Positive Education: Theory & Practice by Diane Dreher, PhD [White Paper]
We’re delighted to announce the launch of our Positive Psychology Centre’s White Paper Series!
The Positive Psychology Centre White Paper Series is open for submissions from qualified or trainee Positive Psychology Practitioners who wish to share their best practices and/or present initial research findings in a non-peer reviewed published format. For further details on the submission process, please click here.
The first paper, Positive Education: Theory and Practice, is written by Diane Dreher, PhD.
Diane was one of the key presenters at our 2022 Positive Education Webinar Series (see here) and is a thought leader in the field of Positive Education. She embodies a wealth of teaching experience on how to create positive learning environments and experiences where student wellbeing is part of the process.
The paper is available for download here. Alternatively, please keep reading for the web-based version.
Reference: Dreher, D. (2022). Positive education: Theory and practice [White Paper]. Positive Psychology Guild.
Positive Education: Theory and Practice
Diane Dreher, PhD
“Positive education is defined as education for both traditional skills and for happiness”Seligman, Ernst, Gillhan, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009, p. 293
“The fundamental goal of Positive Education is to promote flourishing or positive mental health within the school community”Norrish, Williams, O’Connor, & Robinson, 2013, p.148
Today, many of us are recognizing that there is more to education than teaching basic skills. With the escalating levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among young people, we need Positive Education to promote greater happiness and well-being (Seligman, et al, 2009).
Positive Education builds on a long tradition. The word “education” itself has two basic Latin roots:
- Educare: “to train or to mold,” passing down basic knowledge and skills, preparing students to be good workers and citizens.
- Educere: developing each student’s abilities, enabling them to stretch their minds and think creatively to deal with new challenges (Bass & Good, 2004).
Positive Education not only develops students’ knowledge and skills but promotes their personal growth, happiness, and well-being. This involves providing a safe learning environment and cultivating a sense of belonging and engagement. This paper will focus on these vital areas and ways to provide them.
A Safe Learning Environment. We need to feel safe in order to learn. Otherwise, our stress reaction will shut down our higher brain centers. Yet many of today’s students are dealing with underlying trauma from physical and emotional abuse and neglect. In the United States, 60% of adults report experiencing abuse or other difficult family circumstances during childhood (Mental Health Connection, 2022). In the United Kingdom, one in five adults aged 18 to 74 has experienced at least one form of child abuse (Census 2021). Yet, too often, our education system focuses on cognitive skills, ignoring students’ emotional need for safety (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
As American educational consultants Doris and Rick Bowman explain, when traumatized students get triggered, their bodies react with fight, flight, or freeze without these students even knowing why. Their reactions are often punished as “bad behavior.” But these students cannot learn anything as long as their brains are dysregulated. As the Bowmans recognize, we must first regulate the lower parts of the brain, the brainstem and the limbic system, before we can ever get access to the cortex (Bowman & Bowman, 2022, personal communication).
The Bowmans offer teachers effective strategies to deal with traumatized students. They show teachers how to:
- Stay regulated and calm themselves, and then smile and speak to the child in a calm voice.
- Show unconditional positive regard for the child, seeing beyond the dysregulated behavior.
- Become curious, asking questions like “help me understand why doing this assignment is really difficult for you. Tell me more.”
- Establish trustworthiness and predictability—welcoming students each day by name, beginning the day with a predictable ritual. For younger children, this could be something like singing the days of the week.
- Offer the child choices, even in little things, asking “How would you like to line up?” and “What color markers would you like to use?” These simple choices help traumatized children develop a sense of personal control.
- Avoid overuse of negative consequences or punishments that reinforce the trauma cycle.
- Avoid re-traumatizing the child by doing anything publically that the child could perceive as shaming or humiliating. Instead of saying a corrective comment out loud, the Bowmans recommend that teachers write a little note to the child.
The Bowmans help teachers learn to self-regulate with techniques like mindful breathing and then share these strategies with their students (Grossman et al, 2004; Obradovic, et al, 2021). They show educators how to set up “wellness rooms” where students can go to practice self-regulation techniques like coloring, yoga, cuddling up with beanbags, engaging in rhythmic activities like dancing, singing, drumming, and listening to instrumental music. Once students have learned these self-regulation skills, they can use them to self-calm whenever they become dysregulated.
