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Positive Education: Making a Successful School

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 18 October 2013

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Last week a Positive Education Summit took place in the UK, led by Professor Martin Seligman and sponsored by Wellington College, one of the top public schools and, under the leadership of Dr Anthony Seldon, probably the longest-standing exponent of applying positive psychology in schools anywhere in the world.

The Positive Education Summit was attended by 30 academics and practitioners from all corners of the globe, including Dr Ilona Boniwell, former leader of the UEL MAPP;  Dr Jane Gillham, creator of the Penn Resilience Program at the University of Pennsylvania; Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme in the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics; Dr. Héctor Escamilla, Rector, Universidad TecMilenio, Mexico;  Stephen Meek, Principal, Geelong Grammar School, Australia; Allison Webster, Assistant Head, Shady Hill School, USA; Simon Murray, Headmaster and Dr Mathew White, Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education at St Peter’s College, Australia.

I was exceedingly fortunate to be invited by Martin Seligman to a dinner at the Positive Education Summit. The general topic of conversation was the future of positive psychology, and positive education. At Seligman’s request, we stuck to the one-conversation rule over the dinner table which meant that everyone could hear and respond to everyone else’s contributions. Items discussed during the evening included:

  • Prospection,  a term coined by Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson back in 2007, and in particular positive prospection, which featured in Seligman and Baumeister’s opening remarks at the June 2013 World Congress on Positive Psychology. To find out more read this PPND article where Kathryn Britton discusses prospection. It includes a video interview with Martin Seligman about the importance of positive prospection.
  • Well-being as a community endeavor versus individual endeavor, in other words, positive psychology as it applies to groups of people at school or college, in families, in neighborhoods, or in workplaces. Although positive education as a field is blossoming, many people have pointed to the lack of research being carried out on positive psychology in families.
  • The role of change management in positive change, such as implementing a well-being curriculum in school.  This is the topic I’ll explore here.

Different Forms of Positive Education?

If you look across the world at the different schools which are applying positive psychology, you’ll see that there are both many similarities and key differences. Some schools have opted to implement one overarching off-the-peg curriculum, such as the Penn Resiliency Program or the Bounce Back program, a flexible positive education program which focuses not just on developing resilience but on building positive relationships, positive emotions, strengths, and so on.

Other schools have created their own well-being curricula that are tailor-made to their specific objectives. The Haberdasher’s Aske’s Academies Federation in the UK decided this was the right route for them. Ilona Boniwell, Lucy Ryan, and I were involved in designing and developing their primary and secondary well-being curricula. At the Luanda International School in Angola, my colleague Bora Rancic is leading a cross-disciplinary group of staff on a whole-school program called Well-being Across Borders to  bring positive psychology applications into school using the VIA Strengths Inventory as their framework.

Still other schools, such as St Peter’s College, Australia,  are implementing a mix of off-the-peg and tailor-made programs.

Which Approach to Positive Education is Right for Your School?

Assuming that implementing a Positive Education program is right for your school, how do you decide which approach to take? There is no easy answer. It depends! Of course, the cost of the program you have in mind is a major consideration, as is the time it takes for staff to be trained to run it. A number of specific questions need to be considered such as

  • Whether to buy a ready-made curriculum, such as Bounce Back! or the PRP, or to create your own tailor-made program
  • Whether to go for a broad holistic approach where you also take the school’s culture and values into account or a more contained approach consisting only of a specific time-table of well-being lessons
  • Whether to focus on student well-being or staff well-being, or both

These are not necessarily easy questions to answer. In implementing Positive Education, I’m very much reminded of Tony Hsieh and Zappos, the footwear company.  Hsieh has been very open about what he has done at Zappos, writing a book about this experience, speaking around the world, and even offering consultancy to other companies who want to emulate the success he has achieved. For Hsieh there is no competitive risk. Revealing what he has done at Zappos is not the same thing as telling you how he has done it.  

My point is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Positive Education. I’ve worked on well-being with a great many schools across the UK: primary, secondary, special, state and private, and each is unique.  What is right for one school may not work so well for another. Bearing in mind its distinctive features,  each school has to decide its own approach. Yet there are some general principles of leading change successfully which need to be taken into account.

Leading Positive Change

The discussion we had over the dinner table at the Positive Education Summit reminded me that in order to have flourishing schools, we still need to understand the basics of what makes change successful, and what gets in the way. Just because we’re talking about implementing a positive program of change (as opposed to say, an organizational restructure or introducing a new IT system, which are generally seen as negative changes) doesn’t mean that the principles of good change management fly out the window. In other words, just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it’s easy.

