Martin Seligman: 'Teaching wellbeing in schools will improve the lives of young people and drive up test results'

25th April 2017 at 17:22
Teaching wellbeing isn’t about getting students to smile all the time, it’s about coaching them to find greater meaning in life – and it can markedly improve test scores, too, says a leading American psychologist

Spending valuable lesson time teaching wellbeing skills might seem like something of a luxury when you have hours of punctuation drills to get through and a new unit on fractions to start before the end of the week.

But, according to a leading American psychologist, teaching wellbeing can go hand in hand with the rest of the curriculum - and, when done right, it can lead to greater engagement and markedly better test scores, too.

“We can both teach the traditional goals of education — literacy, numeracy, science — and we can increase students’ wellbeing. When you do that, they’re synergistic, not antagonistic,” explains Martin Seligman, who is a former president of the American Psychological Association and has been promoting positive psychology since the 1990s.

Seligman's research has revealed that by teaching certain cognitive and emotional skills to children when they are 10 or 11 years old, they will later go on to experience markedly lower rates of depression and anxiety compared with control groups.

However, when he initially took these findings to school leaders and education ministers in the hope that more schools could apply his findings, their reactions were a surprise to him.

Not about 'happiness'

“They said, 'Well yeah, it’s very nice to make kids happier, but school’s not about happiness. School is about literacy and numeracy and learning science, and schools have limited resources and we’re going to cut, and so what is the effect of kids who have less depression and anxiety and more wellbeing on what they learn?” Seligman says.

Further studies have since been carried out, most recently in Bhutan, Mexico and Peru, which looked at the effect of Seligman’s methods on performance in national standardised examinations. They found that in schools where cognitive skills were taught, not only did wellbeing increase, but test scores went up, too.

Seligman argues that it is a misconception to say that wellbeing is all about teaching students to be happy.

Instead, positive psychology is concerned with teaching skills connected to five “pillars”.

“The acronym I use to describe it is ‘Perma’: positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and accomplishment,” Seligman says.

“It’s not about smiling and laughing and being merry and cheerful,” he adds. “I think there are pretty severe genetic limits on being smiley and cheerful, but learning to be more engaged, have more meaning in life, have better relationships, I think are considerably more teachable than teaching people to smile and laugh.”

A political goal

The fact that these skills can be taught is good news for teachers, Seligman believes. A recent Programme for International Student Assessment study study ranked the UK 38 out of 48 countries for teenage wellbeing – a clear indication that something needs to change in the way we approach mental health in schools.

But changing this, Seligman suggests, will require the support of government.

“I think wellbeing is both a plausible personal goal in life and a plausible political goal,” he says.

“It’s great that governments want to work at improving economics, but people want more in life than higher income. They want more satisfaction, they want more meaning in life, they want more positive emotion.”

And, as he sees it, getting more schools to teach wellbeing could potentially be the answer to that.

“I think there’s quite serious evidence that the building of wellbeing is double-barrel. It buffers against mental illness, but it increases the positive side of life as well,” he says.

If you are interested in learning more about mental health and wellbeing in education, Martin Seligman will be appearing at IPEN’s Ultimate Wellbeing and Mental Health in Education Conference on 5 May. Other speakers include Sir Anthony Seldon, Richard Layard, Duncan Selbie and many more. To register, and for further information, click here

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