Positive education can help children navigate pandemic’s challenges
Amid the catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic, children worldwide have experienced a reduced quality of life that could have devastating long-term consequences if not addressed immediately. School closures and social distancing measures have left children quarantined at home, exposing some of them to stress and anxiety, domestic violence, neglect, cyberbullying, or malnutrition. They have also had limited access to vital social connections or family care services to offset these assaults.
Positive mental health in early life is important for children’s development and sets a trajectory for well-being in adulthood. Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental health conditions. Most do not seek any treatment for these conditions and, as such, problems build up over time and extend to adulthood, thereby negatively affecting their potential to lead fulfilling lives. Sadly, suicide remains the third-most common cause of death among 15 to 19-year-olds.
As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on children’s day-to-day lives, it is more important than ever to address these damaging effects on their well-being. Positive education is a successful approach that taps into the science of happiness and equips students with useful life skills or character traits to help them manage their well-being. By empowering students to take control of their lives, we can ensure that they will be able to tap into this reservoir of resilience and wisdom when faced with distressing life situations.
Research reveals that positive education interventions are effective. For example, a study led by Lea Waters, an Australian psychology professor at the University of Melbourne, reviewed evidence from 12 school-based positive psychology interventions aimed at teaching students how to cultivate their own positive emotions. Results concluded that these interventions led to a higher life satisfaction level, improved self-worth, reduced depression and anxiety levels, and strengthened relationships. Additionally, happier students excelled in their studies, were more self-motivated and self-empowered, and had fewer behavioral problems.
By investing in positive education programs, students can be allowed to cultivate their own skills to safeguard and improve their well-being, thereby preventing problems later on. More importantly, disadvantaged children could well do with a positive school setting that offsets their negative or neglectful home environments, thus ensuring they do not miss out on opportunities for a happier life both immediately and in adulthood. Furthermore, such skills are essential for the 21st-century workplace, where social intelligence, adaptability and resilience are considered important requirements.
Positive education has gained popularity among educators over the past decade and there are several successful programs running across the globe. Many schools are adopting the well-being framework pioneered by Martin Seligman, an American psychologist and one of the founders of positive psychology. Seligman concludes that six elements contribute to people’s happiness: Focusing on positive emotions, engaging in activities that elevate well-being, fostering positive social connections, cultivating a sense of meaning, pursuing accomplishments that make people thrive, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
One of the most-cited success stories is that of the Geelong Grammar School in Australia, which was the first school in the world to establish a whole-school positive education program. All students, teachers and support staff attend training programs to learn about well-being strategies and how to apply them in the school setting, as well as in their personal lives. Students attend regular positive psychology classes focused on strengthening their relationships, building positive emotions, enhancing resilience, promoting mindfulness, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle. In 2014, the school also established the Institute of Positive Education, making it the first school in the world to open an on-campus research and training institute devoted to positive education. More than 10,000 teachers from across the globe have attended the institute’s training programs and subsequently applied what they learned to more than 250,000 students worldwide.
Happier students excelled in their studies, were more self-motivated and self-empowered, and had fewer behavioral problems.
Other countries have incorporated character education in their educational curriculum as a way to empower students. For example, schools in Singapore incorporate character and citizenship education so that students can learn about managing emotions, resilience, and goal-setting. Students spend between 60 and 75 hours per year learning these skills. Similarly, South Korea passed a character education promotion act in 2014, requiring all Korean kindergartens and elementary, middle and high schools to teach students how to develop “humane character and capabilities.”
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai runs the annual “Dubai Student Wellbeing Census,” focusing on students in grades six to 12. An extensive report is later shared with each school to inform educators, policymakers and the community about recommendations to improve student well-being. Consequently, many of Dubai’s private schools have established student well-being departments and programs, in addition to training teachers and educators on positive education.
In light of the pandemic’s short and long-term effects on children, it is imperative that policymakers introduce a positive education program within schools to equip students with the skills they need to weather these challenging times. Doing so will ensure children grow up to be resilient, happy and productive long after this pandemic is over.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.