SPEN spoke with Dr. Imelda Santos Caleon, a Senior Research Scientist and Assistant Dean of Partnerships and Programme Director of the Lifelong Learning, Cognition and Wellbeing Research Programme at the Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Dr Caleon has been working closely with several schools in Singapore as a research collaborator and consultant to develop and implement positive education interventions tailored for diverse groups of learners and to assess the impact of these. Her work includes using and developing positive psychology approaches to facilitate learners’ conceptual and mindset change, and building resources (emotional, psychological, social and cognitive) that help learners, especially at-risk students to thrive in school and beyond.
In her studies, she focuses on learners who are at risk due to prolonged poor academic performance, and those who are socially and emotionally at risk, that is, those with low social competence, emotional regulation and those who experience moderate to high perceived stress. To help these learners, Dr Caleon says that a key approach used by her team and herself has been the cultivation of gratitude and hope among students. Here are her perspectives on positive education and insights from her work with Singapore schools and schools in the Philippines.
Positive psychology is a growing field in psychology that focuses on examining factors, processes and conditions that help individuals to achieve high levels of well-being and flourish. As what Prof Martin Seligman, the person who has stirred and revived interest in this field, has shared, positive psychology is about what works rather than what is wrong with human functioning. In simpler terms, I conceive positive psychology as a science that examines how individuals can become the best version of themselves.
Positive education applies the principles and findings surfaced from positive psychology research in schools to better support student development. A school that adopts a positive education framework would have two goals: to develop not only academic skills but also skills of well-being and character development. I believe having a holistic approach in educating students is important because our students are facing a challenging world characterized by uncertainties and complexities. There have also been reports both in the academic and mainstream literature that an increasing number of people, young and old, suffer from socio-emotional issues such as anxiety and depression. Our students need to be strengthened emotionally, socially and intellectually to better adapt to this world.
We have implemented some positive education resource packages in Singapore secondary schools. We found some evidence that the Gratitude package was effective in improving gratitude, peer relationships and reducing stress. The Hope package was found to improve students’ use of productive learning strategies. The Self-discovery package was also found to be helpful in improving social connections amongst students and reducing stress.
In the Philippines, one school system attended by high-ability students implemented an adapted version of the Gratitude package. The results demonstrate the potential benefits of gratitude intervention on psychological (i.e., gratitude and resilience), well-being (i.e., depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and anxiety) and social outcomes (i.e., relatedness with parents, teachers and friends), particularly for students who started off with low levels of gratitude.
Resilience refers to positive or successful adaptation to challenges and adversities. It is a process that is promoted by multiple factors. One factor is our disposition to bounce back quickly after experiencing stressful or challenging situations. The other factors come from our environment—the social support we receive and the opportunities provided to us.
In the context of our study, students who developed academic resilience are those who were initially failing in Secondary One and then received at least a passing mark in their subjects after three years. We also identified students who perceived themselves to have the disposition to recover quickly after failure and then improve.
Teacher support, especially in areas that promote positive relationships and guide students on how to carry out school tasks, are very important. Students’ ability to set goals and deal with failure also emerged as key factors contributing to students’ resilience development.
A key factor to nurturing academic resilience is building positive relationships. This is especially important for lower achieving students who are more likely to experience poor family support and a number of family issues. Teachers need to invest more time and effort to speak with and get to know them. Another factor is making learning more meaningful for the students. This can be done by making explicit connections of what students learn with their daily lives and emphasizing connectedness in what students learn. Greater flexibility in creating classroom structures and engaging students are also important.
I think for parents, relationship is key. Parents will do well to guide their children through life’s challenges and help them to process and learn from failure.
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