A positive approach to schooling

Australia is leading the way in the positive psychology movement.
Australia is leading the way in the positive psychology movement. Photo: Getty Images

If you attended school in Australia, chances are you took part in an ‘egg drop’. You know the one – you have to work out how to protect a falling egg with a small amount of materials. It’s an old favourite from science class, but when Ballarat Grammar recently held this challenge, it was about more than testing a scientific theory. Year seven student Isabel Unwin says it was her favourite, as students needed to demonstrate teamwork, leadership, creativity, perseverance, caution and, in some cases, forgiveness. This was part of the school’s Positive Education program, which is teaching students a range of things from how to practice being mindful to how to identify their character strengths. “Learning how to use the different character strengths to our advantage has helped me change my attitude and the way I think about life for a more positive direction.” Isabel says.

This program is part of the positive psychology movement in education, one which a US expert believes Australia is leading the way in. Dr Patty O’Grady, Professor of Education at the University of Tampa, and author of ‘Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom’ says, “Unlike many U.S. schools, that do not currently prioritise emotional well-being as a prerequisite for academic success, Australia is a world leader in pioneering positive psychology in schools.”

Patty explains positive psychology as the best possible conceptual and research framework that merges social-emotional learning, character education and whole-child education in a systematic and pragmatic way.

While recently presenting at the World Congress of Positive Psychology in California, Patty had a first-hand account of working models from Australian schools. One of these schools was Knox Grammar, which has seen significant improvements since implementing their mentor-based program as part of a major whole school wellbeing initiative in 2009.

“The academic performance of the school has increased considerably since the introduction of the Positive Education Program. Factors such as grit, self-regulation and goal setting have been explored in mentor groups to assist in schoolwork. Students set goals with their mentors and are encouraged to use their signature strengths in becoming confident learners.” Dr Steve Zolezzi, Head of Positive Education at Knox explains.


Year 11 student Joshua Cutrone feels that Positive Education has been one of the most successful programs that Knox has implemented in regards to student welfare, teaching students how to respond to real life situations in a positive manner, ensuring the best outcomes for all students. “It just creates a strong vibe around the school that everyone has something to contribute, and through working together we can do something good for everyone.”

Christine Shaw, Assistant Head at Ballarat Grammar School says positive psychology provided scientific evidence to support the school’s existing service culture, and by implementing a program, allowed them to take that further, nurturing learners who had the skills and capacities to live meaningful lives in every respect.

“We recognise the challenges that young people find today in what is a technology-rich world, but a world that sometimes makes it difficult to identify the right role models for flourishing lives. Being able to educate our students to take a place in the world beyond school, where they recognise and appreciate all they have been given is very important to us as a school, and having our students recognise the value in giving back to their community it essential.” 


Year seven student Rob Holder says he was interested to find that courage was one of his lesser strengths, meaning it takes more energy for him to use it. “I've been trying to work on that strength by trying new things. Recently we've been exploring the art of mindfulness - everything to do with breathing, thinking about your life and not just running on autopilot, it has been great. I've found that I've grown in spirit and am a happier person than I ever have been before.”


Not surprisingly, relationships are also improved by this personal insight and growth. “Students are appreciative of the care demonstrated by mentors in getting to know them as individuals and giving them strategies to be more resilient and motivated at school and home” Steve says, adding that peer relations are much more collaborative with students encouraged to offer peer coaching to younger students.

Christine attributes strengthened relationships at Ballarat Grammar to a deeper understanding of emotions. “Our students understand that positive psychology is not just about being happy and everything will be alright. They know that striving and working hard through engagement and positive relationships is linked to accomplishment. The understanding that negative thoughts are just as vital to strong human functioning as positive thoughts helps us build strategies and skills to manage day to day challenges and decisions.”


In a groundbreaking public schools project, a group of leadership staff is also collaborating to bring positive psychology to staff and students of NSW public schools. “The purpose of the project is to provide professional learning for school leaders to create thriving schools, teams and individuals.” says Kim Sheen, project team member and principal at Gardeners Road Public School. “The project is based on the theories and philosophies of positive psychology and appreciative and strengths-based leadership.”

The project will be used to develop a leadership module as part of a professional learning pathway for principals and aspiring principals. “The vision for this project is to achieve a whole school culture that realises positive relationships, high functioning teams and highly engaged teachers. Ultimately this will benefit and improve outcomes for our main stakeholders - the students.” Kim says.

In order to achieve this, the team has taken a truly collaborative approach by not only creating a learning alliance of schools, but also working with academic partner and clinically trained psychologist, Greg Anning. While the project is set for completion by mid-2014, Kim says the schools involved will continue with follow-ups and further implementation.

This significant move towards positive strategies and relationships through all levels of NSW public schools will undoubtedly contribute to the furthering of Australia’s educational standing, something that Patty believes other countries can learn from.

“Everywhere I turn, from articles in the New York Times to educator's magazines, there is attention to the core elements of positive psychology such as emotional balance, optimism, resilience, purpose, and more. In this arena, Australia surely leads the way and the world should follow.” 


Positive Psychology in the Classroom – Patty O’Grady’s Psychology Today blog