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Can ALL Students Benefit from Positive Education? Positive Education for Struggling Students

By Tom Brunzell, Helen Stokes, & Lea Waters

One of the research projects currently being undertaken at the Centre of Positive Psychology and the Youth Research Centre at the University Melbourne is investigating how to bring Positive Education to students affected by trauma. This is important given that recent statistics in the USA report that up to 40% of young people are affected by trauma (e.g., divorce, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, divorce).

In our recent research with a school to embed positive education, a teacher frankly shared: “I’m here to teach the students who want to learn.” This particular school sits in a rural area of the state, a former manufacturing region where over one-third of the students are known to child-protection agencies. We know that this teacher has an incredibly challenging job to do, and her students arrive to the classroom hypervigilant, dysregulated and unready to learn. We hear the concerns of this teacher, yet we are driven to challenge this reflection in the service of giving all children the opportunity to develop their character strengths, learn how to apply a growth mindset, and practice resilient thinking throughout the classroom curriculum.

In classrooms like this, we have seen some positive education lessons go well–and go terribly awry! We feel for frustrated teachers who are searching for a way of working within positive education principles with students affected by trauma, only to see their carefully planned “mindfulness-minute” never really have a chance in the context of dysregulated students, poor classroom management, escalated emotions and exasperated teachers.

Research by leading neuropsychology researcher Allan Schore suggests that students who have experienced trauma are less receptive to the more cognitive-based lessons (e.g., a student analysing their own explanatory style) that are typical in positive education curriculum. This means that positive education lessons need to be adapted if they are going to be of benefit to trauma affected students.

We have developed a new model, the Trauma Informed Positive Education (TIPE) model that positions the scope and sequence of lessons/intervention in a very specific way so as to better connect and prepare trauma affected students to understand and apply positive education to their own lives in school and beyond.

In TIPE, the positive education lessons with trauma affected students follow a careful, developmentally-informed sequence. First, the lessons need to be based ‘in the body’ and focus teaching students how to regulate their physical and emotional reactions (e.g., ‘body mapping’ techniques where students are taught to identify where they feel stress in the body and are then giving opportunities for students to map their own de-escalation before the lesson begins). As the teacher sees skills in regulation growing, the lessons can move forward to focus on building safe attachment and teaching students how to build their relational skills (e.g., building empathy and attunement to others through collaborative experiences such as circle time that provide an emotional intelligence lens). The third phase of teaching positive education to students can incorporate character strengths and more cognitive-based lessons.

We are excited to share one example teacher working with TIPE. Shelly* is the same teacher who held the initial belief of only wanting to teach students who came into class ready-to-learn. After TIPE coaching Shelly through the first two terms of the school year, she came to understand that in order to best serve her students, she needed to improve their capacity to learn by developing their regulatory and relational capacities. Finally, mid-year, she felt courageous enough to introduce mindfulness to her fourth grade class.

After five-weeks of ‘breathing brain-breaks’ before silent reading time, the students were given a choice to create their own mindfulness strategy to use outside the classroom, at home, and beyond. Our two favourites?

- A student who loves basketball shared that when he begins to feel stress in his body, he closes his eyes, and imagines that he’s bouncing the ball twice before going in for a lay-up. When asked what the most effective part of it all is, he quickly answered: “I reckon, it’s the breathing!”

- A student developed her own strategy of taking a long breath, closing her eyes, and imaging the stuffed animals on her bed. She answered, “I think I count about four of them, and I’m ready to move on…”

Shelly also eagerly shared that due to her students building readiness to take on heavier cognitive lifting within their learning, they were able to better understand the reasoning behind positive primer activities before their academic lessons. By mid-year, the class compiled a ‘positive primer toolkit’ and now they vote on the brainbreaks that they need each day.

This is a terrific example of students owning their own learning, making positive choices, and creating a culture of strong relationships in the service of classroom community.

We fervently advocate that positive education is for all of our students; but teachers working with challenging students need careful guidance about the nueroscientific developmental sequence required. We offer TIPE as a way to support teacher practice and positively shift whole-of-school culture in schools that are challenged with trauma-affected students.

*Identity has been changed for this article.



Brunzell, T., Stokes H., & Waters, L. (2015). Trauma-Informed Positive Education: Using Positive Psychology to Strengthen Vulnerable Students. Contemporary School Psychology, 1-21.   DOI 10.1007/s40688-015-0070-x

About the Authors

Mr Tom Brunzell is a PhD Candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Senior Advisor Education, Berry Street Victoria.

Dr Helen Stokes is a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the Youth Research Centre at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Professor Lea Waters is the Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology and the Director of the Centre of Positive Psychology at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.@ProfLeaWaters

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