By Dr. Ilona Boniwell
When asked to explain what positive education is all about, I would usually describe its objectives as the development of skills of well-being, resilience and optimal functioning in children, teenagers and students, as well as parents, teachers and, more generally, educational institutions. Instead of utilising a trouble-shooting approach, still widespread when it comes to psychological functioning, positive education emphasises a preventative or enabling approach. Based on the established discipline of positive psychology, positive education is underpinned by theories and empirical research in this area.
The reasons for the focus on the development of well-being in children are twofold. On the one hand, many Western countries countries are facing an unprecedented increase in childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety disorders. On the other hand, a substantial body of research documents the benefits of well-being and positive individual characteristics. Research demonstrates that happy people are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, relationships, health, longevity, income, academic and work performance. They are more creative, able to multitask and endure boring tasks, are more trusting, helpful and sociable. What’s more, recent studies show that the schools teaching happiness skills outperform academically the schools teaching a more standard health curriculum, so focusing on well-being is a plus even when it comes to the core mission of the school.
So what are these well-being skills all about? Here are some of the pointers:
Happiness skills are about being aware of the happiness traps, such as placing the importance on power, money-making and artificial beauty;
They are about learning when to chose rather than what to choose;
They are about knowing to be content with the little things in life, such as the freshness of the spring air, a phone call from a friend or a movie night in;
They are about using the right tools at the right moment – whether it is a mindfulness minute, a run around the block or a re-framing activity;
And primarily, they are about knowing that happiness works in the inside-out rather than outside-in direction.
Despite working in positive education for well over a decade, it always comes as a surprise to me to see just how different various educational systems are when it comes to teaching non-cognitive skills.
For example, in my recent travels around the world, I had a great pleasure to present for the Ministry of Education in Singapore that is working extremely hard to ensure that their current social and emotional skills curriculum (already impressively wide) also includes recent positive psychology discoveries around mindset, resilience and grit. Still in Singapore, I visited the Avondale Grammar School that aims to become a beacon of positive education in Asia, with its commitment to the Bounce Back programme and innovative solutions around embedding positive psychology interventions into the daily life of its pupils.
Rays of Sunshine gratitude wall at the Avondale Grammar School, Singapore: “What kind words do you have for your peers? Write them down, add to their pocket of sunshine and make someone’s day brighter”
Japan, on the other hand, had up until very recently paid relatively little attention to the development of non-cognitive skills, but given the level of stress, is now embracing resilience as the primary intervention lever. Japan Positive Education Association has pioneered the use of the SPARK Resilience Curriculum and is running a three-year long evaluation of this school-based universal intervention.
It may come as a shock to discover that some of the world’s largest economies ignore the development of these essential skills for the future. Just across the channel from the UK with its SEL, SEAL and nowdays positive and character education, who would have guessed that France might have no provision whatsoever for anything even slightly concerned with the psychology of a child. There are some notable examples of positive deviance, however, such as the charity SynLab that focuses on empowering teachers to teach non-cognitive skills, and ScholaVie, bringing the Personal Well-Being Lessons programme to the French schools, with nearly 1,000 children benefiting from the curriculum nowadays.
As far as the UK is concerned, 2015 saw a high government level inquiry into the evidence base around non-cognitive skills development, resulting in a comprehensive report on the long-term effects of social and emotional skills in childhood (Goodman et al, 2015), and the opening of a of first MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Education Programme) at Anglia Ruskin University with a dedicated Positive Education pathway.
As for myself, I have discovered a new life passion – turning our best psychological discoveries into tangible tools and games that can be easily utilised by practitioners on the ground. The latest in the series is the Happiness Box – evidence-based positive psychology interventions presented through a fun “Go Fish” or “Happy Families” format. Instead of looking for a daughter or grandfather to complete the series, you search for members of the Confident, Optimistic, Fit, Creative or Sociable families, and then perform some corresponding activities, learning and practicing well-being skills as you go along.
Dr Ilona Boniwell heads the International MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and consults businesses and educational institutions around the globe as a Director of Positran. She wrote or edited seven books, delivered over 150 keynotes/invited presentations, founded the European Network of Positive Psychology, and was the first vice-chair of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA).