A holistic approach to student wellbeing

By Dr Peggy Kearns, Senior Lecturer at the Centre of Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne

 A key challenge for schools is how to best educate young people for the rigours of adulthood. The 21st century workplace increasingly requires flexibility, creativity, social intelligence and other soft skills. Unfortunately, by young adulthood many struggle, with one in four young Australians diagnosed with a mental health condition by the age of 25.

Educators are increasingly focused on how they can proactively equip students with thoughts, behaviours and skills to successfully ride the waves of life. ‘Positive education’ is an approach that aims to do just that.

What is positive education?

Most parents say that what they want most is for their children to be happy and successful in life. But in modern society, happiness is often equated with high achievement. The belief that education is all about getting good marks and scoring high on standardised tests has hijacked what many experts say should be a complementary goal: helping students build a strong, positive psychological and social foundation on which they can build a successful life.

Positive education combines the science of positive psychology with best practices from education to develop both traditional academic skills, such as numeracy and literacy, as well as wellbeing, character and resilience. It is proactive in nature, developing social and emotional skills, identifying strengths, building healthy habits, and equipping young people with tools and strategies for dealing with challenge, rather than dealing with difficulties and deficits after they occur.

Positive education doesn’t come at the expense of academic achievement. Students who feel happy and empowered are more likely to achieve stronger academic results. In other words, the skills, attitudes and behaviours that are developed through positive education can help students feel good and function well.

What does positive education look like?

Positive education has become more and more popular in Australian schools over the last five years. Schools are implementing various initiatives, ranging from simple exercises in the classroom to strategically incorporating positive education into every part of the school.

One approach that’s often included is helping students identify their strengths – things that they are good at, such as being kind, humorous, curious or leading others – and teaching them how to use their strengths in different situations to help them succeed. Students are also taught how to see strengths in other students, building friendships and respect for each other.

Other activities help students look for good things that happen during the day, not just the bad things. Teachers might end the day by asking students, ‘What went well today?’, or students might keep a journal on things for which they are grateful. Simple breathing and meditation exercises can help students focus their attention in class and remain calmer during conflict.

Positive education also focuses on ways to support teacher and staff wellbeing. Successful programs provide opportunities for teachers to try out different positive psychology activities in their own lives. Teachers are encouraged to think about what they already do well, and how they can do even better. They are given time and strategies for looking out for their own wellbeing. This in turn has a beneficial effect on the students, as they bring the positive strategies that they are excited about into their teaching.

Positive education in the school community

Positive education is not a one-size-fits-all program. Schools such as Geelong Grammar in Victoria, St Peter’s College in Adelaide, Knox Grammar in New South Wales and Perth College in Western Australia have embedded positive education into their curricula, while a growing number of government and private schools are looking at ways to incorporate the principles into day-to-day school life.

The most successful programs take a whole school approach, focusing not only on students, but on the educational community as a whole. They include wellbeing in their mission and values statement, publicly saying, ‘We’re not just about academic achievement. We’re about developing the wellbeing of our students and staff as well’. They train staff in the principles of positive education, prioritise staff wellbeing and include wellbeing in the curriculum and co-curricular activities. They measure both academic performance and wellbeing. And they create an environment that supports both wellbeing and learning.

While there’s a lot of excitement about positive education, there’s also a lot of unknowns. Research is starting to focus on what positive education looks like for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the impact of culture and the longer-term impact of different programs. A key question is how to make positive education a sustainable part of education, not simply a short-lived fad.

This article was originally published on Psychlopaedia.