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Making Schools Happy for Good Mental Health

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Schools across Victoria in Australia are about to get a whole lot happier, with a recent injection of $6.39 million into positive education initiatives involving 27 state schools. Dubbed the “happiness revolution”, this mental health promotion project aims to protect students and teachers from depression by teaching them how to be resilient and flourish.

The first school-based project of this kind was started in Geelong Grammar, an elite private school in Victoria, in 2008. With a strong commitment to preparing their students for the future, Geelong Grammar invited Dr Martin Seligman and his team from the University of Pennsylvania to assist with designing a whole-school approach to promoting wellbeing as a core outcome across all levels of the education curriculum.

Dr Seligman is recognised worldwide as the “father of positive psychology” and has been responsible for triggering a profound shift in psychology practice from a medical symptom-based model to a biopsychosocial model based on building human strengths to buffer people against the risks of mental illness.

Ten years on, Positive Education as it became known has swept the world and many schools now integrate coaching for a “life well lived” into their programs. The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) provides a central portal for much of this work.

Evidence of the success of this approach for promoting mental health in schools has posed many challenges. Schools by definition provide an environment that in principle aims to foster the best in children whilst also providing teachers with a work space that is meaningful and satisfying career-wise. The boundary between academic learning and life-skills learning is blurred since both are entwined – feeling good is a necessary component for cognitive development.

Likewise, debate continues regarding the definitions of “resilience” and “wellbeing”, and how these can be operationalised into teachable packages. Whilst research in positive psychology has demonstrated benefits of activities such as reflections on good things in life, envisioning one’s best self, showing gratitude toward others, and identifying and using one’s strengths, we still have limited long-term evidence of the mental health impact of these activities on children’s development especially their potential capacity for positive mental health throughout their lives. Trying to evaluate these outcomes independent of other influences like family, peer groups, the local community, public policies, and broader cultural, historical, and social patterns continues to challenge researchers.

Despite this, the groundswell of government commitment to making schools more than just a place for academic learning is growing. The New Zealand Curriculum provides guidance for schools on how to design their curricula in order to cultivate key competencies for life and lifelong learning like resilience or goal-setting. Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is driven by positive educational principles aimed at making students more than just successful learners but aims to foster confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors to the social good. Even Bhutan, the first country to employ the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ to measure societal progress, has experimented with a wellbeing curriculum that teaches mindfulness, coping with emotions, and problem-solving, with well-evaluated and highly significant outcomes.

The World Bank is running a large randomized controlled trial aimed at cultivating grit – passion and perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals – among middle-school students in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. UNICEF has just recently introduced its ‘Happy Schools’ framework to improve learner well-being in the Asia- Pacific region with particular focus on its relevance for developing countries.

Concern about the rise of mental ill-health, particularly depression and anxiety and its burden on society, is global and doesn’t appear to be lessening despite huge investments by governments in public health infrastructure to tackle the problem. In western countries, schools increasing face challenges of antisocial behaviour amongst students, and a steady outflow of teachers leaving the profession in despair. Something has to be done. And if it takes a shift in education policy, backed up by meaningful investment of money, to adopt a whole new approach to education then this would seem to be a wise move. So congratulations to the Victorian government for its initiative!

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island


TEL: 52112 or email 

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