Well-being - Spreading optimism from the battlefield to the playground

4th October 2013 at 01:00
US psychology guru touts army `resilience' training for schools

Psychological techniques that have been adopted by the US army to better prepare soldiers for the ravages of war should be taught in schools to build resilience in children, according to a leading academic.

Learning about "positive psychology" should become an integral part of teacher training and would have a marked impact on children's learning, said Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr Seligman, who has been studying the psychology of optimism for 20 years, was in the UK this week to participate in the Positive Education Summit. The event was hosted by Wellington College and attracted academics from Australia, China, Singapore and Mexico, as well as the US.

The delegates also visited 10 Downing Street to meet officials and to make the case for positive psychology to be incorporated across government policy, not just in education.

Student well-being, often dubbed "happiness lessons", is at the heart of Wellington College's curriculum. But Dr Seligman believes that the idea should go much further, with the state sector following the lead of Wellington and other private schools in the UK, US and Australia.

He also argues that learning the techniques should not be considered a soft option. Every month, 180 drill sergeants pass through Dr Seligman's university, taking an eight-day course in positive psychology. They then pass on what they have learned to recruits in a bid to cut the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The US army wanted to create an army that was as mentally fit as it was physically fit," Dr Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center, told TES.

"The research showed, if you have someone in the battalion who has had training in positive psychology, there is a much lower probability of soldiers developing drug problems or becoming suicidal as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"(The army) provided $45 million (pound;28 million) for us to essentially do what we do in the school system, which is to teach teachers the techniques of positive psychology, who then teach the students."

Dr Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, said there was "good evidence" that enhancing well-being led to improvements in children's learning.

He has found a champion in the UK in the shape of James O'Shaughnessy, a former adviser to prime minister David Cameron and one of the key players behind the government's "happiness index", published last year.

Mr O'Shaughnessy led the delegation to Downing Street and is pushing for positive psychology - or what he more traditionally calls "character" - to be taught by schools.

"I came into this almost reluctantly, and I shared the scepticism that many people have with the woollier end of it. But if you look at the evidence and the research, it is particularly encouraging: character can be taught," Mr O'Shaughnessy said.

The techniques are likely to be met with scepticism from those who believe students are better served by schools delivering core knowledge and taking a more traditional approach.

Toby Young, an author and journalist who established the West London Free School, said that character was best taught outside the classroom.

"I'm not in favour of teaching resilience as a discrete subject," Mr Young said. "Positive psychology has always had the whiff of snake oil about it. But I am in favour of teaching it the old-fashioned way, through competitive sport."

But Dr Seligman said that with the evidence on their side, teacher trainers should now incorporate the techniques into their courses.

"One efficient use of this material is to make it part of the education curriculum for teachers," he said. "In the same way we teach teachers of maths geometry, I genuinely believe it is worthwhile teaching the teachers positive psychology."

PERMAnent change

Dr Martin Seligman's techniques are not solely about teaching happiness, but building emotional resilience.

His programme is based on five elements under the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

The academic (pictured above) believes that teachers can be trained to help students become aware of and then challenge negative thoughts, which can help improve their well-being.

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