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No Child Left Behind, Positive Emotions, and Leadership

written by Dave Shearon 17 November 2008

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

NCLB_logoAmerican public schools have been under increasing pressure since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.  That pressure has ratcheted up continuously over the last quarter century.  Under President Bush, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed with bipartisan support in 2001.  NCLB, among other things, required that states use standardized tests more frequently and in more subjects to assess student learning.  When those tests fail to show adequate learning by students, the consequences can include a loss of local control of the school system.  While this program was radically different from what had been in place in most states, for Tennessee, it simply mimicked requirements created by a Democrat governor in 1992.  The only difference was that our method for measuring gains was far more sophisticated (and far fairer) than that contained in NCLB.

This post, however, isn’t about the pros and cons of NCLB, standardized testing, or what will happen to this program under the Obama administration.  This post is about the most effective leadership for school systems under pressure from NCLB from a positive psychology perspective.

Let’s start with basics:  “Other people matter,” is Chris Peterson’s summary of the key findings of positive psychology.  Further, from the work of Barb Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, as well as John Gottman, we know that positive emotions broaden the thought/action repertoire of and build social, psychological, and physical resources for the future.  Further, the positive-to-negative ratio needs to be equal to or greater than 5:1 (84%) to achieve excellence in organizations and relationships, though it probably shouldn’t be over 10:1.  (If anyone encounters an urban school system — the part of education with which I am most familiar — that is running at more than 10:1 positive to negative, please contact me.  I’ll get on a plane and go visit!)

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with the top leadership of an urban school system about positive psychology.  This system is under a great deal of pressure from NCLB enforcement actions.  In conversations with both folks in the system and with some working with the system from outside, it became evident that positive emotions are in short supply.  Fear, anxiety, anger, and resentment are more common emotions as central office administrators and state facilitators seek desperately to get improvement in student performance on a variety of measures. 

It is easy to blame NCLB for these emotions and to argue that public schools either are already doing a pretty good job given all the circumstances, or that they would get better quicker without all the pressure from standardized tests.  Again, that’s not where I’m focusing, partially because I think it about as likely that external measurements of student achievement will go away as that the Securities Exchange Commission will quit requiring publicly traded companies to post audited financial reports.  As events from Enron to the current debacle of securitized mortgages show, requiring audited financial statements has not prevented disastrous performances by publicly traded companies.  And requiring standardized tests hasn’t caused public school systems, especially urban systems, to suddenly improve.  But neither is going away, although hopefully both will continue to be improved!

Regardless, what about leaders at systems like the one I have been seeing?  My suggestion is that the growing body of both general research in positive psychology, and research targeted specifically at education (Roger Goddard’s work on trust comes to mind), both point strongly toward a strategy of building positive emotions as a clear path toward greater creativity, engagement, collaboration, and success among faculties and between school personnel and the central office administrators.  However, this requires a unique perspective and willingness to take public risks from a system superintendent.  Many of those involved in the effort to improve public education from the business community and the political realm want to see someone “crack the whip.”  Some believe that if teachers would just quit loafing, or start believing that all children can learn, of if the teachers’ union would just get out of the way, we would have great schools (preferably without increasing the amount of funding!).  Many of these participants in the process would be alarmed and unsupportive at any hint that a school superintendent in an urban system was trying to increase positive emotions among teachers, leadership, and students!  What is the world coming to?  “Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” is the motto, with a muttered, “We don’t need no stinkin’ positive emotions!”

Robert Quinn’s brilliant Building the Bridge as You Walk on It addresses leadership as a state one enters, not a trait one has.  An individual in the state of leadership is

  • Internally directed (doing what they know to be in pursuit of their purpose as opposed to that which will win plaudits or relief from pressure from external forces)
  • Externally open (paying attention to information about success coming from the environment)
  • Purpose centered (as opposed to personal comfort centered)
  • Other focused (paying attention to the needs and capabilities of those around the leader)

Quinn suggests that rapid learning is possible as individuals enter the state of authentic leadership.  Certainly, rapid learning is needed in urban school systems!  A system with not just a superintendent in the state of authentic leadership, but with many individuals at all levels frequently entering and remaining in that state might just be able to sustain efforts to broaden and build positive emotions through a focus on resilience, strengths, and relationships until those efforts paid off in ways apparent to the doubters, e.g., test scores. 

