This year at Moriah we are embarking on a Positive Education journey, Moriah style.
As we start the school year as parents and educators, it is worthwhile reflecting on what empowers our kids to feel the greatest happiness and fulfillment, to be resilient and to face their challenges through school and life with courage and what enables them to thrive and flourish despite and perhaps through these challenges.
Resilient Youth Australia has collected resilience, fulfilment, and happiness data from 160,000 Australian children in 600 communities throughout the country.
As we examine the data, we see an interesting pattern emerging. Fifty-nine percent of Primary School children report good or high levels of wellbeing and happiness in Primary School, which declines to 27% by Years 11 and 12. Positive Psychology and Positive Education offers evidence-based strategies to turn this wellbeing decline and happiness deficiency around. Whilst there is no magic potion, there are three simple ideas that can make a significant impact on children’s happiness and resilience.
- Focusing on ‘strengths’
- ‘Growing gratitude’
- Building ‘hope’
- Focusing on strengths
A number of years ago, a local synagogue was running a Bat Mitzvah program with a number of girls. The organiser wanted to have a celebration to conclude all of the Bat Mitzvah preparations – a night of acknowledging and celebrating the girls’ achievements. However, the organiser had a dilemma. It might be a night of recognition for some, but humiliation for others who really didn’t achieve anything of standout significance during the course of that year. If they opted to acknowledge everyone for some sort of achievement, it would appear trivial or tokenistic, particularly compared to some of the other girls’ chesed and community involvement.
So, she struck upon an idea. She suggested to each girl’s mum to prepare a two-to-three-minute talk about her daughter’s character strengths. Instead of focusing on external achievements, shifting the focus to the girls’ internal growth and character. It was a novel idea, but she was ill-prepared for what would unfold.
Post event, she describes the tremendous outpouring of emotions that everyone experienced as the mothers spoke of the remarkable and unique strengths, attributes, and characteristics of their daughters. Several boxes of tissues were required, and a deep feeling of psychological and emotional safety encompassed all who attended. The anecdotes of the deepening of the relationship between mothers and daughters that ensued was truly overwhelming.
What are character strengths?
A character strength is a virtue or ability that a person possesses to help that individual become a better person. A particularly potent definition of a character strength is ‘the potential for excellence that is inside each one of us’. We can cultivate these strengths by identifying and developing awareness that they exist, discovering ways to access them and making an effort to expand and utilise them regularly, thus creating habits.
All children have strengths. It is their remarkable capacity to excel at something. Strengths are intrinsic, authentic, and pre-existing. They are part of who we are, and we just need to tap into them. Strengths allow us to perform at a high and consistent level of competence. Even more than that, when people utilise their strengths, they feel strong, energised, positive, and passionate. So, it’s more than just doing something well. It is doing something that enlivens and lifts us up, makes us feel engaged and makes us feel that we are fulfilling the purpose that we were born to fulfil.
The pioneer of Positive Psychology, Professor Martin Seligman, developed a classification framework for character strengths and virtues. He describes six virtues:
- Wisdom and knowledge
He considers these to be universally valued and sought after across time and cultures. These six virtues are umbrella terms for the derivative of the 24-character strengths, such as creativity, curiosity, love of learning, perseverance, honesty, zest, kindness, social intelligence, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humour, spiritually, gratitude etc.
A number of studies of educational settings have shown that using a strengths-based program increases children’s intrinsic motivation, and children who use their strengths best are most likely to succeed academically and socially.
It is incumbent upon us to reflect upon the children and adolescents who we are blessed to raise or educate. Are they aware of their strengths? Do we tell them how strong they are? Or do we often fail to identify and encourage them to use their strengths.
At school, we seek opportunities for our children to use their strengths. For some children it is easy for them to feel strong at school. They have a remarkable academic aptitude or resonate with a particular subject. Some children thrive in social situations and attending school feeds that, by providing them with extensive social interactions and opportunities throughout the course of the week. For others, school can be a challenging place and their strengths may lay outside the domain of typical school structures. That is why at Moriah we try to provide for ‘creatives’, ‘energisers’, those who prefer ‘manual manipulation’ of matter, other ‘mechanical aptitude’ or ‘athletic capability’.
Utilising strengths, particularly in the service of others, builds wellbeing, increases engagement, productivity and makes people more resilient.
Our children and students need to know what their strengths are, be able to identify them and work out how to use them. It’s very powerful to practice a strength-spotting exercise with our fellow family members, articulate these, and then watch and ensure the opportunities to use these strengths flow forth. Their fulfilment and resilience will exponentially increase.
Children whose strengths aren’t an integral part of their day feel weakened or disengaged, and their resilience drops; their days become a drag. That is why we strongly encourage children to explore broadly, take the plunge and try new things whether it is Moriah co-curricular activities such as sport, music, public speaking, debating, drama etc. or activities outside school.
- Developing an attitude of gratitude
Gratitude is often referred to as the mother of all virtues and is the flagship construct of positive psychology. Gratitude can either be a trait or an attribute. Some people feel grateful in some situations (a state). Some people seem grateful all the time (a trait). In either case, gratitude is a two-part process:
- Recognising something good in life
- Acknowledging that goodness either to yourself or to the source of that goodness.
Those who have a ‘trait’ of gratitude have a pervasive orientation towards both noticing and expressing appreciation, whether it’s for a positive or negative occurrence. In fact, if you have ever been through a significant challenge and look back at the experience with appreciation, you can see the growth, wisdom and richness that you experienced through, or as a result of, that negative experience.
