Victor Frankl explained that, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’. This includes our freedom to feel well, to connect with the world effectively, and to learn.
Each year, students who achieve a positive outcome to that phase of their learning journey and growth program are named as students who have flourished. The word ‘flourish’ is surrounded by positive connotations of thriving and success and it is important to understand exactly what is done to ensure that the students, in the care of educators, can access this positive state of being so that, as Victor Frankl says, they are free to grow. The choices students make pave the pathway towards flourishing, but it is the role of the educators to provide the framework and teach the skills so students can enact these choices. Important academic and socio-emotional skills are taught to students to build their knowledge, increment by increment, so that they are able to be their best person, the person who is flourishing.
Firm Boundaries to grow both academic and socio-emotional capabilities
Studies of best practice show us that children who experience clearly defined boundaries, and receive clearly stated objectives, feel secure and understand what they are trying to achieve.
Boundaries – Academic
In the students’ academic program, clear boundaries and objectives are established at the start of each lesson. Educators are mandated to provide students with a clear vision of the learning intention and the criteria that will indicate that they have been successful. Through assessments and self-reflection, students connect with their current level of performance and discover their next steps in their learning. Skills are taught to them explicitly and with sufficient repetition, so that they become habitual and part of the student’s long-term memory. Students are coached to apply their knowledge in various learning activities, and they receive feedback as they put their knowledge and skills to the test. As they progress from year level to year level, they achieve increased competence and heightened capability and apply their knowledge with increased sophistication across contexts.
Boundaries – Socio-Emotional
Similarly, in their personal and social emotional growth programs, students are required to progress along a journey towards wellbeing involving their social and emotional competencies. It is even more important in this socio-emotional domain to articulate a clear vision of the learning intention and desired outcome. The framework within which socio-emotional growth occurs in our school context is established via clearly delineated boundaries. Boundaries are established in two ways.
The first way to establish boundaries is by using a positive behaviour system or token economy which rewards desired behaviours. It is important to clearly describe the behaviours that are desirable so that children know what behaviours build personal wellbeing alongside positive interactions in society. Actions regarded as positive include turn-taking, respecting the feelings and personal space of others, exchanges of kindness, responsible conduct, and increased capacity to self-regulate or make smart choices. The first way to establish boundaries and promote positive behaviour is to name them explicitly and clearly for children and celebrate and reward them when they are observed.
The second way to establish boundaries is via behaviour management and the remapping of personal choices by consistently issuing consequences to students for poor choices or incorrect actions. It is also critical that through discussion and reflection with an educator or wellbeing professional, children experience an opportunity to learn and improve when they complete a negative action. When children discover a loophole in the system where they can complete negative actions, then they will repeatedly seek out that loophole. However, if they receive the same message across contexts about what they can and cannot do, then desired socio-emotional packages of knowledge or schema will be mapped in their long-term memory and a positive journey towards flourishing is more likely to occur.
This model is most effective when parents influence children in partnership with the school, and endorse the consequence experienced by the child; thereby reinforcing the teaching behind the consequence that has been implemented. Parents at Moriah College Primary School are most aware of the consequences students receive for their misconduct, or conversely the certificates or rewards students receive when they show positive behaviours, because of the positive behaviour system or token economy that has been implemented.
Empowering students with the skills to feel well and therefore perform well socially and academically
The most important, pervasive action that takes place throughout the year with every child on a fortnightly basis and, where necessary, on a daily basis, is the personal growth program or positive education teaching. Positive education aligns with positive psychology which is not reactive when things go wrong with children and their wellbeing or behaviour, but rather proactively aims to develop self-regulation tools, self-talk narratives and social interaction tools which facilitate academic, socio-emotional and even physical success and wellbeing. These are known as Pops of Wellbeing and, once taught, they are practised across contexts to ensure that they are committed to long-term memory. It is these strategies that our young can use in the space between stimulus and response to every situation across academic and social contexts, to ensure they can read and regulate their emotions and self-talk and respond successfully in their world.
