What counts as success for a child?

How does one measure values such as empathy, kindness and resilience? What happens when we measure the wrong things that have no bearing on how well our young people are empowered to live meaningful, purposeful and flourishing lives?

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Over the four terms we explore Gratitude, Teamwork, Kindness and Leadership. You may choose other strengths to focus on, just ensure that the activity is across the whole school; you can feel the positive emotions pumping through the school on such weeks.

I have reason to believe that in today’s date, adults, educators and administrators, have forgotten what childhood entails! Data has become more valued than wellbeing. It seems that the only things that count are the things that can be counted. And what’s more, they only value what they measure. How does one measure values such as empathy, kindness and resilience? What happens when we measure the wrong things that have no bearing on how well our young people are empowered to live meaningful, purposeful and flourishing lives? The consequences of this approach which we are seeing today are escalations in adolescent mental health and teacher burnout rates, in an attempt to balance out multiple demands. Add to all this modern predicament of social media and gaming, and our students’ mental wellbeing is further compromised.

However, at the end of this tunnel too there is a beaming light!

At numerous parent-teacher and leaderships forums I conduct across Australasia, I often ask attendees to describe how they prefer their children and students to act like, look like, sound like, and their answers are invariably the same. They say that they want them to be happy, confident, and resilient, know right from wrong, respectful, diligent, perceptive, compassionate, kind, independent thinkers, enthusiastic, curious, persistent, welcome challenges, self-aware, self-disciplined, creative, and empathetic, have courage to stretch them to make mistakes and then be prepared to learn better ways to fix them. What a wonderful image they have in their minds of their sons, daughters and students. Now I will share effective and meaningful approaches that can turn this image to reality.

Over the last two decades, one while I was a college leader, and the other as a wellbeing author/speaker travelling Australasia, I have strived to address the holistic development of young people, to immunise them somewhat from the 21st century addictive pressures of social media, gaming and the mental health issues associated with those and academic aspirations. To this end, I created the Learning Curve Wellbeing and Resilience Curriculum, which is underpinned by Seligman’s PERMAH model of wellbeing.

Doing comes before becoming. So, let’s explore this model to learn how it can be used to support our efforts.

PERMAH+Positive Emotions+Gratitude

To quote Barbara Fredrickson, the world renowned expert on positive emotions, “it is the frequency of positive emotions, not their intensity, which best build our wellbeing.” They affect “how we think, what we pay attention to, our relationships” and many aspects of our life (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener). So, in a school context, it is healthy for students to experience their full range of human emotions (Ciarocchi & Tal Ben Shahar). To enable this, we need to deliberately establish greeting expectations of smiling and saying hello, listening empathetically with our eyes, ears and hearts alike, saying sorry, being kind, forgiving others etc. These may seem like little things, but they are qualities that build socially and emotionally resilient young people. To enjoy a healthy state of wellbeing, we need a ratio of about 4:1 positives to negatives in our daily lives (Losada & Fredrickson), and we need to work very hard to accomplish this. Especially, when many societies around the world struggle to go beyond even 2:1. For example, an excellent way to achieve this, in addition to the weekly wellbeing activities, is to have Strengths for Relationships Weeks during week 5 of each term. Over the four terms we explore Gratitude, Teamwork, Kindness and Leadership. You may choose other strengths to focus on, just ensure that the activity is across the whole school; you can feel the positive emotions pumping through the school on such weeks.

Positive Priming fills students with positive emotions, so start every lesson with the Fabulous First Five Minutes, by asking students in pairs to discuss a question such as, explore when are times you told your friends clearly and firmly that you didn’t want to do something? Or, what body language do you use to show that you believe in yourself? The most important thing to impress on our school population is that the greatest source of positive emotions comes from believing and showing that other people matter.

PERMAH+ – Engagement + Mindfulness

Young people in the 21st century are comfortable being connected to everyone else, but how often do they engage and connect with themselves? Their attention is fragmented from the constant interruptions of social media, and they crave the short term feel good hits which come from dopamine when their phones ding. To engage with them and just be, we need to guide them to disconnect for a while by doing mindfulness activities such as the one opposite.

Also, the most interested and engaged adolescents tend to have an internal locus of control. That is, they feel as though they are in control of their actions and circumstances (Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi.)

An effective, yet very simple way to flush excess cortisol from their (and our) systems, which is produced by the frequent fight or flight reactions they experience due to the above pressures, is to connect with just themselves and colour in for ten minutes. Any activity which has pattern, repetition and control, can be used as a mindfulness activity when concentrated on fully. Also, create a ten minute session each day called Genius Time, to ask the class questions such as, discuss with your partner – What do you want other people to experience when they meet you? Or, when are times you have increased the difficulty of what you practise and what happened? These questions stimulate interest in students. When they are fully engaged in an activity, powerful brain chemicals are released into their systems producing natural highs, cultivating a love of learning in them.

The combined strategies required to nurture mindful engagement in the classroom, are positive priming to broaden and build attention, clear learning intentions and purpose, clear and immediate feedback and a balance between the challenge and the students’ skills (Csikszentmihályi, Abuhamdeh & Nakamura).

