Australian Positive Psychology in Education
The first Australian Positive Psychology in Education Symposium was held at Sydney University on Saturday May 9, 2009.
The symposium was an inspiring event where like-minded people gathered together to share their experiences in how they are implementing positive psychology approaches in schools. The resounding conclusion: positive psychology is alive and well in Australian education, and there is an incredible amount of energy to implement the field widely across all areas of education.
160 participants attended, with a wide range of topics and speakers represented during the day. In this PPND article, we feature the keynote speakers and some overarching points.
1) Why bother teaching them to be happy? Positive education at Geelong Grammar School.
Geelong Grammar has a very high profile here in Australia, and no doubt in the rest of the world. This is due to the considerable time Martin Seligman and many other key figures have spent with the school. Mathew White, recently appointed to his role of Head of Positive Education, presented what everyone in the audience was eager to hear: what is going on in Geelong Grammar, and how did it get to where it is today.
Mathew explained that it all started back in 2005 when Geelong’s Handbury Centre for Wellbeing was built. The centre covers all aspects of health care and wellbeing for students, teachers and the non-teaching community.
The center came about because of the alarm many felt at the rising incidence of social stress indicators such as anxiety, depression, self harm, eating disorders addiction and binge drinking. It was a chance conversation in 2005 between a parent and the vice-head of the school that led to Martin Seligman’s work being introduced in 2008 and 2009. Flourishing struck a chord with the school, and the ‘-5 to +5’ continuum attracted much interest. Mathew explained “the Handbury Centre challenges the disease model”.
Positive Education at Geelong is for the whole school, from K-12, and is in the implicit and explicit training programme. The Positive Education department was established in 2009 as a recognition that wellbeing and positive education are to be embraced across all facets of life at the school.
Mathew summarised how positive psychology has been introduced. For example, teachers have been trained to teach the Penn Resiliency Programme for Year 7; students in years 9 and 10 have completed the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire; a range of positive psychology style approaches are integrated into activities for all years. A Charter of Optimism was created by a Year 9 Strengths Council.
Overall, Mathew explained that ‘it’s all about good living; it helps kids to be realistic about life and its challenges. We’re all in this together’.
2) Applying positive psychology in education: A seven-year journey from 2002 to 2009
Keynote Speaker: Dr Toni Noble, Australian Catholic University.
Toni provided an overview of the successful award-winning Bounce Back programme which she co-developed with fellow keynote speaker, Dr Helen McGrath. They began working on Bounce Back in 2001, to help build student, class and school resiliency.
3) An evidence-based positive psychology approach to student well-being
Keynote Speaker: Dr Helen McGrath, Deakin University
Helen McGrath provided a history of well-being in education, and noted that student well-being is now in the common vernacular. She presented compelling research showing that student well-being results in: positive relationships with peers and teachers; positive feelings and attitudes, resilience, self knowledge and self understanding, satisfaction with learning outcomes. Throughout her discussion on the six foundations of student well-being, Helen kept us laughing with her frequent comics which so nicely illustrated her points. And she passed on these wise words: “worrying is like paying interest on a mortgage when you’ve not yet taken out the loan.”4) Evidence-based coaching as applied positive psychology
Keynote Speaker: Dr Suzy Green and Josephine Rynsaardt, University of Sydney.
Suzy and Josephine presented their research on how coaching enhances optimal functioning and well-being for students and teachers. Teachers at MLC School received individual coaching, and were also trained in coaching techniques, so they could coach students aged 16-17. Benefits included enhanced self-efficacy, hope, and optimism: “coaching is a hope enhancing strategy” – for teachers and students.
5) Teaching happiness: does it work and is it necessary?
Keynote Speaker: Richard Eckersley, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University.
Richard showed concerning trends and statistics in depression, mental health, sorry, stress, anti-social behavior. He quoted Lord Richard Layard: “how stressful life has become for children,” and noted that the Australian Childhood Foundation is increasingly concerned about the increased stress, and how "childhood is at risk." There is a growing unease about the decline in community, values and family. Western culture with its distorted goals and pressures is harsh and tough and doesn’t enhance health and well-being. Richard challenged us to go beyond individual well-being, and to address the broader social perspective and political determinants of child well-being.
6) Choice in positive education
One size doesn’t fit all. The message reflected throughout the day was: more choice allows principals and schools to find an approach that will work for them.
Three different programmes were presented coming from different perspectives: one from CBT and learned optimism research, one from classroom teachers with a strong focus on SEL, and one emphasizing narrative and festival with a psychodynamics background. Note: all of these programmes are producing good results. It would be unfortunate if these programmes viewed each other as competitors in a search for ‘the right answer.’ The ‘missing programme’ we would like people to have heard about is Jenifer Fox of Purnell School’s Affinities programme which also has much to offer.7) Children’s design of the learning process
One of the strongest resounding points of the entire day was that research on children’s strength and resilience should look to children for its design and focus. The artwork by GGS children which will be on continuous display at IPPA [along with work from Riverside and KIPP schools] is a ‘must view’ for any researcher in the field wanting to design interventions for children. This is about children choosing their own clothes rather than handing them a cut down man’s three piece suit to play in.
Grays Point school in Sydney gave its year 5 students the power to decide what they would do to enhance student well-being at their school. Their choices included created a ‘playground post’ where Year 5 and 6 students take duty to look after children who might have a problem and administer ’emotional first aid’. They created a ‘friendship tree’ with a bow tied around it and cushions beneath where children without playmates can come to sit and have stories read to them by Year 6 girls. This relates to children designing the process: letting go and allowing children to create their own processes empowers them and provides genuinely appropriate and usually very creative solutions.
Throughout the day we heard consistent messages: positive psychology in schools brings enormous benefits including:
* reigniting teachers’ passion for their work
* enhanced student well-being and performance
* improved coping
* greater confidence
* enhanced communication and interaction with families and the community
* parents notice a positive difference in their children
Common messages included:
* requires a whole-school focus
* strong leadership support is necessary
* a long-term view is needed, no quick fixes
* teachers need to be fully involved and need to be role models
* we need to broaden our work to consider the political and societal landscape
This was an inspiring and successful day, and one which will no doubt be repeated.
Throughout the day, we could not help but think that if CEOs and business executives were at the symposium, they would have had two thoughts: "I need this in my children’s school" and "I need this in my organization." With just a few tweaks here and there, the sessions could have been workplace leadership sessions!
Images : all courtesy of Amanda Horne.