Primary schools prioritise the building of social and emotional intelligence correlated with wellbeing in students. Statistics indicate that the levels of poor mental health and low levels of wellbeing have increased in our primary school-aged students. Amongst other conditions, students experience high levels of anxiety, dysregulation, attachment dysfunction, self-doubt or negative self-image, and technology addiction and online social conflict. Early challenges morph into more complex conditions in the teenage years and intervention is even more difficult. The need to teach routines and strategies that enable students to name and notice their feelings and understand the ‘why’ behind their emotion and then to understand what to do about this response has never been more urgent.
By teaching children at a young age how to “be well” we are helping to develop invaluable skills for life. Neuroplasticity in the brains of primary school students lends itself to the mapping of new connections or neural pathways, and behaviours change more readily, as opposed to adolescents with their additional complexity. The multi-pronged program that students experience during each year of schooling equips them with a “skill-based toolbox” of routines and strategies to facilitate self-awareness and regulate and improve their emotional state. In most instances, it is this foundation which would position our young for a pathway of flourishing as they move into adolescence and beyond.
The Wellbeing program that is drip fed to students as they progress through each year of Primary School at Moriah provides students with a progressively complex set of skills and strategies to enable them to be the best version of themselves, no matter what challenge faces them. The routines they learn to keep themselves well empower them to regulate themselves in the space between stimulus and response so that they are able to alter their self-talk, change their mindset or state of being and override their sometimes-escalated fight/flight response, using their “thinking brain” or prefrontal cortex.
The “Toolbox of Wellbeing Skills” includes:
- Gratitude perspective taking; naming and noticing that for which we are grateful.
- Relaxation breathing routines to find personal peace and calm.
- Body-Mind scan strategies to recognise anxious, stressful, worrisome feelings and move them into a more positive perspective.
- Knowledge-building to increase an understanding of how the human brain functions and why we do what we do.
- Mindfulness Techniques to enable students to be present in the moment, to focus our attention and support our performance, learning, behaviour and decision-making.
- Routines to improve relationships with peers, teachers and family.
- Language to describe personal signature strengths and the capability to network with the strengths of others.
- Personal agency and leadership skill-building, providing students with frameworks and vision to progress their own pathways and also lead others on their journey of personal growth.
The skills that are grown in our students from Year K through to Year 6 are developed via the combination of six programs which are carefully woven into personal development trajectory.
Programs that are used are named as follows:
- Growing Moriah Minds Program to explain brain functioning, recognise outcomes in your actions and how you can change your thinking and redirect your actions to enable positive social interactions. This is based on the Grow Your Mind Program co-founded by Christina Freeman and Alice Peel.
- Zones of Regulation Program to name and notice the level of your arousal from calm to overexcited and how to move into the right zone for a particular activity.
- Friendology Program to assist children to understand relationships and how to navigate the challenges presented whilst building and sustaining positive friendships.
- Mindfulness In Schools Programs to assist students to feel happier and calmer, improve relationships with others, improve concentration, learning and performance, and help students cope with stress and anxiety. This takes the form of the Paws.b program in the upper years and builds on the Growing Moriah Minds Program in the early years and, importantly, takes upper Primary students’ capacity to deal with difficulty to the next level. This ensures they replace the overwhelming fight, flight, freeze responses with curiosity, kindness, and acceptance.
- Positive Education VIA Character Strengths Program to empower students to recognise their innate strengths and grow these attributes as their signature strengths as they collaborate with the strengths of others.
- Student Leadership Program is taught intensely from Years 4–6 to enable students to understand the characteristics of good leaders and what the leader in every individual looks like. Leading and personal agency as a Jewish person is grown in students with opportunities for the responsible enactment of leadership.
Combining boundaries and programs
It has been said that it takes a village (of people) to raise a child. From the above, it is evident that it takes a broad range of approaches to ensure we grow healthy, well-balanced young people in our schools. The firm boundaries and clear objectives are all important frameworks within which we grow our students, but students only grow with the purposeful targeted teaching of strategies and routines to understand and control themselves and their subconscious, achieve healthy positive dispositions and select the best possible action in the space between stimulus and response so that they can flourish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.