Gratitude focuses individuals on the positives in their world and life and creates a feeling of deep appreciation. That outlook orients an individual towards pro-social and positive behaviours and cognition. Gratitude has a significant impact on all wellbeing indicators. Grateful people are more socially capable, more open to ideas, they enjoy better sleep and better health. It is not surprising that the more grateful people are, the better they perceive their relationships to be. The more ready they are to forgive, the more they feel family support and the stronger they are in their relationships. In essence, grateful people experience higher levels of wellbeing and fulfilment than those that are less grateful. There is an inverse correlation between gratitude and hostility, anger or emotional vulnerability, as well as feelings of negativity or stress.
Are the children of today grateful or entitled?
Research has suggested that children are not born with gratitude but rather it is a learnt virtue that must be nurtured and developed. Young children can be taught to appreciate things that are done for them and things and people they have in their world and life. Due to the cognitive complexity of gratitude, adolescence is a particularly effective time to practice gratitude. At this point in their lives, most children are able to recognise the contribution and the benefit that they gain from others. Teens that show gratitude have a pronounced improved wellbeing. They are more likely to be involved and absorbed in their activities, inclusive of helpful activities and they experience enhanced self-respect and self-esteem.
In a significant study with over 1,000 children aged 15-19, children who were more grateful also achieved higher marks at school, had a more fulfilling social life, were more absorbed in their activities, had higher life satisfaction and were less envious of their peers and far less depressed. Studies that measure the neurological impact of gratitude on children showed that a young person who writes a heartfelt thank you letter to somebody and then visits the recipient to read or present the letter, can experience a residual increase in wellbeing that can last for up to two months.
Here are some simple gratitude ideas:
- Grateful chatter – looking for opportunities to encourage people to share things they are grateful for
- Grateful writing – either at home or in a classroom setting
- Grateful through challenges – find the beauty in a challenge or an adversity they experienced
- Gratitude walls – at home, in the classroom or in work environments
- Gratitude letters – writing a gratitude letter is a powerful way of building relationships
- Model gratitude – just simply show authentic thanks
- Stories – tell stories that promote gratitude
It has been said that “grateful people don’t have what they want, they want what they have.”
Even though over the last few years, many have accused the younger generation of narcissism and a sense of entitlement, our collective experience is that the young people at Moriah are grateful and show appreciation, often after every lesson. We just need to help them continuously remember their trait of gratitude and encourage them to develop and express it. As they do, they will see the world really is a wonderful place and their wellbeing, fulfilment and resilience will grow.
- Building hope and optimism
Optimism is when we feel good about the future. We are hopeful about it and expect good things to come even during difficulties or challenges. An optimist is a glass-half-full kind of person. To best understand an optimist, we need to look at the opposite – the pessimist. Pessimism is associated with a depressive state, anxiety, and stress. People who are strongly pessimistic expect bad things to happen in the future and it causes them to develop hopelessness believing that when something occurs, or a challenge arises, there is nothing they can do about it so it’s not worth trying anyway.
‘Hope’ is different than optimism. Whilst most of us have a natural tendency towards optimism and it is something of a personality character, hope is different. Hope can be trained and learnt. While optimism builds wellbeing, hope can be transformative. To have hope, we, or our children, must have three vital ingredients.
- A goal or a vision.
- A pathway or manner of achieving that goal.
- Agency or efficacy, which is a belief that by taking action we can achieve our goal.
To build hope we need to have a clear vision, map out a strategy of achieving it and develop a belief that we can achieve it. Research on hope is powerful. Hopeful people enjoy more success in life and make more of an effort to work towards achieving extraordinary things. Whether they actually get to where they hope to or not, they often come closer to it than they would have if they hadn’t hoped.
How to build hope
In his book ‘The Optimistic Child’, Dr Seligman describes the simple manner in which parents can encourage a positive future orientation, optimism or hope in our children. He suggests that while tucking our children into bed at night, or and sitting and chatting with them, we can ask them to describe something that they are looking forward to, or that they aspire to, or a goal that they have set. When our children share their dreams and hopes with us, we will learn what is important and meaningful to them, and trust and relationships will deepen. We can then discuss their self-efficacy and belief in how they can get there.
There is almost nothing more valuable we can provide our children and students that helps prevent depression, anxiety and hopelessness than encouraging hope. Helping them see that there is something to look forward to may be one of the most important things we do for them.
Ideas to build hope at home or school
Attempt the following steps:
- Build a future focus – discuss with your children ideas about the possible future. What do they want to achieve and why? Have them imagine their potential selves and talk about what they are looking forward to and what they want to have or to be.
- Work with them on a plan or a pathway to achieve. E.g., if the child says I want to be a child psychologist, ask them what is needed to get there? Discuss pathways, opportunities and possibilities. Thinking about making future plans fosters hope.
- If they get stuck, rather than providing them with an answer, ask them ‘so what do you think would be the next thing to do?’ or, ‘how could we solve this issue?’, or, ‘have your ever overcome something like this in the past?’. These kinds of questions create a sense of efficacy and self-agency rather than having our children rely on us all the time for answers. We thus nurture their resourcefulness and initiative.
In conclusion there are numerous ways we can improve our children’s wellbeing. Positive psychology/education is a proven simple and powerful way to us improve the wellbeing of our children. Try focussing on their strengths, fostering a sense of gratitude and training and encouraging them to be hopeful. We are gifting them with improved resilience and a powerful sense of wellbeing and fulfilment.
B’hatzlacha. May you and your children have an extraordinary year.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.