Positively Transforming Schools: Building on Resilience and Well-Being

Positively Transforming Schools: Building on Resilience and Well-Being

November 17, 2022

Insights From PosEd Summit 2022 Keynote by Dr llona Boniwell, Professor of Positive Psychology and Positive Coaching, University of East London

The Covid experience has shown us that Positive Education and the focus on well-being and resilience is core to education. The impact of Covid on youth due to lockdowns, cancellation of classes, school closures, curtailing of social activities and knock-on effects from anxieties of families is significant. Mentally healthy children are more likely to become mentally healthy adults. Hence, we must strengthen the resilience of our children and ensure they have the capacity to adapt well to adversity and bounce back. The benefits of resilience include the ability to see challenges as manageable, emotional stability and happiness, being able to cope with major stressors and daily hassles, vitality and energy, openness to new experiences and the ability to help others feel good.

When we talk about PosEd, we often refer to programmes such as the SPARK Resilience Programme. PosEd programmes and curricula are great but they are only the starting point and not enough in themselves. One hour a week of PosEd lesson is not enough. “Taught” does not mean “lived”. We need to think about how to integrate positive psychological strategies to daily living, and help children contextualize their application to various situations.

The toolbox approach is a more useful one. It will be important for teachers to be able to use different tools to model and integrate important strategies in daily life so children can practice these skills again and again, in real settings.

There are four categories of strategies in our interactive toolkit: cognitive, affective, behavioral, and metacognitive strategies.  These are best-known research-based strategies that help us to build more resilience.

Cognitive strategies include disputation, distancing, reframing, de-catastrophising and optimistic explanatory style.

Disputation refers to helping children tackle their cognitive biases. When a child says, “everything is going to go wrong”. In disputation, we can tell him or her, “if we prepare well, things may go quite right.”  

In distancing, we help children step away from the source or material that causes them anxiety, or conflicting or disturbing input.

Reframing is about asking different questions and helping children to look at or intepret a situation from a different perspective. Ask them if there are any good points stemming from something that happened.

In de-catastrophising, we let children imagine the worse possible scenario and compare it with the best-possible one, and help them realize that fundamentally, the former and latter are unlikely to happen and what is most likely to happen could be something in between, that is more moderate.

Optimistic explanatory style involves taking credit for something good that has happened, or if there is a negative situation at hand, help them narrow it down to the fact that this is just one occasion, so that they can put things in perspective.

Affective strategies are all about dealing with our emotions and how we feel. Giving a name to our emotions is helpful. Children sometimes struggle with that, so we put cards with emotional words in front of them and let them choose or pick up the word that best represents their emotion at a particular point in time. Sometimes, we can get children to write something they are currently feeling, so that they can express how they feel. This entails   some element of disclosure which is healthy.

We can also get children to do mindful meditation and integrate short mindfulness exercises at certain points in a day, for instance, asking them to stop and observe what is around them or do some breathing exercise for a few minutes.

Behavioral strategies include getting your class to be “in the flow”. This can be done by generating a competitive frame of mind. We can, for instance, ask children to use Lego bricks to build the highest tower, and then turn it into an exercise that groups of children can build what they wish to. This facilitates flow. If children have a fear of something, help them manage it in a stepped manner. For instance, some children are afraid of speaking in front of a class. We can get them to say a little something at their seat first and then slowly encouraging them to speak up for a longer time, and then move them to the front of the class.

What is helpful is also to get children to build social connections and good relationships, and teach them to listen to one another, show gratitude and give thanks for one another.   Teachers can think of themselves as happiness builders. Teachers can also see themselves as coaches in the process of helping children choose their goals and commit to them by taking small steps towards achieving them. Resilience is enhanced by goals that we choose for ourselves.

Metacognitive strategies involve developing flexible mindsets in children, teaching them to accept the changes they are going through, and deal with stress so they can learn from it. Our feedback should focus on effort rather than achievement as the former will contribute to a flexible mindset and the latter, a fixed one. Meaning making is also important. Teachers can ask children how they make sense of a situation, or ask how a situation or goal connects with their values or what that means to them.

Finally, a very important vehicle is strength awareness. There are different ways of recognizing strengths. Teachers are the best strength detectors as they can see behavior traits in action. Observe and let children know where their strengths lie, affirm these, and encourage them to expand their capacity to develop further.

The current VUCA conditions are likely to stay.  Beyond pandemics, new challenges include the rise of AI, climate change, identity modifications issues and the disappearance of jobs.  If we want to prepare our children for the future, we need to make sure they have the skills to meet, confront and function well the future. Therefore, we have to think about resilience and well being seriously.

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