Belonging. To feel safe and secure, we also need a sense of belonging. Positive psychology research has found that we all need to feel connected to one another (Frederickson, 2013). To flourish in learning and life, students need to feel included and cared for (Pope & Miles, 2022). Research shows that youth who feel connected to adults and peers at school are significantly less likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, consider attempting suicide, or actually attempt suicide (CDC, 2022). With Positive Education, teachers can offer a sense of belonging in the classroom through peer to peer assignments as well as caring and mentoring.
Engagement. Without meaningful engagement, life can become a mindless series of duties, demands, and chores. Positive psychologists have found that in order to flourish we need PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement (Seligman, 2018, p. 261). Unfortunately, many students today zone out sitting through hours of classes, then face long hours of homework. The workload and pressure to succeed can lead to stress, frustration, anxiety, depression, and even cheating (CDC, 2022; Challenge Success, 2022).
Positive Education gets students personally involved, helping them discover their strengths and become more actively engaged in the classroom (Kristjánsson, 2012; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). In many schools, this approach requires structural reform: revising and individualizing the curriculum and reducing class size to enable teachers to provide personal attention to every student (Will, 2021).
Cultivating Positive Education is a complex endeavor with many components. The good news is that this complexity provides many entry points. The following examples range from the individual to the institutional: Beginning with Teachers, a Whole School Approach, and Reforming Educational Systems.
Beginning with Teachers. One teacher can make a dramatic difference. In the 1970s, Marva Collins taught second grade in Delano Elementary School, in a Chicago ghetto. Her students lived in poverty, couldn’t read, and had discipline problems. She began the first day of class reading Emerson’s “Self Reliance” to them, engaging them in a discussion of what it meant—that no one else can define them, that it’s up to them to develop their own potential. She taught phonics, helping her students sound out words, and brought in literary classics, including Aesop’s fables and Shakespeare’s plays, to stretch their minds and supplement their second grade reading materials. Collins expanded her students’ vocabulary, relating what they were learning to history and philosophy. And most of all, she taught with love, respect, and an abiding belief in their potential, repeatedly telling her students,“I love you.” At the end of the school year, these disadvantaged second grade students were engaged, confident, and reading at the fifth grade level (Collins & Tamarkin, 1990).
The following year, the new principal at Delano insisted that everyone follow a standard curriculum. Marva Collins resisted. At the end of the year, she resigned and started her own school, Westside Preparatory, on the second floor of her apartment. Within a month, her students flourished. As enrollment grew, she trained new teachers in her method and moved the school to an old bank building. As her students’ achievements became known, she was featured on national media—ABC, CBS, Time Magazine and in a movie about her life (Collins &Tamarkin, 1990). Decades ahead of her time, Marva Collins nurtured safety, belonging, and engagement. She reinforced her students for their strengths and potential, leading to amazing results.
The Whole School Approach. In 2008, positive psychologist Martin Seligman and a team of colleagues spent six months in Australia, helping develop a whole-school Positive Education community at the Geelong Grammar School near Melbourne. This approach included students from kindergarten through high school as well as faculty, staff, and parents in a holistic approach to education involving the five components of PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement) plus H-Healthy Habits. This approach emphasized the VIA Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) and connection with nature through hiking and camping. The goal was to help everyone associated with the school flourish and contribute to the flourishing of those around them. The curriculum included lessons in Positive Education along with math and history classes. Everyone learned to discover and apply their character strengths. School assemblies and chapel services focused on practicing gratitude and acts of kindness. Faculty and staff attended workshops designed to help them live PERMA + H and become authentic role models for their students. Parents were invited to multi-day residential programs to increase their understanding of Positive Education and personal growth (Norrish, Williams, O’Connor, & Robinson, 2013). Applying positive psychology research about flourishing throughout the school’s curriculum, activities, and interactions, Geelong Grammar School has become an inclusive community that reinforces everyone—students, faculty, staff, and parents–for greater learning and well-being.