I believe that taking some time and effort to help leaders in a system, then others throughout, to experience more positive emotions at work, to build their resilience, engage their strengths, and broaden and deepen their relationships will prove to be far more fruitful than focusing all efforts on curriculum, pedagogy, attendance policies, dress codes, truancy prevention programs, and the many other items that can absorb all the time and effort of leadership.  Yes, several of the items in that last list are important, though if you look around, you will find schools with very different approaches to each that are achieving excellent results.  However, focusing on such things alone, while ignoring the crucial element of the overall positivity of the culture, is almost the definition of failing to see the forest for the trees. 

Here’s to leadership!



Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. Not yet published, but available for preorder.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Roger Goddard on Trust — a video

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

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Andrew Rosenthal 17 November 2008 - 9:51 am

Dave – where’s the greatest hope for change? Local level – school boards? State level? Federal level – Dept. of Ed, Congress, Unions…? Private schools are picking up the mantle… do public schools stand a chance?

Kirsten Cronlund 17 November 2008 - 10:35 am

Dave, You are totally speaking my language with this article. The really encouraging thing to me is that the type of authentic leadership you speak of really consists of learnable and teachable emotional competency skills. Just imagine our country with a humming, interconnected hive of educational leaders who value their teachers and help them tap into their depths of creativity and passion for their jobs. Now THAT’S how to reach children…

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 10:52 am

Andrew, I think we have to keep working to help urban systems change. Charters and (less likely) vouchers may help, but its going to be a long, slow process. The possibility of unleashing the positive resources already present in current schools is quicker route to greatly improved performance.

I think the most immediate change in a system can be caused by a focused, centered, patient, persuasive superintendnet. Such individuals can both set the tone and deploy resources in the system to help positive interactions and behaviors flourish, and they can provide high cover against political pressure from school boards, mayors, other political leaders and business communities, who want someone to “get tough with those teachers!”

Having served on a school board, I’m not a big fan of their capability to lead. At best, they can pick a superintendent who can help establish the direction. Few school board members, however, have the background to understand why claims that a new curriculum, discipline policy, or whatever some other fad of the year must be taken with a 10-lb bag of salt!

At the state level, and maybe federal, I think resources to develop and deploy systems to measure positivity and provide prompt feedback to systems could be helpful. Think short message service (text messages from cell phones) polling systems for multiple, quick snapshots of positivity. But, again, the likelihood of such a focus at those levels right now seems faint. I think the best chance for improvement in urban systems will come from superintendents who start to understand the power of positive individuals interacting in positive ways.

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 10:59 am

Kirsten, I agree that authentic leadership can be promoted through training. Further, individuals at many levels, including teachers, can become authentic leaders. Research in positive psychology has shown us how to promote resilience, the ability to know, use, see, and enable strenghts, and ways to promote high quality connections in relationships of trust. As such knowledge and skills permeate a system, learning and growth are likely to manifest in new approaches and systems that will be both unexpected and successful.

Sherri Fisher 17 November 2008 - 12:48 pm

Dave, Andrew, Kirsten-

We are all wrestling with the same question: Where are the ways in? I think of it as the difference between believing “We have what you need” and “You have what you need.” The latter is what I believe.

We can hire and name leaders, but that will not make them leaders. Superintendents and central office folks are a teensy weensy percentage of the total tonnage of personnel in schools, and they are the ones with the very least amount of student contact. Ask any teacher: student success does not happen in the central office, and schools exist to successfully educate students.

Making schools happier may require the buy-in of a superintendent, but I think this is not required and may actually impede authentic progress. Legislating happiness almost guarantees that such programs will be treated with suspicion by the very people we need to make the teaching-learning connection happen.