But there are things you can do which will help make the change easier.  These include tasks such as

  1. Getting sponsorship from the Head and senior leadership team
  2. Getting buy-in from the staff and parents
  3. Having a clear vision of what the school will look like in the future and how the students (and staff and parents) will benefit from Positive Education

These might seem tiresome, but they are essential to the success of your Positive Education initiative. If you can’t describe a  positive future for your school, its staff and students that is ambitious, compelling, and inspiring you may as well throw in the towel now.

Perhaps it’s time to look more seriously at how to become a positive prospector!




Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 351, 1351–1354.

Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. New York: Business Plus.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program. Years 5-8. Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program.  Years 3-4. Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program. Rears k – 2 . Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

Seligman, M., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigation into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.


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oz 18 October 2013 - 12:09 pm

Bridget, the last time I looked at the PRP research it seemed to suggest it wasn’t that effective on the long term. This has been also borne out in the adult version trialled in the CSFP where the impact was negligible.

Is there new research that I haven’t seen?

Celia 18 October 2013 - 3:01 pm

Very timely Bridget! I write from New Zealand where we have been designing and refining our school programme over the last 5 years. We are constantly adding to it and reformatting what works well. I especially enjoyed a recent 4 day session at Geelong Grammar in Melbourne where about 100 of us considered these very ideas.

tiggy 23 October 2013 - 12:51 pm

Bridget – I thought the research suggested that the PRP wasn’t that effective in the long term. And the adult version (the comprehensive soldier fitness program) has had negligible impact.

Is there new research that I am missing? If so I would appreciate the references.

Also the bounce back program has had some negative press in Australia with a psychiatrist basically saying theer is no evidence for its efficacy.


quackwatch 26 October 2013 - 12:18 pm


The last time I looked at the research on the PRP it wasn’t that supportive. It didn’t seem to work in the long term and wasn’t scaleable. Exactly the same issues with the adult version (the comprehensive soldier fitness program) – really small (practically negligible) effect sizes. Is there new research that I have missed?

Similarly the bounce back program has received negative press in Australia. A prominent psychiatrist criticised government funding for a model that had no evidence of efficacy.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 October 2013 - 4:19 am

Hi Celia

Many thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear your own school programme is going well and as you say, it’s a continual process of refinement. It’d be good to hear a bit more about your school, what you have been doing and what approach you’ve taken. Do you have specific well-being lessons on the timetable for all year groups, for example? How did you get the staff to support the programme? How have you measured its success? Do post your comments here or email me Bridget[at]workmad.co.uk.

Warm wishes

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 October 2013 - 5:15 am

Hi Oz/Tiggy/Wayne

Thanks for your comments, which I’m responding to as one as they are similar.

The summary of recent PRP research with children & adolescents on Penn’s Positive Psychology Center website (http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/prpsum.htm) acknowledges that there have been inconsistent results although it also says that existing studies suggest that PRP prevents symptoms of depression and anxiety and that the effects also appear to be long-lasting. I guess it depends what your definition of long-lasting is. “One study that examined PRP’s long-term effects on behavioral (externalizing) problems found significant preventive effects of disruptive behaviors 24 to 36 months after the intervention (Cutuli, 2004; Cutuli, Chaplin, Gillham, Reivich, & Seligman, 2007)”. My understanding from the PPC website is that PRP research is still ongoing and I would imagine this is the best place to get the latest updates.

As for Bounce Back – I’m not aware of the psychiatrist’s criticism you mention, so please do send me a link.

The school staff I spoke to at the Pos Ed summit (admittedly a select group) spoke very highly of programmes like PRP and Bounce Back although of course anecdotal evidence is not the same as RCT studies. Over the years there’s been a lot of research carried out on individual PP applications but I agree we definitely need more funding for research in organisational settings like schools.

Warm wishes

wj 1 November 2013 - 2:12 pm

Bridget – I’m not sure what happened to the response, but at risk of multiple responses here goes.

A meta analysis of the PRP* found that it had no impact o depression disorders.

Another study** found no impact at 2 years for non symptomatic children and only worked for Latino (not Afro American.

Similar poor results are found in the recent analysis of the Comprehensive soldier fitness program.


*Brunwasser, S.M., Gillham, J.E. & Kim, E.S., (2009). A Meta-Analytic Review of the Penn Resiliency Program’s Effect on Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77(6), 1042-1054.

**Cardemil, E.V., Reivich, K.J., Beevers, C.G., Seligman, M.E.P., & James, J. (2007). The prevention of depressive symptoms in low-income, minority children: Two-year follow-up. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 313-327.


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