Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
Last night I went to hear a child psychiatrist named Edward M. Hallowell give a talk on his new book “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Dr. Hallowell has a practice and center in Sudbury, MA that takes a strengths-based approach to treating children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Worry/Anxiety and Child Learning Disabilities. Despite working with a clinical population, Dr. Hallowell is a positive psychologist. (Well, really he is a positive psychiatrist, but that’s just as good!) In his talk he talked about how he is in the business of helping people “unwrap their gifts.” He explained that he often uses a metaphor with kids when explaining ADD. “You have a Ferrari brain; a really terrific and speedy brain,” he said, “the only thing is that you have Chevy brakes. We have to work on improving the brakes.”
The subject of last night’s talk was about how to create happy kids who become happy adults. Dr. Hallowell explained that there are five very simple and easy steps to creating happy kids who are successful and flourishing. These five steps are:
- CONNECT: create layers of social connections for kids, starting at home, then at school and in the neighborhood.
- PLAY: allow kids to use their creativity to explore, create and ask questions. Children need to have their humor and, more importantly, their imaginations, fostered and supported.
- PRACTICE: once children have found an area to explore, they must learn the discipline from practicing and wanting to do well at the things that interest them.
- ACHIEVE MASTERY: from practice children learn that they want to master something. Mastery is a powerful motivator that teaches confidence and a sense of “getting hooked on life.”
- RECOGNITION: once a child has achieved mastery, it takes social recognition to close the loop again to connections. Also, recognition teaches a child that they are part of a larger social group, so it teaches a sense of a social morality of being “part of something.”
For us positive psychologists, this just makes plain good sense. As I listened to Dr. Hallowell, I thought about Chris Peterson’s mantra that “Other People Matter.” Additionally, I thought about Carol Dweck’s work on praise, and that praise is empty unless you can point to the thing where a person has been practicing and achieving mastery.
Dr. Hallowell pointed out that out of this system of five steps, children learn passion, enthusiasm, discipline, the circumstances that create laughter and play, and a sense that they don’t ever have to give up. As I sat in the audience I thought about hope and optimism. I wanted to ask the question, “Kids need hope and optimism. How does this system teach those two skills?” Yet, at the same time, I had a feeling that maybe the answer to my question is sort of obvious. Using C. R. Synder’s definition of hope, these steps teach children pathway and agency thinking, and practice and mastery teach children how to set goals for themselves that will help establish hope.
Another important message Dr. Hallowell addressed was that it was important not to make kids do too much, and to let them try to do things on their own. So many parents fear what will happen if a child fails at something. The important thing about the five steps is that a child has to accomplish those five steps on some things, but not all things. We are not all successes at everything we do. It is okay to fail at some things. Maybe part of being a positive psychologist, and being strengths-based, is giving ourselves permission to be “bad” at something. Try though I might, I will never be a concert pianist, and I am proud to admit that I can live with that.
All in all, I would say Dr. Hallowell’s five steps were fascinating and inspiring. It is delightful to find clinicians outside of the MAPP family who are pioneering the strengths-based approach of positive psychology. As both the Class of 2006 and the Class of 2007 garner recognition for our academic accomplishments on Sunday, it is wonderful to see ways that what we have learned are being applied in the world.
Hallowell, E. (2003). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy. New York: Ballantine Books.