Shifting the balance towards positive education

If you’re already a parent, or aspiring to become one, what is it that you most want for your child? Just stop for a second and think about that. If there’s one thing you’d wish for them, what would it be?

So, what is it you’re thinking of? Is it a successful career? A healthy bank balance? 20 A* grades?

No, thought not.

I’d be willing to bet that what you most want for your child is happiness, sense of meaning, health, confidence or perhaps even that they become a ‘good’ person. These are the things that the majority of people agree matter most, yet as a society we’re failing to help our children fulfil their potential in these most important aspects of life.

Mental health is a major concern

In many parts of the world, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm among young people are increasing at alarming rates. Incredibly, in the UK, up to 78% of students suffer mental health problems during their university years and the average age for the onset of depression in now just 14.

Following Theresa May’s announcement earlier this month that the UK government is to ‘transform’ mental health support in schools and workplaces, there has been a welcome increase in (constructive) discussion of these issues. We now need to use that momentum to make a real difference.

Schools can undoubtedly play a major role in improving the wellbeing of young people (and the rest of us ‘unyoung’ too) but if they are to do so successfully then there needs to be some serious re-balancing of priorities.

Results are everything

Few would argue that wellbeing isn’t hugely important, but it’s very clear that it falls some way behind exam results in terms of priorities. Now I’m not suggesting that academic success isn’t important, I think it is, but I do have a problem with the balance in our current paradigm.

As many others have argued, like former Department for Education Mental Health Champion Natasha Devon and Buckingham University Vice Chancellor Anthony Seldon, our current education system even risks making things worse. The unrelenting focus on academic success, excessive testing and league tables leads to ever greater pressure on students and staff and actually contributes to the mental health crisis.

But should the development of wellbeing really be a top priority for schools? Many people, including some senior politicians, are concerned that taking precious time out of the curriculum to work on ‘happiness’ will negatively impact the all-important exam results.

Timeout: Even if this was true, what would you prioritise for your own child – their wellbeing or their academic success?

Fortunately, research is now showing that this is a choice we don’t even need to make. Happiness and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive.

In a new report to be published this week, the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) share case studies and research showing how ‘positive education’ programmes can actually enhance exam results, at the same time as improving wellbeing.

In the report, internationally-renowned psychologist Professor Martin Seligman describes a study involving over 8,000 students and 18 schools in Bhutan, where a 15-month programme aimed to develop the following life skills:

  • Mindfulness: calm awareness of thoughts, emotions, and surroundings
  • Empathy: identifying what others are feeling and thinking
  • Self-awareness: understanding of one’s own strengths, talents, limitations and goals
  • Coping with emotions: identifying, understanding, and managing emotions
  • Communication: being active and constructive with others
  • Interpersonal relationships: healthy and loving interactions with friends and family
  • Creative thinking: developing ideas that are novel and useful
  • Critical thinking: analysing, applying, synthesising, and evaluating information as a guide to beliefs and actions
  • Decision making: choosing the best beliefs or action plans from available options
  • Problem solving: learning shortcuts to solve theoretical and practical problems

The research, which has subsequently been replicated in Mexico and Peru, revealed that those who completed the programme had significantly higher levels of wellbeing (compared to control schools) and better results in the national exams. Interestingly, Seligman suggests that these outcomes occur because of increased levels of student engagement and perseverance.

Time for a change

I believe that schools, colleges and universities can, and should, play a major role in developing the wellbeing of our young people. Of course, academic achievement will continue to be a key focus, but shifting the balance to better reflect what matters most in life – the qualities parents most want their children to develop – can have a positive impact all round.

IPEN’s new report, The State of Positive Education, is available here.


This post first appeared in the Bett Blog.

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