Why we already have an answer for children’s mental wellness

There are increasing levels of anxiety and self-harm among even very young children.

The latest report published into children’s mental health pinpoints both pressures at school and on social media as among the biggest threats to children’s wellbeing (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-51645128#).

As a result, the Children’s Bureau, who carried out the research, found increasing levels of anxiety and self-harm among even very young children.

There are so many important points to make about the report that it is difficult to know where to start but let me begin with some clarification. Mental health has two equally important strands. One is mental ill-health the other is mental wellness and it is a key difference to make if we are to tackle this problem. When reports and other material refer to mental health in young people, they tend to be focusing on mental ill-health. It is important that we recognise this as an issue and take all of the necessary steps to provide support for those who need it, and that includes funding fully counselling and other services.

There is a problem however if that is all we look at. If all we focus on is what to do after things have already begun to go wrong, we are missing out on a huge opportunity to do more about promoting those things that can go right. This is why I believe Positive Psychology has a pivotal part to play in promoting mental wellness, not only addressing mental ill-health.

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing. It is an evidence-based discipline that seeks to help people create lives of meaning, happiness, wellbeing and optimism. It is not just “positive thinking”. It also helps people become more resilient when faced with setbacks and challenges and to cope more easily with failures while treating both themselves and others with greater compassion and understanding. In short it is about living your best life – independent of your external circumstances.

When this science is applied in schools it is called Positive Education. While it is most associated with the benefits it gives to pupils, both in terms of wellbeing and academic progress, it also benefits all school staff who embrace the principles and embed them into their own lives. Positive Education has at its heart the acronym PERMA. This stands for:

When using PERMA in schools aspects of these qualities are built into everyday interactions between staff and children, as well as underpinning the relationships between members of staff themselves.

This positive teaching culture is supplemented by lessons where the focus is on one or more of the underlying principles. Each principle encompasses a range of tools, discussions, feelings and behaviours all aimed at developing: wellbeing, resilience, happiness, confidence, good mental health, grit and determination, hope and optimism, self-esteem, compassion (including self-compassion), and kindness.

Unfortunately, a barrier to progress exists as many teachers have never been provided with the additional training and knowledge they need to introduce these particular tools and techniques into the classroom. While teachers are specialists in their subjects, they are not necessarily fluent in the language and methodologies of Positive Education. In fact, there are still plenty of schools that do not know the discipline of Positive Education exists at all.

However a teaching school in Bolton is changing this by spearheading Positive Education training as part of teachers’ CPD. The course is called Everyday Magic and those taking part are quickly developing the skills essential to promote mental wellness in children.

When we look at education of course academic success cannot be ignored, even in discussions about wellness. In fact, the Children’s Bureau report highlighted the pressure children are under to achieve academically as a key cause of anxiety. It is true that schools (and therefore children) are under a great deal of pressure to produce certain levels of academic results. No wonder school leaders can feel they have to choose between academic attainment and wellbeing. Thankfully this is an incorrect assumption as Positive Education actually helps children improve academic performance and mental wellness at the same time. In fact, many of the skills taught in Positive Education support key aspects of the curriculum.

Topics such as understanding the neuroscience of education, increasing concentration and calmness, dealing with difficult feelings, facing challenge and learning from mistakes, using character strengths, as well as increasing kindness, gratitude and self-compassion are all pivotal components. While schools already devote time to many of these topics, the difference with Positive Education is the evidence base behind its approach and the tools and techniques it encompasses. It is steeped in research and is already being used successfully in schools from Australia to Mexico and Peru.

While less is known about Positive Education in the UK, knowledge is increasing and courses like the one offered at St Bede are just the start.

On day one of the Everyday Magic course I told delegates that Positive Education is where the science of psychology meets the art of teaching. It is not about adding to the burden of hard-working teachers but rather it is a way of supporting them which is good news for all involved. The even better news is that the techniques also work in the staffroom, so teachers can safeguard and enhance their own mental wellness as they educate and support the children in their classroom.

The next Everyday Magic course begins on March 13th, and details can be obtained from Ann Barton  bartona@stbedeacademy.org

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