Pre-Primary pupils of Alkhair Royal School learn how to communicate on an opening day. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

My career in international education (barely spanning a decade) has made me realise just how much of a raw deal I got as a student. And I wouldn’t want to ever make my students feel, even remotely, what some of my teachers made me feel.

I’m sure many of my generation can attest to being humiliated by some teachers. And forget about the caning, the psychological humiliation was/is way worse! I vividly remember this teacher in primary school, a lady, who one afternoon made fun of my broken teeth as a way to contain my murmuring with a desk mate. The whole class burst into hysterical laughter. I hardly recovered from that for the rest of my primary school years. I had a few unpleasant experiences in school that knocked my confidence. Almost shattered my esteem. Made me walk with a slouch. Made me doubt myself so much.

As I have written here before, school should be a place students love to be! A place where students feel safe and accepted for who they are. A space of positivity and happiness. And it’s incumbent upon teachers to create this space. If a school cannot make students feel loved, and cared for, and accepted for who they are, then it doesn’t matter how wonderful the teaching is. It doesn’t matter what facilities and programmes are in place. They all count for nought.

You do not need ultra-modern facilities to do this. Just the right mindset. The right attitude. You need eyes on the ball. Eyes on the bigger picture. As educators, one of our key mandates besides delivering a curriculum is to mould positive behaviour. And this starts with how you make students feel about themselves. The kind of influence a teacher wields over a student cannot be emphasised enough. Cannot be gainsaid! It is incredulous it makes me shudder. That’s why to me teaching is sacred. A noble profession, as they say. The responsibility is enormous. Which is why it’s imperative for teachers to foster practices and routines that bring out the best in the kids under their care. One of the ways of doing this is through positive psychology. Many, many studies shows that one of the most powerful ways to build a positive learning environment is through positive psychology.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organisations to thrive. In a nutshell, positive psychology focuses on the positive events and influences in life, including: Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love). Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion). Positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions). As a field, positive psychology spends much of its time ‘thinking’ about topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, wellbeing, gratitude, compassion (as well as self-compassion), self-esteem and self-confidence, hope, and elevation. These areas are studied in order to learn how to help one flourish and live their best lives.

Build resilience

Students bring all of life’s ups and downs with them into the classroom, and in some cases, this can lead to poor focus and disengagement. A learning environment that uses positive psychology focuses on giving all students a chance to build their resilience and learn to cope with and manage challenging situations.

The main reason for instructing positive psychology is to positively impact the learner’s life. When applied in the learning process, positive psychology has several fundamental benefits to the learner. It increases the learner’s experience of positive emotions; Helps them identify and develop their strengths and unique talents; enhances their goal-setting and goal-striving abilities; builds a sense of hope into the learner’s perspective; cultivates the learner’s sense of happiness and wellbeing; helps the learner build and maintain healthy, positive relationships with others and encourages them to maintain an optimistic outlook, to name just a few.

Positive psychology in the classroom can also have practical benefits. Students who feel supported and engaged will be more focused in class, will connect better with their teachers and classmates, and will achieve better social and academic outcomes.

Recent research during the global pandemic has shown that it also plays a role in times of crisis to reduce distress once it has arisen. For example, research by Waters et al. (2021) on a sample of Australian high school students during the first round of lockdown in 2020 identified that the degree to which the students had been taught positive education skills (i.e. use their strengths, manage their emotions, practice mindfulness) was a significant predictor of stress-related growth during lockdown (i.e. the experience of deriving benefits from encountering stressful circumstances).

Similarly, a 2021 research done by Dr Yue Yuan, senior lecturer at North Carolina State University in the USA, studied online mindfulness interventions for high school students during remote learning. The research found significant improvement in student resilience and emotional intelligence. Other researchers have shown that reframing to look for the silver lining, knowing how to process emotions, levels of gratitude, compassion and grit have boosted students’ ability to successfully adapt during the pandemic.

As a teacher, it can be difficult to know where to begin if you want to build your class into a positive learning environment. Positive psychology in a classroom varies for each environment, but a positive classroom environment will have: a safe, welcoming atmosphere, a sense of belonging among students, trust between students and the teacher, willingness in students to ask questions, participate and take risks, clear expectations, and fair and honest feedback, from the teacher.

There are lots of tools and activities instructors can use to bring positive psychology into the classroom. The PERMA framework is a great place to start, as it looks to the key elements of positive psychology as:

Positive emotions: students can focus on things that make them feel good, like being recognised for quality work or having the chance to help a classmate. Engagement: students feel absorbed by their work because they find it challenging but achievable, and it explores new ideas in interesting ways. Relationships: students feel able to build strong connections with you, and with other students, through feedback and activities. Meaning: students understand the purpose of their work and why it’s important for them to learn. Achievement: students receive encouraging and honest feedback on their work and feel a sense of accomplishment and success. By focusing on each of these areas, instructors can help build any classroom into a positive learning environment.

The role of schools

There are many ways to bring positive education approaches into schools in order to boost both academic learning and student wellbeing. Positive psychology approaches can be used in classrooms, staff rooms, co-curricular, school assemblies, parent-teacher meetings and during yard duty.

Picture the student who is exposed to a wellbeing curriculum, who then has resilience reinforced on the school sport field by the coach after a game loss; experiences flow during music or art studies; explores the cultural differences in positive emotions as part of the geography curriculum; learns about character analysis in English through the application of character strengths; has a teacher praise them for effort in addition to performance; receives merit points for positive behaviour (as compared to the traditional demerit system); enacts meaning through a service learning project; observes staff responding in active-constructive ways and hears staff using strength-based language. This is a highly transformative culture, and plays a vital role in achieving positive psychology.

Systems approaches in positive education mean the principles of positive psychology are modelled and supported throughout the entire fabric of the school. When teachers and school staff have high levels of social and emotional wellbeing, this has a positive influence on the students.