Foster well-being in children: 3 lessons from positive psychology

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The fundamental point of sending children to school has always been and will always be the same – a good life.

A subfield of psychology that examines the good life is positive psychology. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, referred to the good life as using your signature strengths to produce authentic happiness.

The connection between using your strengths and being happy makes sense. This is not a new idea, but relatively new to psychological research.

For the past 150 years, the field of psychology focused on the identification and treatment of problems associated with thinking and behavior. This comes from the medical model of thinking where we identify and fix problems.

Since education deals with thinking and behavior, it is not surprising that teacher training involves coursework in educational psychology. This is a good thing, but also problematic when the underlying premise is what’s wrong with people.

I think we focus too much on the deficits of our children.

It’s the start of a new year. Whether you make resolutions or not, let’s commit to focusing less attention on what’s wrong with kids and more on what’s right.

God endowed every child with unique gifts and created him or her for a purpose. While that purpose may not always fit within the narrow confines of how schools define success, the connection between using your strengths and happiness is well established. It is no surprise that if children are not utilizing their strengths in school, they will be unhappy.

Although we don’t set out to ignore the well-being of children in schools, it may result from mandating top-down initiatives that force teachers into boxes. If we don’t allow a teacher to think for herself, how can we expect her to empower a student to think for himself?

There are three lessons from positive psychology that I believe can help us, as both parents and teachers, foster the well-being of children. These key concepts are being explored in schools around the world and include grit, curiosity, and a growth mindset.

  1. Praise effort rather than results to help children develop Grit

Dr. Angela Duckworth, from the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying resilience and perseverance to long-term goals. She found that grit is a better indicator of success than IQ or talent. These non-cognitive traits are critical to both academic and personal achievement. However, we don’t focus nearly enough time fostering this form of intrinsic motivation in children. From helicopter parenting to common core standards in schools, we have not only set the destination for success, we prescribe every step of the path. We have become so results-oriented and protective that our children miss out on opportunities to develop resilience. While results are important, let’s not allow things such as common core standards to squash the hopes and dreams of our children. Instead of praising the results of achievement, focus more energy this year on praising the effort that went into a project and reinforcing the lessons learned from mistakes.

  1. Make children look for the answers to develop Curiosity

How much time do you spend asking your children or students questions? Inquiry-based instruction starts with problems, questions, or scenarios that ignite curiosity. Instilling curiosity in students encourages their desire to learn. When students are magnetized by a new idea or a new situation and are compelled to explore further, regardless of external rewards, they can be said to be truly motivated. Inquiry-based learning is also fundamental to the development of higher order thinking skills. When our primary goal is helping students pass a standardized test, our focus shifts from fostering curiosity to promoting conformity. While our public school teachers cannot escape the perils of standardization today, they can try to swim upstream by asking as many questions as they provide facts. While we have to get students ready for tests, that is not all we have to do. Good AP teachers know they have to instill concepts to help students pass a test, but they also set the conditions along the way to help students become passionate about their subject by asking the right questions or posing projects in the form of problems.

  1. Use if-then statements to promote a Growth Mindset

Someone with a fixed mindset believes intelligence is static, whereas someone with a growth mindset finds opportunities to develop intelligence. Another problem with standardization in schools is that children can believe their potential is limited. While the destination of education today is noble – we want kids to achieve, the journey we take them on is flawed. We do not promote a growth mindset enough in our children by helping them realize their potential is not limited to numerical grades and test scores. However, we know that a growth mindset is a predictor of academic success and is positively correlated with motivation, grades, and test scores. So if we want kids to pass tests, we should focus more on getting students to use if-then statements to trigger foresight and planning, the executive functioning skills that are so necessary to higher order thinking.

We all want our children to be happy. We want them to have a good life. Let’s commit to providing them with the right tools they need to make that happen. Those tools are not facts they will forget from tests, they include grit, curiosity, and a growth mindset.

At the end of the day what separates successful students from unsuccessful students is whether or not they believe their abilities can be developed or are fixed. Allow the strengths of our children to form their path toward happiness, well-being, and success.

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