Teaching students to think positively improves academic performance

We live in an age of prosperity not seen in any other period in history.

Only 10 per cent of the world lives in poverty, 90 per cent of people are literate, and gruesome diseases like smallpox have been eradicated and the majority of the world now lives in a democracy.

Yet why in this age of material abundance, in wealthy countries like Australia, do we have unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety and anger among our young people?

Addiction to devices are robbing us of time to forge meaningful friendships, we are less connected to things bigger than ourselves — like churches, communities and our extended families and the quality of our relationships with each other, are suffering.

The founder of the Positive Education movement Professor Martin Seligman, wants to change all that.

“There is increasing evidence of poverty of relationships, loneliness, less romance, less face-to-face friendship,” he said.

“The most worrisome thing to me is that it cuts into face-to-face relationships, the species is built to do face-to-face stuff.”

He has been visiting Ravenswood School for Girls during the past three weeks as its psychologist in residence. It is one of the leading schools which has embraced and spearheading the positive education movement in Australia.

Ravenswood have embedded positive education into the curriculum and is explicitly teaching in an age appropriate way, the skills to develop high levels of positive emotion, greater levels of engagement, of flow and immerse themselves in a subject.

Rather than just tell people to be positive, positive psychology uses evidence-based techniques to bolster positive relationships which are essential to wellbeing.

“You don’t want to evade bad things like trauma, sadness and anger — in evolution we get sad when we fail — it is a signal, a very important signal, we get anxious when we’re in danger and we get angry when there is stress passed around.”  But it is how we process and react to those emotions, is what we can change in a constructive way.

Prof Seligman says if a child feels rejected at school, they have feelings of sadness and say things like ‘I’m a loser’ and ‘nobody loves me’. Positive psychology trains a person to deal with those emotions in a constructive way. Firstly, they learn to take a step back and become aware that they’re speaking in a catastrophic way. The next thing they would do is realise that the situation isn’t going to be permanent.

“Studies have shown the kids who were resilient were the ones who when they fail, thought of their failures as temporary, local and they could do something.”

“Essentially we teach kids to become acrobatic arguers against their most catastrophic thoughts,” he said.

“When kids go into adolescence they’re paying less and less attention to their parents and more attention to their peers and their schools,” he said. This is why schools are vital in their development.

The movement is rapidly gaining popularity among schools because they must address mental wellbeing, but it is also reaping academic results — with some estimating it could add almost a full academic year in a child’s education.

But teaching someone how to have good relationships, positive emotions, meaning and purpose is easier said than done.

In the classroom, Ravenswood’s Principal Anne Johnstone said students are taught to think about failure as something that is part of the learning process.

“Failure is just part of the learning journey, failure and difficulty are just feedback — feedback you might need to try a little harder, put up your hand and you will get there,” she said.

They are also taught to focus on their strengths rather than things they’re not good at.

“When students can identify their strengths, they can go with the grain and work out what is right for them and harness those strengths, really work out what is right with them, not what is wrong with them.”

The change in thinking has big academic rewards. According to the CEO of Positive Education Schools Association the program has the power to lift school achievements significantly.

“A recent study involving around 270,000 students showed, at the end of a 15-month intervention which taught the skills of wellbeing, students reporting significantly higher wellbeing and significantly better performance on standardised national exams — the equivalent to a gain of almost a full academic year,” she said.

In addition to academic results, showing children how to be optimistic, can add years to their life.

A word analysis of millions of tweets and Facebook posts of millions of users can now predict the death rate in a specific area. Accounting for other things like sex, health and ethnicity, it found being unhappy and pessimistic can have a significant effect on life expectancy.

While not smoking adds seven years to your life and regular exercise adds three, being happy is estimated to add a further eight years to life expectancy.

Professor Seligman said the best things you could do for your child to spark positive feelings could be simply helping others.

“We’re wired to feel better when we help other people,” he said.

One thing he says is beneficial is to every night, write down three things that went well today and why they went well.

“It turns out that has been well tested and becomes addictive, and six months later, people who do that are less depressed and happier and they just keep doing it and it is fun to do,” he said.

He said the other thing you could do is to make a “gratitude visit”-- write 300 words about someone from your past who is very important to you and how they changed your life.

“Then you ring them up and tell them you would like to visit them — but you don’t tell them why — and then you turn up on the doorstep and read the testimonial. That has huge effects on both the giver and the receiver.”

It is not just for private schools who are reaping the benefits of the positive education movement — Ravenswood hosted principals and teachers from public, catholic and private schools in the Upper Hunter this week to meet with Prof Seligman and learn more about Positive Education.

So far positive Education has been rolled out in 20 schools thanks to the work of the Where There’s a Will foundation and have just launched it with a further 32.

“It has worked equally as well in both (public and private) schools,” says Pauline Carrigan the founder of the foundation said.

She said in the drought ravaged upper Hunter parents were excited to know their children had valuable tools to handle hardship

Prof Seligman believes even more schools need to become involved in positive education.

Adapted from an article by CHRISTOPHER HARRIS, The Daily Telegraph

Jo Opie