It is time for positive educational psychology?
With increasing mental health needs amongst both teachers and learners, surely it’s time to do something differently?
I believe that Positive Education holds at least part of the answer, and that Educational Psychologists are in a prime position to promote its implementation. I believe it’s time for Positive Educational Psychology.
What is Positive Educational Psychology?
Positive Psychology is the science of human flourishing. Rather than focusing on putting ‘right’ what has gone ‘wrong’, the focus is on what is it that helps people do well in life. Positive Education is the application of Positive Psychology within schools and Positive Educational Psychology is the application of Positive Psychology in our work.
Why does it matter?
Whilst the fields of Positive Psychology and Positive Education are relatively young, they are gaining traction, and for good reason. Recent statistics from Young Minds and Action for Children reveal that one in six young people aged 5 – 16 years have mental health needs, an increase of 50% compared to three years ago. Meanwhile, the NASUWT 2022 Wellbeing Survey revealed that 91% of teachers feel their job adversely affects their mental health. There is evidence that Positive Education has the potential to address this, and Educational Psychologists are in a prime position to promote its implementation in schools.
Why Educational Psychology should take the lead
Educational Psychology has always been great at bringing a different ‘angle’ to things. EPs are trained to look towards the Social Model, rather than the Medical Model, for guidance and solutions in our work. We are also great at using more positive approaches in our work, such as looking for things that are going well and building on those. However, I believe that as a profession we can go further.
In my experience, I find that those I work with often come from the stance of the medical model and invariably we do find ourselves caught up in the process of helping to put ‘right’ things that are ‘wrong’. Of course, there are times when something has gone wrong, and support is needed to ameliorate this. But we shouldn’t stop there. We are in an ideal position to shift the focus in psychology and schools from difficulties and disorders to strengths, happiness, and flourishing – for everyone who works and learns in schools. What I am suggesting is that we merge what we already do with the science of Positive Psychology to promote and support the implementation of Positive Education in our schools.
What does Positive Educational Psychology ‘look’ like?
Seligman’s PERMA wellbeing framework underpins the Positive Education approach, and this is a good place to start when thinking about how we can incorporate Positive Psychology and promote Positive Education in our day-to-day work.
Below I describe two uses of Positive Psychology in my work with young people which can impact all areas of the PERMA framework.
Firstly, goal setting. This can have an incredibly positive impact on wellbeing. But… not all goals are equal! A key point is that it is the progress that people make towards their goals that increases positive affect and is good for their wellbeing, not the actual attainment of the goal. This is where SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals come into their own!
It is also important that goals are values-driven, that is, that they are in pursuit of something that is important to the young person. Therefore, these goals need to be set in collaboration with the young person, and not set for them by adults. In this way, goals add meaning and a sense of purpose to the young person’s life.
It has been found that those who have aspirations that are meaningful, achievable, and in progress are happier than those who do not (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019). In practice I discuss with the young person what is important to them and what goals they would like to aim for, before discussing these with key adults.
Character Strengths is a big topic in Positive Psychology and Seligman (2011) argued that they underlie all facets of the Positive Education approach. In my view, these should also underpin the work of Educational Psychologists.
Here we are not thinking about academic strengths, but the strengths the individual has as a person (e.g. perseverance, kindness, creativity). There are 24 character strengths altogether and here it is useful to pick out the primary strengths the young person presents with, those that are typically ‘them’. Those who use their character strengths report better wellbeing, performance, and relationships.
In my practice I have developed a strengths interview that I use with young people, and I’ve also developed a Strengths Cards pack to facilitate an engaging discussion during assessment to help young people identify their character strengths and how they use them. Where needed, there are various strengths interventions which include becoming aware of strengths, appreciating strengths, applying strengths, balancing strengths use, and developing strengths (van den Berg & Steeneveld, 2020).
Whilst these examples focus on how we can work with young people on an individual basis, the application of Positive Psychology and Positive Education reaches far further than this and includes wellbeing work with teachers and systemic work. In my view, Positive Education is the way forward for a nation of flourishing schools.
David, W., & Clark, L. A. (1994). Positive and Negative Affect Schedule–Expanded Version (PANAS-X). APA PsycTests.
Fredrickson, B. L., (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218 – 226.
Laurent, J., Catanzaro, S. J., Joiner, T. E., Jr., Rudolph, K. D., Potter, K. I., Lambert, S., Osborne, L., & Gathright, T. (1999). A measure of positive and negative affect for children: Scale development and preliminary validation. Psychological Assessment, 11(3), 326–338.
Seligman, M.P. (2011). Flourish. A new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
van den Berg, A., & Steeneveld, M. (2020). Character Strengths Intervention Cards. Hogrefe Publishing.