The Power of Positive Deviance: How engaging parents in positive education can help a community to flourish.

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Our guest blog post this week comes from Nord Anglia Education, an International Education company with 54 schools in 24 countries world-wide. This is the third blog in the series that features wellbeing teacher champions in their network of schools.

The aim of these blogs is to share with the IPEN network a variety of ways that wellbeing and positive education are being developed in real, on-the-ground situations and settings by practising teachers in a range of school settings. This blog is written by Sue Smith from The British International School, Shanghai.

The British International School Shanghai, part of the Nord Anglia Education family of schools gave one parent the opportunity to become a Positive Deviant and in doing so began to discover some of the factors that make a community flourish.  At the time of the case study Sue Smith was a parent as well as PA to the Principal at the school. Today she lives in Cleveland Ohio and is a tutor of Mindfulness at Nord Anglia University, the E-learning platform of Nord Anglia Education.

Right here, right now ‘What do you really want from life?’

I think you would mostly likely respond in the same way as our parents when asked the same question.

We want our families to be the best they can be. We want a work/life balance for our family. We want a purposeful life. It’s true, we all want to flourish. It’s also true that in the same community some flourish more than others.This may be because in every community there are a few individuals or groups who demonstrate uncommon behaviours and strategies that mean they overcome a problem without special resources. These people or groups can be defined as Positive Deviants. I am a Positive Deviant for well-being and you could become one too.

For our school the challenge was two-fold. If a child falls over in the playground and breaks a leg do we say, ‘Pull yourself together?’ We all have mental wellbeing just as we all have physical wellbeing but it is viewed very differently. What was concerning was the data coming out of the UK.


We were feeling it too.  Stress, anxiety and depression were all visible in parents, staff and students, just as they are in vary degrees in every school.  In every community around the world.

We are often afraid that getting people to talk about their mental wellbeing is like opening a Pandora’s Box.  If we admit to it – What do we do next? Who do we go to for help?If we were to talk about it, to listen and to change our behavior and attitudes towards mental health – Could we enable more people to flourish?

This was the first part of the challenge.  I knew Positive Education could make an impact. I also knew as in all high achieving, successful schools the timetable was full to bursting and teachers were focused on results.  This was our second challenge.

From the book ‘The Power of Positive Deviance’ by Richard Pascale and Jerry and Monique Sternin I learnt it’s the ‘how’s’ and not the ‘what’s’.

Each community has its own distinct and complicated social patterns. Stuck, deep within that pattern is what seems like unsolvable problems. At the time our school comprised 1500 pupils aged 2-18. There was approximately 150 teachers, 80 support staff, and up to 2000 parents. We had over 50 different nationalities and languages. The community is transient with people coming and going every year, throughout the year. We are part of an expat community of 100,000 people living in a Chinese mega city of 25 million, possibly more now in 2018.  You cannot get more complex than that. Many of us do not flourish, but many of us do. Positive Deviants like me, and probably you if this blog has engaged you, co-exist in communities. There were others.  There were parents who wanted to get engaged.

A few Positive Deviants discover ways to cope successfully, to flourish, but if there is no social intelligence, no social process in place the ‘how’s’ do not get spread throughout the community. Attitudes and behaviours don’t change. People don’t flourish.

What did the Social Process to discover and spread the Hows look like?

Firstly, I gained the approval from the Principal to go ahead and ‘have a go’

For Positive Deviance to work you need someone at the top to not necessarily support you but to let you try.  A Positive Deviant can come from anywhere in the community.

Secondly, we invited everyone to the table. In our case, the parents.

They will not all want to come. For those that do create space for them to speak and for all to listen. We ran regular coaching conversations sessions for parents with training from the Organisational Coach Clive Leach and the help of this resource, ‘An Introduction to Coaching Skills, A Practical Guide’, by Christian Van Nieuwerburgh.

We listened to our community and they came up with the solutions. They owned this process. We didn’t give them the answers, although often it would have been easier to from the school’s perspective.  Instead we created the space for others to come up with the ideas.

From our Coaching Conversations group emerged a curiosity about the practice and benefits of Mindfulness.  At the time I knew a little, and using my experience as a Psychologist and running parent groups in the UK I facilitated an 8 week programme. Our guide for this was ‘Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

I soon learnt if you are not mindful as the group leader, the extent to which the participants in the group will learn mindfulness will be limited. Similarly, mindful parents could mean mindful children.

Mindfulness led to exploring mindfulness and the use of Character Strengths.

Here, Ryan M. Niemiec’s book, Mindfulness and Character Strengths, A Practical Guide to Flourishing’ was invaluable.

We learnt to talk in the language of character strengths to our children. We began to spot them in ourselves, in our children and universal vocabulary and a wonderful conversation began.  We very quickly learnt the old saying,   ‘like father, like son’ is not necessarily true. 

[Courtesy of The Learning Tree]

Alongside all of this the Coaching Conversations groups continued. As each group of parents learnt the techniques so they in turn taught another group of parents. And the cycle of Positive Deviance continues:

The parental engagement programme on wellbeing started in 2015 and it continues, sustained by new Positive Deviants identified. It has evolved. In 2017 the groups worked on Emotional Intelligence.

At the beginning and end of the programmes we ran we measured levels of Depression, Anxiety and stress of participating parents using the DAS index. In almost every case the levels reduced. In the few that did not, the Mindfulness practice enabled those parents to stop, stand back from their thoughts, emotions and feelings and choose to act or not.

[Source: Parental Engagement project on well being, The British International School Shanghia Puxi 2016]

Parents who participated said,

 ‘I have learned to listen and not to give the solution but let my children and husband get to the solution themselves. I have learned to say “no” and to prioritise myself, and to make choices. Before I was out to please everyone, now I am prioritising myself and my family. It feels good and I have lifted a big weight from my shoulders.’

‘I change the way I see my friends’ problems, I was always trying to help them solve their problems with advice or taking care of some of their issues. I learnt that I can give better help by listening and letting them discover their own solutions and still giving support to their own decisions.’

‘It has been great being together with people from different cultures, different ages and in different places in our lives. Sometimes when the course was finished I felt I could “fly” and I had “a go”

If you would like more information on the power of Positive Deviance contact Sue Smith




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