Jenny Fox Eades describes how focusing on students’ strengths is an ideal way to implement positive psychology in the classroom

The classroom is a microcosm of the school. It needs to be a positive, challenging, safe place where mistakes are regarded as normal, laughter is frequent, and people focus naturally on strengths in themselves and others.

Strengths are capacities to think, feel and behave in certain ways. They represent what is best about us. When we use our strengths, we are energised, sparkle and soar. We achieve the highest goals of which we are capable:

  • creativity
  • love of learning
  • openness
  • wisdom
  • enthusiasm
  • persistence
  • courage
  • honesty
  • fairness
  • teamwork
  • leadership
  • love
  • kindness
  • friendship
  • generosity
  • gratitude
  • spirituality
  • humour
  • hope
  • love of beauty
  • forgiveness
  • prudence
  • self control
  • modesty
  • patience.

Strengths gym
Strengths gym is a time to focus on a particular strength, by using a game or activity as a strengths builder.

I suggest keeping a strengths gym file with a section for each strength; ask the children for their own ideas of how to use and build the strengths. Let them choose favourites to do in an odd five minutes. If you brainstorm ways of building a particular strength, you can put their ideas up on the board and encourage them to sign their name on each one when they have used it.

Make a strengths display for yourself and work through the 25 strengths over the year, drawing them to the children’s attention, using stories that reflect them and thinking of strengths builders to help focus on them.

At the start of ordinary class sessions, you can also explicitly state which strengths you are looking for. Then you can ask the children to reflect for themselves at the end of the session on how they used a particular strength, how they might use it more and how they noticed their peers using it.
Encouraging children to see one another in terms of strengths is a powerful way of building a group of individuals into a positive team who will work together well.

We enter a state of ‘flow’ when we are so absorbed in what we are doing that we fail to notice the passing of time. It is the time we function at our highest levels and are at our most creative. When teachers are in flow, they are working to their full capacity. When children are in flow, they are learning optimally.

For flow to occur, there must be a balance between challenge and competence. If the challenge outstrips the competence, anxiety results. This anxiety impedes learning. If competence outstrips challenge too much, and the task is too easy, we get bored.

Flow is fostered by play, or a playful attitude to learning. Children playing enter a state of total absorption as they engage with the challenge of making sense of the world, of the materials they are using, of the social relationships they are mimicking or engaged in.

Students also need opportunities to exercise choice if they are to enter flow. When children play, they are choosing what to do and what to be, as well as choosing the level of challenge they are setting themselves. When we lose this sense of autonomy and do what we are told because we are told to do it, we achieve flow less and less. Reintroducing elements of autonomy and choice into learning makes flow more achievable, more often.

Introducing small choices whenever and wherever possible is crucial to promoting autonomy and flow. Do you want to work with these bricks or those bricks? You need to do both these maths problems; you decide which order you work in. Choose who you work with, where you sit, what colour paper to use. Little choices can encourage the ability to make decisions and to take ownership of an activity, and help to achieve flow.

An important foundation of flow is the emotional state in which we begin an activity. Top athletes know they have to prepare mentally to enter what they call ‘the zone’ – really another term for flow. To function at their maximum capacity, they need to be calm and focused. Teachers and children are no different. If we arrive at a lesson rushed and flustered, and our students tear in from the playground or yard, squabbling and arguing, we cannot expect anyone to be available for high-level learning.

Any age of child or teenager can be taught to listen attentively as way of calming down, either to their own quiet breathing or to the most distant sound they can hear. Teenagers will enjoy a Buddhist prayer bell – you strike it once and listen to the echoes gradually fading away. They might use their imaginations to visualise their tensions floating away with the sound. What you are effectively doing is teaching them the basics of meditation as a way of encouraging flow and creativity.

A classroom where teacher and pupils tell stories regularly is going to be a positive, creative and enthusiastic place. Learn to be a storyteller and encourage the children to do the same. Learn one or two to start with and tell them often. Fill the odd five minutes with stories.

When telling traditional tales or myths, I like to use simple objects like stones and glass beads on a cloth base. The objects can represent all or some characters in a story, while the cloth becomes the imaginative ‘world’ of the story. I move the objects slowly, with frequent pauses inbetween my words and I talk quite slowly too. This is a very calming way to tell stories – the slow movements and measured speech have a very soothing effect on listeners and on the storyteller too. The neutral props provide a visual and kinaesthetic element to the storytelling, while leaving maximum room for the listeners to use their imaginations.

