did not care about it. I then designed a unit which aimed to address the needs of these students by explaining that apathy is a consequence of fear of failure. Without a growth mindset, a lot of pressure can lead to a ‘don’t care’ attitude, lack of participation and negativity. The students were asked to answer the following question prompts: ‘What do you think it means to be cool? Have you ever changed your behavior or done something to gain the approval of other people? Were you happy with the consequence? How might trying to change ourselves to please others impact our achievement and success later in life?’ The aim was not to be didactic or forceful, but rather to provide a forum for students to arrive at responses by inquiring from within (Figure 2 below). This ensures that Growing Mind is customised to meet the individual needs of our students.

 

This flexible approach of adapting the unit topics to meet developments as they arise avoids a prescriptive top-down model which might not be relevant. Teachers of Growing Minds are also empowered to pick and mix from the lesson plans and resources available and encouraged to engage personally with the material, making it their own and tailoring it to fit the individual needs of their students.

 

Measuring the impact of Positive Education

A questionnaire which was given to students to discover their perspectives of the curriculum generated the following feedback:

  • “Growing Minds has changed the way I think about myself.”
  • “This is the first school I’ve been to which does something like this.”
  • “It taught me how to be more determined.”
  • “It made me happy and more positive. I’m now more ambitious too.”
  • “So much better than PSHE last year.”
  • “I enjoy talking to my parents about Growing Minds.”
  • “It has made me kinder.”
  • “I loved it because we were learning something new for the first time.”
  • “Most useful time of the week.”

Whilst this is very encouraging feedback, the question remains: how can you measure personal growth? The subjective nature of Positive Education means that it cannot be assessed in the same way as other subjects. It would be inappropriate – and contradict the goals of the programme – for assessment to imply passing or failing ‘as a person’.

One way in which I attempted to resolve this was by experimenting with ipsative assessment, comparing where a student is at the end of a unit against where they were before the teaching took place. It is difficult to accurately assess the self-confidence of a student, but a student will be able to judge whether he or she feels more confident or has a firmer sense of beliefs and opinions than before. With this in mind, one trial I used was a series of statements which students had to rate using the ‘traffic light’ as a baseline assessment to gauge the starting point and as a summative end-of-unit assessment to measure progress (Figure 3 below).

 

A second assessment trial involved asking students to create a mindmap of everything they knew, thought or believed about a given topic they were about to study, including jotting down any questions they had; at the end of the unit, students were asked to take a different coloured pen and revisit their mindmap, adding to it, correcting previous misconceptions and answering their original questions.

 

Finally, it is essential to ensure time and space within the lesson to internalise new experiences, applying new information to their own lives. Every lesson ends with dedicated time for reflection: students write in their student diary, using the prompts displayed on this slide (Figure 4). The teacher reads these to understand how the students are processing what has been covered and where they may need to redress misconceptions.

A shared responsibility

As teachers, if we want to see a positive change in how our students relate to themselves and others, then teaching lessons on Positive Education is not enough. It is up to us as role models to exemplify this in the small acts that we do, the way we speak to students and other members of staff, and the choices we make every day. Positive Education is incomplete without a shared responsibility among teachers of creating and maintaining a positive school culture. With this in mind, when re-launching the Growing Minds programme at the start of this academic year, I asked student volunteers to make small origami cranes for their teachers and write positive messages on them to welcome their teachers back to school. When teachers arrived in the hall, they were each given a crane as a small but powerful reminder that our students have the capacity for kindness and generosity.

Taking on the role of Growing Minds Coordinator at Regents has changed more than my job description: it has altered my lifestyle! My enthusiasm and passion for Positive Education has spurred me to embark upon what you might call a ‘wellbeing odyssey’, hunting like a magpie for any material which might be used to inspire young people and incline their minds towards life-enhancing values such as joy, gratitude and hope. I have discovered this material in diverse sources around me: blog entries, spontaneous conversations with colleagues and friends, podcasts, music lyrics, TED Talks, online courses offered by Nord Anglia Education, teachings of spiritual leaders… This process is ongoing and the more I search, the more I find to reaffirm my opinion that, in addition to equipping children with the necessary skills to make a living, teachers have a responsibility to teach children Positive Education so that they can create a life that reflects their potential.

 

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