We need teachers who are engaged, who stay on the job long enough to learn how to teach, and who work collaboratively. We need teachers who experience the power of positive emotions and can tell their own stories about the transformation that occurs at the intersection of happiness, learning and opportunity.

Most importantly, we need to envision a new kind of professional development that is not about “training” people to become the leaders we think they need to be, but instead developing the people whose authentic leadership will, as Dave says above, “manifest in new approaches and systems that will be both unexpected and successful.” That sounds exciting!!

At Culver Academies, only one high level administrator has participated in PP workshops. The rest of the participants have come from every department, from teaching interns to 30-year veterans, from residential staff to athletic coaches. What these people have done with their exposure to and practice of PP is an amazing collection of positive interventions. Yes, this is an independent school. And yes, I believe, this could happen in a public school, too.

Asking for wholesale commitment to PP in a school district is a huge risk and may be a tough sell. I’d rather see a group who are given permission, and who are invited to participate instead of told what to do. If we believe that PP is the way to go, and we guide the participants in their journeys, it cannot help but be a great success.

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 1:14 pm

Sherri — thanks for the point about requiring participation. Couldn’t agree more and didn’t intend to suggest to the contrary. Permission and invitation. Though, in urban systems, I think that permission is going to require buy-in and support at the top. Not either/or, but both/and — leadership at all levels.

Jeremy McCarthy 17 November 2008 - 3:23 pm

Dave, you make great points about the pervasive “check your emotions at the door” culture that we have across education, government, and business in our society. I also think of our current culture as being a collection of individuals many of whom are ready, even longing for, this message. It is easier to get a superintendent to “take public risks” if we can increase the number of parents, teachers and other administrators recognizing the important role of emotion in education. But as you mention, a persuasive superintendent may be the best way to spark change across these many individuals.

waynej 17 November 2008 - 4:13 pm

Dave, I suspect PP is working from a limited paradigm. There is compelling research suggesting that contentment is the power positive emotion. Perhaps you should be aiming for contented schools as opposed to positive schools. Not sure if that fits with American culture though.

Christine Duvivier 17 November 2008 - 4:54 pm

Dave, your observation that standardized tests haven’t caused urban schools to improve is fascinating to me. And I found your point about leaders being internally-directed interesting too. School often does just the opposite– teaches people to be externally-directed.

Thanks for your thoughtful article! All the best,

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 8:07 pm

Thanks, Jeremy. As the numbers of folks understanding some of the research coming out of positive psychology, there will be more of an opportunity for a superintendent to lead on that basis. And, as far as “checking your emotions at the door”, I think that’s even worse in the field of law, but that’s a post for another day!

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 8:11 pm

Wayne, positive psychology’s paradigm seems fairly broad to me: hope, optimism (two kinds!), elevation, awe, gratitude, forgiveness, achievement, meaning, strengths, high quality connections to name just a few of the constructs. Perhaps you are right that the core power of all these constructs is contentment. On the other hand, perhaps there are a few other core processes involved also.

Dave Shearon 17 November 2008 - 8:15 pm

Christine, your work in this area has highlighted the excessive externally-directed component of schooling. I think the testing component has been an attempt to break through the externally-closed component in too many systems — failure to look for and act on signs of success, or lack thereof. Since positive psychology is the science of human success, including successful learning, I hope we will start to allow and assist our schools in re-shaping to embody more resilience, more focus on strengths, and more attention to relationships!

Anoni Mouse 17 November 2008 - 11:02 pm


“Why Shouldn’t More Schools Commit Suicide?” (Or “What Makes Schools’ Lives Worth Living?”)

