Positive psychology benefits students

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 5:44pm

What is the purpose of a school education? Ruminations on this question by schools, education officials, intergovernmental organisations and governments have materialised into laudable 21st-century goals.

But parents are still very concerned about students' workloads. They blame schools for the stress their children are experiencing. Teachers feel parents have unrealistic expectations, and are themselves the source of the pressure that leads to stress.

It is time for both parents and schools to revisit and redefine the purpose of education in today's competitive world.

Parents should stop trying to give their children a competitive edge through after-school programmes, increased extracurricular activities and high expectations.

Likewise, schools should stop increasing students' workloads to maintain their reputations of excellence based on secondary school examination results.

One movement gaining increasing ground is "positive education", which challenges the current model of education that values academic attainment above all other goals.

"Positive education represents a paradigm shift away from viewing education merely as a route to academic attainment, towards viewing it as a place where students can cultivate their intellectual minds while developing a broad set of character strengths and virtues and well-being," says James O'Shaughnessy, chairman of the International Positive Education Network.

Research supports this initiative. Students who received positive education at schools in Bhutan increased their standardised test scores compared to the control group.

KIPP, a charter school network in the US, has integrated character education and seen tremendous success in getting low-income students into college.

The Penn Resiliency Programme (PRP) was developed by researchers at University of Pennsylvania, and has been one of the most extensively tested programmes in positive education.

The results from 19 controlled studies found that students who received PRP showed reduced symptoms of depression, feelings of hopelessness and behavioural problems, and optimism.

In Hong Kong, Theodore Faunce, the headmaster of the Chinese International School, has initiated the positive education programme in his primary and secondary sections. He does not see character development and academic achievement as separate.

Faunce is leading students and staff at all levels to adopt the PERMA model developed by psychologist Martin Seligman. PERMA is an acronym for the five pillars of well-being.

"These five elements are the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake," says Seligman.

Experiencing positive emotions (P) such as joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love are a requirement for well-being.

Engagement (E) is described as being immersed in activities that use one's skills and are challenging. Having positive relationships (R) is an inherent component of well-being.

Recognising and serving a cause bigger than oneself is denoted by meaning (M), while experiencing a sense of accomplishment (A) is necessary to well-being, too.

The evidence that school interventions focusing on social emotional learning and character development are correlated to academic performance suggests the need for schools to consider teaching skills that promote positive emotions and relationships.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School