Practices for teacher and student wellbeing
As educators, we know that supporting student wellbeing is integral to the work we do. Increasingly, schools are prioritising wellbeing as a response to the prevalence of mental illness in youth and the link between wellbeing and positive learning outcomes.
The wellbeing of teachers also plays a key role in student wellbeing and, as such, should be considered part of a whole-school approach to wellbeing (Roffey, 2012).
Positive Education is one such approach and can be defined as the application of Positive Psychology in the educational context, to promote mental health and to nurture flourishing school communities (Hoare, Bott & Robinson, 2017).
At Geelong Grammar School (GGS), we emphasise the importance of four key processes which bring Positive Education to life in an educational setting: ‘Learn it, Live it, Teach it, Embed it’. According to this model, it is important that educators engage with and implement evidence-based wellbeing practices into their own lives before they can be imparted to students in a meaningful and authentic way.
While the GGS model for Positive Education encourages a whole-school approach, the field of Positive Education still has a great deal to offer educators whose schools may not yet have adopted this model.
Teachers are encouraged to explore the range of evidence-based practices which comprise Positive Education, introducing them to their own lives before bringing them into the classroom. Three suggested approaches involve engaging character strengths, cultivating growth mindsets and practising self-compassion during challenging times.
ENGAGING AND DEVELOPING STRENGTHS
Strengths are defined as ‘patterns of thinking, feeling or behaving that, when exercised, will excite, engage and energise you, and allow you to perform at your optimum level’ (Linley, Willars & Biswas-Deiner 2010).
Identifying and cultivating character strengths is a core component of Positive Education. Teachers and students can take the VIA Character Strengths Survey online to identify their top 5 signature strengths. These will likely be the strengths which are essential to our daily lives, which are energising and easy to use.
As well as identifying and utilising your signature strengths, observing strengths in others, or ‘strengths spotting’ is another way of introducing the language of strengths into our own lives, our classrooms and the broader school environment. It is also important to understand that strengths can be developed.
Undertaking a simple 11 minute daily ‘strengths routine’ to cultivate a strength which may appear lower on the VIA report is an achievable goal for teachers and students. For instance, the strength of gratitude might be developed by making a note at the end of each school day as to what went well that day (McQuaid & Lawn, 2014).
CULTIVATING A GROWTH MINDSET
Perhaps the most well-known theory associated with Positive Education comes from Carol Dweck’s (2006) research on mindsets. Dweck identified a ‘fixed mindset’ as being based on the underlying belief that our intelligence and talent don’t really improve over time.
In contrast, a ‘growth mindset’ is based on the belief that intelligence and talent can always be improved upon with practice.
It is important to know that we are likely to have a combination of both a fixed and growth mindset, and to observe what triggers our fixed mindset. It is also helpful to be aware of how we model these mindsets for our students.
As teachers, do we set ourselves learning goals, welcome criticism and embrace failure as part of the learning process, in order to engage a growth mindset? If we seek to nurture a growth mindset in our students, the type of feedback we provide is key.
Dweck warns against oversimplifying growth mindset theory by simply praising effort for effort’s sake. Instead, provide ‘process praise’ by focusing on the learning process and how hard work, good strategies, and a good use of resources leads to better learning (Gross-Loh, 2016).
There is growing research to support the benefits of self-compassion for adults and adolescents. Self-compassion is an alternative to damaging self-criticism and essentially means treating ourselves as we would a good friend, particularly during difficult times.
Self-compassion has been found to raise motivation, performance and resilience and to reduce stress, anxiety and self-doubt (Neff, 2011).
Self-compassion practices include becoming aware of your critical self-talk and reframing this in a more compassionate way, as a kind friend would. Also, writing a compassionate letter to yourself or comforting yourself with a physical gesture, such as a hand on the heart or by placing one hand over the other to soothe the nervous system.
Throughout the school year, there will be many opportunities to encourage students to become aware of their own self-critical voice and to treat themselves with self-compassion when experiencing personal or academic challenge.
While it is preferable that schools undertake a whole-school approach to wellbeing, it is just as important that teachers are able to explore evidence-based practices which enhance their own personal and professional lives.
Once the benefits of these practices have been experienced first-hand, they can be introduced into the classroom in a more authentic way, assisting the creation of positive learning environments which promote wellbeing.
Author Rhiannon McGee is the Head of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School, leading the School’s wellbeing program across four campuses. Rhiannon has held a range of leadership roles in the area of student wellbeing in the past ten years in different school settings. She is passionate about the promotion of community wellbeing and this has motivated her to complete the Masters of Education (Student Wellbeing), and the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House. Gross-Loh, C. (2016, December 16). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize. (online) The Atlantic Daily. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/ Hoare, E., Bott,D., & Robinson, J. (2017).Learn it, Live it, Teach it, Embed it: Implementing a whole-school approach to foster positive mental health and wellbeing through Positive Education. International Journal of Wellbeing, 7(3), 56-71. doi: 10,5502/ijw.v7i3.645 Linley, A., Willars, J., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The strengths book: What you can do, love to do and find it hard to do-and why it matters. Coventary, UK: CAPP Press. McQuaid, M., & Lawn, M. (2014). Your Strengths Blueprint: How to be Engaged, Energised and Happy at Work. Melbourne: Michelle McQuaid. Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. UK: Hodder & Staughton. Roffey, S. (2012). Pupil wellbeing—Teacher wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin?. Educational and Child Psychology, 29(4), 8.