PERMAH+ – Relationships + Empathy

Is their anything in the world more important than relationships? I think not. For all of us, “like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive” (Diener & Biswas-Diener). The evolving over reliance in the 21st century of communicating electronically via devices, rather than by face to face in person conversations is creating several concerning issues. Firstly, over 90% of what we communicate, we do so through body language, voice tones and expressions. Young people unfortunately, are not having sufficient in person experiences to learn these vital skills. I would suggest that you ban mobile phones at school, to enable person to person conversations to exist. It will be tough at first, but persist. After about a month, the beauty of human interaction, will be flourishing throughout the school.

Secondly, humans are hard wired to be at our best when working and cooperating with other people side by side. Since our ancestors this has occurred, and when we do so, two of the most powerful feel good brain chemicals are released, those being, serotonin and oxytocin. Students experience serotonin when the feel other people think they matter. They experience oxytocin when they feel empathy, loved and cared about. Social media can’t do this.

Any activity which has pattern, repetition and control, can be used as a mindfulness activity when concentrated on fully. Also, create a ten minute session each day called Genius Time, to ask the class questions such as, discuss with your partner – What do you want other people to experience when they meet you?

Activities such as the one opposite provide students with opportunities to converse, share feedback, watch, read and send body language messages and practise voice tones and welcoming facial expressions. Welcoming students as they enter class and asking discuss with your partner – when are times you have enjoyed quality relationships with each of your teachers? Or, when have you been a positive role model for other students in class with your teachers?

“Relationships are the best antidote to the downs of life, and the single most reliable up” (Seligman). If children and adolescents feel included and accepted, particularly by a larger peer group, they are more likely to feel positive about themselves (Berndt & Hartup).

PERMAH+ – Meaning + Purpose

Having a sense purpose in life is linked to having more resilience, an ability to bounce back despite difficulty, and the ability to pursue goals despite hardships (McKnight & Kashdan). A major risk factor for young people in mental health is not having a sense of purpose, or something bigger than themselves that adds meaning to their lives. A great sense of purpose is knowing and expressing that other people matter. One of the best ways to build students’ (and our) wellbeing is to give of themselves to make others’ lives better. They don’t have to be big things, just little hellos, smiles, nods, winks and generally just showing that they care. And from little things, big things grow.

PERMAH+ – Accomplishment + Optimism

The accomplishment of worthwhile goals has been found to lead to positive emotions and well-being (Sheldon). The feel good brain chemical we experience when we achieve something we have worked for is dopamine. And the harder we worked and the more grit we showed, the greater the natural hit of dopamine. But something big has changed in today’s school environment.

21st century students get a hit of dopamine every time their phones ding. Why strive and struggle to accomplish something to feel dopamine, when they just have to wait for their phones to supply them with it. One thing though, the surge of dopamine from long term efforts to accomplish a goal, is much greater than the little phone hits.

How do we get this through to our students? Ask them to set three goals every term. Goals give them hope and optimism that they can influence their own futures. To be self-determined to achieve each goal, ask them to identify possible obstacles, how they will overcome them, what they need to learn and which of their strengths they will need to use (Snyder).

To teach students to be self-determined, we need to cultivate in them a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence and a sense of connectedness (Ryan & Deci).

Welcoming students as they enter class and asking discuss with your partner – when are times you have enjoyed quality relationships with each of your teachers? Or, when have you been a positive role model for other students in class with your teachers?

PERMAH+ Health + Strengths

Being healthy is essentially our capacity to successfully adapt and manage physical, social and emotional challenges as they occur (World Health Organisation). The emergence of electronic leisure, gaming and social media have reduced students’ available time to enjoy the outdoors exercising and have had a negative impact on both their physical and mental health. Mental health has a profound effect on students’ physical health (Hassed). Having a similar adverse effect are diets of processed and junk foods.

I believe that the mind-body connection is the lynch pin for students to enjoy a resilient state of all round health. And this relies very much on their mindsets. Do they feel that they can influence their own health, or do they feel it is out of their hands? The first thing we need to teach students is how to change their thinking when they experience events.

The second thing we need to do is to teach students how to contest negative mind chatter, which comes from our human evolutionary negativity bias. Introduce the structure of positive self-talk, which is I can and I will ….. statements. For example, I can improve my fitness and I will get up and exercise four mornings this week. Unhealthy eating and not exercising stem directly from yielding to our negative mind chatter. Overcome it through deliberate and purposeful positive self-talk.

Joy loves joy and misery loves misery. Thirdly, teach students that they have mirror neurons, which imitate the mood and feelings of those around them. Encourage them to mix with optimistic people.

we need to do is to teach students how to contest negative mind chatter, which comes from our human evolutionary negativity bias. Introduce the structure of positive self-talk, which is I can and I will ….. statements. For example, I can improve my fitness and I will get up and exercise four mornings this week. Unhealthy eating and not exercising stem directly from yielding to our negative mind chatter. Overcome it through deliberate and purposeful positive self-talk.

Mick Walsh has been a leading and innovative Positive Education author, educator and speaker across Australasia and internationally for many years. As a highly experienced former college leader and an avid researcher of positive psychology, he created and authored the Learning Curve Positive Education and Wellbeing program, which is used in numerous schools across the globe. All of the strategies and activities in the program, are underpinned by evidence-based research.