On Thursday 11th October, Mr. Daniel Johnston and I attended a ‘Positive Psychology’ Conference at Wellington College in Berkshire UK. We were there to learn about a school, which is very similar to St John’s and how they developed an approach to community wellness, which is both radical and completely obvious for a school with a 150 year tradition based upon Christian Values. You can find out more about Wellington College, its IB programme and it’s proud tradition by visiting the website.
At St John’s, in June this year, The High School hosted a meeting of interested parents and teachers who came together to consider the idea of a ‘Student Welfare Programme’ At this meeting we heard from Yanick Gladsteen a clinical psychologist who works with youngsters in local schools to help them navigate their way through challenging academic programmes whilst keeping themselves healthy, both physically and emotionally. The visit to the Wellington Conference was the next step in the journey towards a concrete way to help all community members experience enhanced wellness and happiness.
The promotional materials for the conference state:
‘Wellbeing and positive psychology are becoming increasingly accepted as essential to every successful organisation. World-class organisations understand that for them to succeed they have to attract and retain outstanding individuals: put simply, a happier and more resilient workforce tends to be more creative and committed to the values of their organisation.
This conference is for all those who want to make their school an even better organisation to work for and, in doing so, ensure it is a more successful.’
Delivering the keynote speech at this conference will be one of the world’s leading experts in self-esteem and positive psychology, Dr Tal Ben-Shahar, who consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, Fortune 500 companies, and leading educational institutions. He is the author of the international best sellers ‘Happier’ and ‘Being Happy’, which have been translated into 25 languages.
Other speakers include: Mark Williamson – Action for Happiness, Emma Judge – UK Resilience, Dr Hilary Emery – National Children’s Bureau, Jules Evans – Centre for History of Emotions, Chris Cullen – Mindfulness in Schools, Richard Burnett – Mindfulness in Schools Project, Tonbridge School and Ian Morris – Head of Well-Being and P.S.H.E. at Wellington College.
The conference began with an address by the Headmaster of Wellington College Dr Anthony Seldon. His address was inspirational in that he spoke about his own commitment to his own well-being, that of his staff and students and all stakeholders in the school. He stated, ‘Your own well-being is not only of inestimable value to yourself but it is an imperative for all those with whom you work. As teachers and parents you are morally obliged to care for your own health and that of everyone you have day to day interactions with. You should not, as an educator be opting in to a commitment to health you should be justifying why you should want to opt out’
The keynote speaker Dr Tal Ben-Shahar explained that traditional psychology has focused on what has gone wrong to place people at risk of poor health or destructive behaviours such as substance abuse. Positive Psychologists have being conducting research since the 1980s into those people who have been successful despite often appalling circumstances. What is it that makes some people able to withstand difficulties in life and emerge triumphant? Research concludes that:
‘Successful children are those who have developed resilience. In other words they can get up after a fall. They are ordinary people with ordinary characteristics which have been enhanced to produce extraordinary results.’
He went on to describe five characteristics of successful children:
- The ability to set future goals
- An optimistic outlook
- Identifiable role models
- Strength focused
- Engaged in regular physical exercise
When all of these attributes are present children are able to be genuinely healthy and have an increased well-being.
Mark Williamson for Action for Happiness described research into well-being at work. His work includes part of the United Nations ‘World Happiness Report’
He contended that teachers were healthier and happier at work and therefore able to give of their best to their students when they had the ‘Great Dream’
If they were able to:
Give, Relate to, Exercise, be Appreciated, Try-out new things and be Trusted, have Direction, be Resilient, show Emotion, be Accepted and have Meaning in their work.
Action for happiness is a UK organization which is committed to creating a movement of schools committed to well-being for all community members.
We then learned about the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn a psychologist working on ‘Mindfulness’ in schools. These techniques are currently used to very good effect in St. John’s Middle School and we would like to extend their use into High School to help our youngsters concentrate more fully and develop their strength and confidence.
Emma Judge from, ‘How to Thrive’ an organization working with adolescents and their parents world wide described how positive psychology has helped in schools to,
- Reduce and prevent depression
- Reduce and prevent anxiety symptoms
- Reduce negative or self destructive behaviours
- Improve an optimistic view point and reduce hopelessness (this is becoming a crisis amongst young people uncertain about the future)
- Enhance physical well-being
She also cautioned against equating ‘Positive Psychology’ with ‘Positive Thinking’ the two are quite different. In a young person who is feeling less than positive, a focus on ‘Positive Thinking’ can actually exacerbate the problem. If you aren’t happy and you have been given the recipe for feeling marvelous and you still feel bad, it can be perceived as your fault. Young people need to know that at times is right to feel sad. It can be a positive virtue, if you are angry it’s because you have principles. If you are sad it is because you care. All people need to feel bad at times as it is part of being human. Teachers, parents and students need to develop a good understanding of this.
Dr. Hilary Emery of the National Children’s Bureau spoke about the importance of good quality, meaningful relationships between teachers and students as absolutely vital for success. She also spoke of the crucial need for teachers to be given time to come together to validate what they are doing. Teaching can be a more isolating profession than many others. She said that schools should not be, ‘trying to get students ready for a flourishing life’ but that they should, ‘embody it.’ If students are not happy in school for whatever reason they cannot learn and if teachers are not happy and fulfilled in their work they cannot teach effectively. She also spoke of the need for high quality social interactions and opportunities to be available in schools.
She talked about the fact that ‘Respect for others and the need to be respected’ was critical and key for all. In this way we are very lucky at St. John’s to have ‘Respect’ as one of our core values.
My lasting memory of an inspiring conference however, is the goal of those working with young people to develop happiness and wellness being, ‘Not so much about learning to survive life’s storms but rather learning to dance in the rain.’
Please watch the blog spot for further details of how our ‘Wellness Program.’ is to be developed.
Deborah Brook – High School Principal