At a time when society is facing a worrying increase in the number of children experiencing mental health issues, it is becoming clear that many of our schools have neither the resources nor the trained staff to cope.
There have been marked increases in self-harm, childhood depression, eating and sleeping disorders, as well as rates of permanent school exclusion (up some 40 per cent in the past three years). Children are lost and confused despite, or more often because of, their reliance on a virtual identity: their lives are measured in likes and followers.
How can we not feel anxious when 10 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds identify as feeling “always or often” lonely – the highest proportion of any age group?
Starved of funding for specialist services and professional expertise, schools have been scrambling to augment existing provision through pastoral programmes intended to improve the wellbeing and resilience of children. Many have employed counsellors, and some have integrated mindfulness and wellbeing training into their curricula, but none of these approaches provide teachers with the specific knowledge to intervene and help their pupils learn to self-regulate.
All of this explains why some schools are now turning to the discipline of positive psychology for answers.
Much of what we understand about positive psychology stems from the work of Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, who first designed a whole-school programme, leading to the emergence of the field of “positive education”, with its dual purpose of “feeling good and doing good”.
Despite “positive education” becoming a common phrase in educational discourse, this has not been a straightforward route for schools to take, partly because the approach does not seek to offer an easy or measurable fix. Rather, it focuses on prevention and requires teachers to undertake rigorous training aimed at improving their own resilience and mental health before using their skills and knowledge to help children via coaching and interventions.
Here, happiness, wellbeing, human strength and human flourishing are not mere aspirations but rather areas in which changes in mental disposition can be effected.
One institution that has faced down these challenges is Geelong Grammar School in Australia, which set up its Institute of Positive Education in 2012. This was a turning point in the adoption of positive psychology as a school-wide approach more generally; now, more than 12,000 teachers trained in these techniques work in more than 1,000 schools across the world.
Since the pioneering work of Sir Anthony Seldon, who promoted courses in happiness and wellbeing when he was master of Wellington College, self-esteem and happiness have been buzzwords in UK education circles. Most schools offer a mixture of philosophy and health in their pastoral-care programmes, often centred on the promotion of school-wide values and the identification of safe places. But positive education is a great deal more distinct and rigorous, in that it offers an approach grounded in the science of psychology, with Seligman exploring why things happen rather than dealing solely with their aftermath.
To recently retired Geelong head Stephen Meek, this distinction is vital. “For me, the critical factor is that science underpins positive psychology,” he says. “It is not just wishful thinking, but is based upon scientific experiments that have been replicated by scientists from universities across the world.”
‘Domains of flourishing’
Positive education has been the bedrock of Geelong’s pastoral care for 10 years, applied implicitly across all aspects of school life – academic, pastoral and co-curricular – as well as being covered explicitly in Years 7 and 10. So valued has the approach become that it is now a condition of employment for all staff (whether teaching or non-teaching) to undergo positive psychology training when they join the school.
With its hedonic and eudaemonic theories of wellbeing, and the six associated domains that are central to the promotion of “flourishing” – relationships, emotion, engagement, accomplishment, health and purpose – Geelong is an exemplar for other schools around the world, including a number in the UK.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meek remains convinced of the value of positive education. “I have no doubt at all that, at the basic level, the school has raised the profile of wellbeing for all its students,” he says. “They now have a greater understanding of the significance of wellbeing and how it can determine so much about the quality of their lives.
“Moreover, they know how to boost resilience when they encounter low points in their lives and, indeed, they know they can be proactive and can undertake positive actions to increase their life satisfaction. They do not need to accept life’s downs; they can do something about them.”
Schools that were reluctant to embrace positive education in the early days, partly because of a suspicion of psychology and the intensive training required, are now realising that a mental health crisis requires more than a superficial response. In recent years, clusters of state schools around the UK have experimented with the model – notably around Loughborough – with some success.
Independent schools have tended to look on with interest, taking what they needed from the science to create bespoke programmes. Recently, Warminster School in Wiltshire embedded positive psychology in its pastoral care, partly because leaders felt it was more grounded in psychology and research than other programmes but also because of the wellbeing benefits it could bring for teachers.
Earlier this term, I attended self-evolving positive psychology training at Passmores Academy in Harlow, provided by a teacher-led organisation called Inner Armour, which is closely connected with the school.
What struck me was the rigour and the content, focusing as it does on such diverse yet complementary topics as self-regulation, stressors, values in action, the importance of belonging and ritual, coping strategies, dealing with stress, values and ethics, and resilience (through the Penn Resilience Programme). It was the coaching sessions that set the course apart, however, as well as its use of interventions. This was positive psychology at its most raw, and it challenged the assumptions of a number of staff.
From the outset, some participants admitted that they were cynical about anything to do with psychology, citing the bevy of “mental health” professional development courses they had attended that had promised much but delivered little other than “fluff ”. But this training didn’t disappoint; the impact was summed up by one convert who said: “I was sceptical. Now I am completely inspired to put this into practice.”
Over the next 12 months, the academy will continue working with Inner Armour. Co-principal Natalie Christie confirms that “the school is committed to the principles of positive psychology”; she sees the journey it has begun as “life-transforming”, and believes the investment being made in staff will cascade down to the children. As one of the first state schools in the UK to embrace the approach in education, Passmores takes its role seriously, aiming to foster positive psychology in every teacher.
What I do know from spending time with the staff at Passmores is that the course had a profound impact on all who attended. Yes, there are challenges, the foremost of those being to win over all staff members and then impart the lessons to the children to develop their resilience. But what I heard made me realise how much we carry about in our heads that stops us doing what we need to do and becoming who we want to be.
Even if the benefits go no further than better equipping teachers to cope, the approach has huge merit. But already Passmores is working on using the skills and knowledge it has acquired to implement a programme of intervention and school-wide training. Fired with a missionary zeal, two staff members plan to attend the sixth World Conference on Positive Psychology in Melbourne next July to present papers on improving staff and student mental health, as well as becoming psychologically empowered as teachers.
My enduring impression of the training is of the rigour and the effect it had on teachers. Like several of the group, co-principal Vic Goddard described himself at the outset as a cynic about “the happy-clappy bandwagon of courses on happiness and wellbeing”.
Now, Goddard sees that instead of just “fixing broken things”, there is an opportunity for his school to make a significant change in the way it treats mental health through early intervention.
I arrived in Harlow needing to be convinced that Seligman’s theories could work in the hustle and bustle of a busy school. And I was.
But the last word should surely go to one of the Passmores teachers who took part: “From the bottom of my heart, this will change my life. And, if it changes my life, it will change the lives of kids.”
Peter Tait is an author who specialises in education and history