Celebrate Positive Psychology to Instill Mental Health Resilience

Celebrate Positive Psychology to Instill Mental Health Resilience
Celebrate Positive Psychology to Instill Mental Health Resilience

School Health and Wellness//

December 2, 2021

Even before the pandemic, ISM’s research revealed 70% of teens said anxiety and depression are major problems. While some dismiss this judgment by reasoning that “we’re just talking about it more,” the dramatic increase in teen suicide rates underscores the validity of this conclusion and the real consequences we must face.

Evidence shows teens rank “pressure to get good grades'' more than two times higher than “pressure to look good” as a reason for their anxiety and depression. Despite popular focus on peer pressure and cyber-bullying, the studies show the biggest source of mental health issues are related to their education experience.

The good news is, you can make changes in your curriculum and school culture that have an immediate and lasting effect on your students’ ability to develop self-efficacy and resilience—helping them to avoid more serious consequences.

Traditional Psychology vs. Positive Psychology

Traditional psychology focuses on fixing a problem. The traditional psychology approach:

  1. Defines the problem (usually, what the student did wrong.)
  2. Treats the problem (counseling, medication, group programs.)
  3. Prevents recurrence by raising awareness of consequences and telling the student what to do and what not to do.

Positive psychology focuses on well-being as an essential need. This approach can be very effective for K–12 students, especially when there is an emphasis on a healthy lifestyle. The positive psychology approach:

  • Helps immunize students from the impact of mental health issues by developing resilience.
  • Creates conditions and opportunities for students to flourish.
  • Focuses on cultural, not didactic, changes. This is a more effective approach especially with Middle and Upper School-age students.

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Tipping the Positivity Ratio

How can you weave principles of positive psychology into your culture and teaching without a massive overhaul of your curriculum and schedule?

Start by taking steps to tip the “positivity ratio.” First, focus on multiple positive elements of a situation or outcome before attempting to fix a singular negative.

For example, when a student is extraordinarily upset by a low test grade or unsatisfactory report card, take time first to highlight their achievements. Prescriptives for improving the grade(s) can even wait until a later meeting—let the student leave with a positive image of themselves and a reference point for a time they “got it right.”

Here are three elements ISM clients have incorporated into their programs to help promote positive psychology in their school culture:

  • What Went Well: In morning meetings, advisory lunches, gatherings, or morning announcements, assign one student each day to write or speak about one thing that went well. It might make more sense to do a collective assessment, focusing on three good things that happened that week. The goal is that all students will start or end the school day thinking about positive moments or events in their day rather than what went wrong.
  • Savor the Moment: Use journaling assignments, advisory discussions after assessments, team meetings after games, or cast gatherings after performances to assign or encourage students to write in detail about their favorite moment and the associated emotions. Not only will they learn to savor their own positive achievements, they will be encouraged to share their classmates’ experiences.
  • Gratitude Letters: Everyone loves to receive a thank you note for a gift or good deed. Imagine your students opening their lockers to find notes of gratitude—from their teachers, student mentors, school administrators—even from their friends. Incorporate writing gratitude letters into writing assignments. This can be an excellent training regimen for student mentors and those in leadership classes.

Student Well-Being

“When you have a plant that isn’t blooming, you don’t treat the plant, you treat the soil around it—its growing environment.” Likewise, to help a student develop resilience and self-efficacy, you provide an environment and culture that encourages focus on the student’s achievements. As a result, they will see challenges and setbacks as obstacles to be conquered rather than failures that can’t be resolved.

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