I’m NOT suggesting children or adults should off themselves, just the organization as it exists might want to dissolve and reform with a flatter chain of command.
I just had to tweak the existentialist question for our education debate. Maybe some schools do more harm than good with the bureaucratization of learning. Too many cooks do spoil the soup regardless of the research on the effectiveness of teams. I find that having too many people examining my work, prodding me to change my methods actually impedes my ability to teach. Often those who recommend courses of action lack the preparation and training to make suggestions. Its as if I went to my mechanic and told him how to fix my car. I couldn’t tell you what a spanner looks like to save my life! Why should I listen to those who are unqualified tell me how to do my job? Yet that is the position

You lured me into your education discussion. Guess what I think a key to this mess is: motivation. Getting kids and bigger kids (teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, the public and politicians)to figure out what works and do these things more of the time consistently is the trick.

As with so many situations, in the general they’re all alike and the devil is in the details. You’ve got a school, urban or rural. It is underperforming. People are in a downward funk feeling like garbage. That feeds underperformance and tougher standards to raise standards, which leads to poorer student performance.

I love Results Based Leadership by Smallwood & Ulrich. Its a business book and its premise is that we should focus on the right results. Common sense is not common practice. I don’t know how many times I go to work as a Special Ed Teacher and have a vision and throughout the day it gets corrupted by the administrivia: loads of nonessential paperwork and busywork and bulloney. Add to the mix obnoxious behavior from the kids and big kids and much of your positive momentum falls apart.

One memorable tagline from Results Based Leadership was “Organizations are perfectly designed for the results they achieve”. Schools are hosed up at the systems level but I feel that teachers often receive scrutiny because they are visible.

wayne jencke 18 November 2008 - 12:19 am

Dave, its interesting that you don’t list mindfulness. Why do Americans struggle with this concept? For example Seligman is dismissive of it in Authentic Happiness.

Have you seen the research where teaching American students a mindfulness technique lifted students’ grades by one level?

Dave Shearon 18 November 2008 - 10:08 am

Wayne, I didn’t list mindfulness because I was trying to point out areas other than positive emotions and contentment that fall within the positive psychology “paradigm” that you were limiting to positive emotions. Tal Ben-Shahar emphasizes it, Ellen Langer spoke at a Positive Psychology Summit, Michael Frisch includes it in Quality of Life Therapy, Sonja Lyubomirsky includes it in her book, calming and focusing is a technique of resilience as taught by Karen Reivich, Jane Gillham, Andrew Shatte at both the adult and student levels, and so on and so forth. I include it and teach it when I work with lawyers or educators.

Sometimes, folks write about a topic because they are writing about that topic, not because they are unaware of other topics.

Dave Shearon 18 November 2008 - 10:17 am

Anoni Mouse, thanks for what you are doing as a teacher, and for contributing to this discussion. I agree with so much of what you say, including the implicit suggestion that books on business leadership have relevance to schools. I would expect a system with a focus on resilience, strengths, and relationships would be one where teachers experienced fewer hindrances and more helps in their day-to-day efforts to help students engage with the work necessary for learning.

Best wishes to you!

Kathryn Britton 18 November 2008 - 11:09 am

Wayne & Dave,

I sat next to a retired symphony conductor at a recent symposium titled Music and the Brain. He’d written a book called A Well-Tempered Mind: Using Music to Help Children Listen and Learn about work that he’d done with children in local schools. Children who had 12 30-minutes music training sessions when they were taught to listen closely to music and watch for specific things performed better on end-of-grade tests than controls. I guess this could be thought of as a kind of mindfulness, or it could be thought of in terms of exercising the parts of the brain that respond to music.

Just thought it was an interesting element to throw into the mix.


Dave Shearon 18 November 2008 - 11:18 am

Kathryn, yes, very interesting! Thanks.

Christine Duvivier 18 November 2008 - 12:13 pm


I agree that education needs to be addressed at a systems-level and not by micro-managing teachers. Please change your heading though– it is very offensive– and while I know you mean well and want to stir things up I hope you will find another metaphor.

