Monthly Archives: June 2015

As I come to the end of my twenty-eighth year of primary teaching, I realise once again that the nurturing of children’s mental health and well-being should not be left to chance. I think it needs to underpin our curriculum, as more and more research shows that investing in children’s mental health can bring benefits to academic, social and emotional development.

I’ve just completed my first year of studies towards a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) with the University of East London, and I have really enjoyed bringing many of the concepts into my classroom, and the rest of the school, in a child-centred and age appropriate way. Initial feedback is very encouraging; with 97% of the children reporting that the lessons have helped them in various ways. I look forward to researching this impact in more detail as my studies progress.

One common misunderstanding, which I have come across a lot during the year, is that many people seem to equate Positive Psychology with the idea that we should be happy all the time. This idea is sometimes termed the ‘Tyranny of Happiness’. This ‘burden of positivity’ means that people can feel guilty or inadequate if they struggle to experience positive emotions all the time. I suppose that’s understandable given the title, but Positive Psychology is the scientific study of well-being, not just pleasure or superficial happiness. Many theories of well-being include a much broader view of optimal human functioning, which involve developing a sense of meaning and contribution to the greater good, for example, Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory. Although boosting  positive emotions is a vital part of well-being, that’s not to say that experiencing negative emotions is something to be avoided or supressed. Challenges, upsets and disappointments are part of life, as are the feelings that go with them.

I feel that this core concept can be introduced to children in a variety of ways. We can make sure children understand that all emotions are completely normal, and they can be encouraged to see emotions as information or feedback. The labels negative and positive in terms of emotion can be explained as referring to how they make us feel in the moment, rather than in simplistic black and white terms of good / bad. Of course, children the need to be taught helpful ways of dealing with negative emotions, so that they can work through them effectively. I have found that helping children to ‘name and accept’ their strong emotion can often be the starting point in processing them.  Different children may need longer or shorter amounts of time to do this, depending on individual temperament. Giving them the tools to help themselves to feel better is important, but it is their choice to decide how and when to use them. In my experience, giving them this choice can help with self- regulation and also build self-efficacy. This type of well-being education can help children become active participants in creating and maintaining their own mental health, whilst avoiding the ‘Tyranny of Happiness.’

There is a lot of research around at the moment on the benefits of gratitude to overall well-being. One of the best known researchers in the field of gratitude is Robert Emmons. He defines gratitude as a sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life, and he has conducted a lot of research on the benefits which it brings. Having an attitude of gratitude has been linked to feeling happier, more hopeful and more energetic. It is also linked to lower levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression.

In her book The How of Happiness, the researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky outlines much of the current research on the benefits of practising gratitude, which include strengthening relationships, diminishing negative emotions, increasing the ability to cope with stress, and increasing self-worth and self-esteem. Research on the impact of gratitude interventions in students  showed links between developing gratitude and higher satisfaction with school. Knowing these benefits, I feel that it is worth thinking about ways to introduce it to kids at an early age. As part of the Weaving Well-Being programme, I introduce  Attitude of Gratitude to the kids as one of the ingredients of the Positive Emotion Potion, and they really enjoy getting the opportunity to practise it and talk about it. Here are some more ideas for bringing this concept into your classroom:

Gratitude Object: get a small object which you  an introduce to the kids as the class Gratitude Object.

We use a small ornamental owl with the words Thank You written on it. Then at random times during the week, hold up or point to the Gratitude Object. This is the children’s cue to silently think about at least five things which they are grateful for at that moment. Give them a minute or so, then allow them to share if they wish, in pairs or with the class. Encourage them to think about and savour one of the things they are grateful for. Don’t over-use the Gratitude Object, as you don’t want it to lose its freshness. Once or twice a week seems to work well. Maybe get a new object after a while, or allow the children to suggest one.

Gratitude Journals: Allow the children to use and illustrate their own Gratitude Journals.

Thank-You Cards: Allow the children to make a Thank-You card forsomeone in their lives they wish to thank. Encourage them to give the cards,and then discuss how they felt afterwards, and how the person reacted. My class were amazed and delighted at the reactions they got when they gave their cards. It gave them a great positive boost.

Thank You Tree: Put a large poster of a bare tree on the wall. Have a box of plenty of colourful paper leaves in the classroom for the children to write on. The children can write down things they are grateful for and stick them on. If they wish to thank other class members for any acts of kindness, they can write the name of the person, and why they want to thank them, on the leaf.

Gratitude Posters: Let the children design and make inspiring Gratitude Posters using well known quotes or their own slogans/quotes. Display them around the classroom and school.

Do a class brainstorm on things which we often take for granted. Challenge the kids to appreciate them, and to report back on how this makes them feel.

In my experience, children love learning about and using their Attitude of Gratitude. Here’s a quote from one child about the reason why:

I like it because you remember what you have, not what you want.

Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. "Gratitude and the science of positive psychology." Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An
experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being . Journal of School Psychology46(2), 213-233.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin. 

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