Reforming Academic Systems. As a non-profit affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, Challenge Success provides schools and families with proven strategies to promote students’ well-being and engagement, leading to greater personal and academic success (Challenge Success, 2022). Challenge Success was established in 2003 when director and co-founder Denise Clark Pope wrote her dissertation, an ethnography study of five high school students. This study revealed the stress, anxiety, and lack of well being they were facing. The Director of Health and Wellbeing at Stanford, called her into his office, saying that student stress and anxiety was a major problem not only in high school but in colleges across the country and they needed to take action. They got a team together and decided that while focusing inward at college students at Stanford, they’d also work with K 12 schools to shift the student experience to greater well being, belonging and engagement (Pope, 2022, personal communication). Challenge Success has now worked with over 550 schools and offers free resources for students, teachers, and parents on their website, https://challengesuccess.org/.
Some Challenge Success strategies include:
- Cultivating Belonging in the classroom. Asking teachers to address the students by name, check in with students at the beginning of class, develop team assignments and create “think/pair/share” opportunities.
- Rethinking Engagement. They work with teachers to recall what engages them, providing joy and meaning, then apply this insight to their assignments to inspire authentic engagement in their students. Challenge Success has found when engagement goes up, cheating goes down.
- Not Confusing Rigor with Load. Reminding teachers not to confuse how many books they assign with students’ depth of understanding.
- Teaching Coping Strategies. They share stress management practices with teachers to share with their students.
- Thinking Systemically to Eliminate Unhelpful Habits and Problems. They encourage teachers and administrators to ask, “Have we been doing things out of habit that could be done better? Have we been inadvertently stressing our students or discriminating against certain racial and ethnic groups?”
- Involving Student Voices in Policy Planning. When initiating a new homework policy, they tell teachers to ask students, who actually do the homework, for their input.
- Including Multiple Stakeholders. They encourage students, parents, teachers, and administrators to get together to talk about a problem and gather data, whether it’s a new homework policy, or low student well-being or disengagement. Challenge Success provides facilitators for these sessions. (Challenge Success, 2022; Pope, 2022, Personal communication).
Positive Education combines the latest positive psychology research with best practices to educate the whole person. With this approach, students can learn more effectively, connecting with their personal strengths and community, discover greater joy and meaning in life, and make a positive contribution to our world.
Bass, R.V.,& Good, J.M.(2004). Educare and educere: Is a balance possible in the educational system? The Educational Forum, 68, 161-168.
Bowman, D.& Bowman, R., Certified Trauma Practitioners. Personal communication, May 18, 2022. All references to the Bowmans’ work in this article is from this source. For more information on Bowman Consulting’s work, see https://bowmanconsultgroup.com/
Census 2021. (2021). Child abuse in England and Wales: March 2020. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/childabuseinenglandandwales/march2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022) New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid-19.html
Challenge Success. (2022). Strategies and tools for educators to transform the student experience from elementary school through college. https://challengesuccess.org/
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Pope, D. C. (2022, May 23). Personal communication with Director of Stanford University’s Challenge Success program.
Pope, D. & Miles, S. (2022 February). A feeling of belonging in school goes hand in hand with students’ engagement in learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 103 (5), 9-12.
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Seligman, M.E.P., Ernst, R.M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35 (3), 293-311.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.
Will, M. (2021, September 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09
Diane Dreher is a Positive Psychology coach, author, researcher, and teacher. She has a Master’s degree in Counseling, a PhD in Renaissance English literature from UCLA, and a Professional Certified Coach credential from the International Coaching Federation. She received the Distinguished Teaching Award at Santa Clara University in 2019 and is now Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the Applied Spirituality Institute at Santa Clara as well as a lecturer for the Positive Psychology Academy. She is the author of academic books and articles as well as The Tao of Inner Peace, The Tao of Personal Leadership, The Tao of Womanhood, Inner Gardening, and Your Personal Renaissance. Her current research explores the convergence of positive psychology with Eastern Philosophy, leadership, mindfulness, and hope.