Your point on motivation is a good one. I’ve found that the kids know what motivates them– and they know how they learn best.


waynej 18 November 2008 - 3:14 pm

Dave, I guess what I’m saying that its all well and good to jump up and down say that there isn’t enough positive emotions. But for most administrators it is a big ask to get from negativity to positivity. Perhaps a calmer environment might be more doable from their perspective.

jeanine Broderick 21 August 2013 - 8:50 pm

Yes! Yes! Yes! But, now go deeper.

I was able to do some of this last year in a high school considered “at risk” and the results were phenomenal. Several of the success stories still make me tear up (in gladness) each time I tell them.

It is possible to teach the students to generate their own positivity, to understand that others’ negative commentary is far more about the person making the comment than about who the person they are making the comment to is. This is an essential understanding for students coming from homes no one would want a child to live in. It empowers them in ways that change someone from someone who is angry at literally everyone in their life to someone who is not only no longer angry, but demonstrating greater resilience in circumstances that formerly caused anger.

We live in a world where negative expectations are often foisted on our children by adults that have no idea that telling a child he is stupid or dumb actually impacts performance yet our science shows clearly that it does.

Even teachers, believing that such children are lost causes impacts the outcome, substantially.

When we empower the children they embrace it–they naturally want to feel better (we all do). I had one Mom tell me her son had been on the brink of suicide and that what I taught helped him change his mindset so that a few months later he told his Mom, as he dressed to take a date to prom, that had it not been for the information he would not be alive to go to prom. Just that, his willingness to openly communicate with his Mom about how close he had come–how rare is that? Much less the change in him that led him back from that edge.

The basics are so simple they could be taught in kindergarten and reinforced by teachers and parents who understand the concepts and we would live in a different world. A few hours at a young age, public service programs to educate the parents and teachers and we could shift the tide to one where thriving is the norm.

The positive impact on social problems, from health, bullying, crime, teen pregnancy, high divorce rates, addiction to drugs and alcohol, negative peer pressure and more–all can be improved by empowering the children with the ability to self-master their emotional stance and understand that their perception is fluid and how to develop mindsets that serve their highest good. I have citations that support all of this and more.

jeanine Broderick 21 August 2013 - 9:10 pm


I wanted to comment on your comment regarding motivation.

The best motivation is that which comes from within, intrinsic motivation feeds itself.

Belief that one cannot do something kills intrinsic motivation. Others may believe someone can’t and they will still succeed. But Henry Ford was absolutely right when he said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you’re right” was correct.

By helping children believe more in themselves, by showing them they have guidance (Peil, K.T. “in press”)and giving them an understanding of how to use it they can thrive even when others do not believe they will be able to.

Somehow, someway, I was so naturally resilient that at 35 a psychiatrist said to me, “People like you do not put themselves through college and graduate with honors, they are not good Moms, and they do not have successful careers. They live in boxes under bridges. How did you do it?” At the time I had no idea of the answer and was really PO’d because if I had been another type of person he had just handed me an excuse to give up on a silver platter. But I shifted my focus and spent almost 15 years figuring out the answer to his question of how I had done it. I can’t tell you the number of times someone said to me, “You can’t do that” and I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, watch me” I did not argue with the doubters or try to convince them to my point of view. I just did what I thought was right for me. Time and again, surrounded by naysayers, I succeeded.

It is not necessary to have the support of others believing in you when you believe in yourself. It is pretty simple to demonstrate that others’ opinions of us vary based on their current emotional state and expectations. Everyone has dreams and desires. Many people suppress them because they have been convinced they can’t and wanting is so painful. But give them belief in themselves and watch them soar!

No carrots on a stick required although the freedom to pursue ones own interests is required. That is sometimes difficult to find in our rigid school environment where they do not understand we were not born to regurgitate but to explore, create, develop, evolve, and thrive. How many unique ideas and solutions have been squashed under conformity?

Thank you for inspiring these words from me.


Dave Shearon 22 August 2013 - 4:15 am

Thanks, Jeanine! Glad to see other folks out there helping schools. (And, thanks for getting me to re-read an old post – nice when what one wrote years before still rings true!)


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