Children can learn to tell stories in this manner for themselves and it can be used for any kind of story, including traditional folk stories, fairy-tales, myths, legends, and sacred stories from different faiths.

Philosophy for Children is an excellent tool to use regularly in the classroom. It can be challenging for teachers, because it asks them to take a back seat and to facilitate rather than actively ‘teach.’

Learning to keep quiet in a discussion and allow the children to pursue their own reasoning without imposing my opinions or wider knowledge is something I have found extremely difficult to do at times. However, philosophy is worth pursuing if you wish to build a positive classroom, because it allows children to:

  • exercise autonomy
  • ask questions for themselves
  • engage with ideas and one another in confident and appropriate ways.

You can use a philosophy session to discuss ‘What is love? What is courage? What is forgiveness?’ And you can use philosophy sessions to provide opportunities to use strengths like courage and creativity. It takes courage to disagree with a large group or a popular idea. It takes creativity to think of an idea of which no one else has yet thought. You can reflect, at an end of a session, on how individuals, and the group as a whole, used their strengths.

You can build philosophy into any subject and use different starting points. A common approach is to start with a stimulus like a story or a poem, a painting or even a piece of music and then to ask the children to think of their own questions which they would like to discuss. When I do this I find at first that I have to draw a distinction between what I call ‘thinking questions’ and ‘factual questions’ – the former are those that will lead to more complex discussion. I don’t have to labour the point, however, as children soon learn to pose these deeper kind of questions for themselves.

Mood boosters and treasure chests
The class treasure chest is somewhere to store the class’s happy memories. It might be a photo album of snaps of trips and lovely pieces of work and visitors to school, of festivals and celebrations.
Into the class mood booster goes the title of all the books they love, the songs they like singing, the strengths builders they enjoy the most, the stories they ask for again and again. You build this resource throughout the year as you notice what they particularly enjoy, what calms them down, what cheers them up. You invite them to choose one for the start of a lesson, to prepare for learning or after a bad lesson, to repair everybody’s mood. Or you choose one yourself.

We can turn to either the mood booster or the treasure chest as a way to start lessons or days so that these important moments become positive, building a sense that learning is enjoyable and worthwhile. The end of a day or a lesson should ideally be positive too. How you look back on an event is determined by the most intense part of the experience and how it felt just before it ended.

This means that an overall good day that had a really bad argument in it and where you ran out of milk and couldn’t have your hot chocolate at bed time will be rated a bad day. Conversely, a difficult day that had a really funny event part way through and a peaceful evening, will feel overall like a good day. Our memories are not that accurate.

If you can build into each day or each lesson one really fun experience and a positive end, pupils looking back over the day will rate it positively even if the rest of the day was more mixed. That will encourage them to anticipate a good day tomorrow and overall to rate ‘education’ as a positive experience.

Taking a moment at the end of the day to savour its happiest moment will increase positive emotion in the present and provide a happy memory to go back to in the future. You don’t have to do such activities every day but you do need to persist with them to have an effect.

Training idea – WWW

WWW stands for What Went Well? Start using it yourself at the end of a day or week as a professional development tool. Draw WWW in the middle of a page and begin to doodle all the positives you can think of – the more you do this the easier it becomes. Even bad days have some good things in them. Reflecting on what has gone well allows you to build on successes and develop them.

Explain to colleagues that WWW is used to counter what psychologists call negative bias – our tendency to spot easily the things that go wrong. This was an evolutionary advantage during human development – those who spotted and remembered dangers and potential hazards survived. Now, however, it has less advantage and can lead to depression.

Teaching our brain to counter its natural negative bias can make us more optimistic, more successful and healthier. As an exercise, take the previous week or half term and notice what has gone well. This starts off being quite difficult. Once you make a start, however, it gets gradually easier. Soon you will have collected a host of positive memories.  Exercises like WWW build on what has been called the ‘neuro- plasticity’ of the brain, ie its ability to grow and change into  old age. Every positive thought creates a channel in the brain. Lots of positive thoughts create deeper, stronger channels that consequently make positive thought easier. The same is true, of course, of negative thought. The aim of WWW is to build positive pathways in the brain.

This article is an edited extract from Jenny Fox Eades’ Celebrating Strengths, published by the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology