Teaching children to pursue happiness can have real effects. Director of SEN service Dr Ruth MacConville writes about the happiness curriculum she developed in the London Borough of Ealing
Research shows that we can promote happiness by:
- training ourselves to see the best in people and situations
- learning to deal positively with adversity
- retaining a sense of balance whatever the circumstances.
This means that there is considerable potential for teaching children how to actively pursue happiness.
The happiness curriculum that I describe below was piloted in West London schools during the autumn of 2007. It was delivered to classes of Year 6, 7 and 8 pupils to help them across the transition from primary to secondary school.
The programme is designed to:
- build resilience
- increase optimism
- promote adaptive coping skills
- teach effective problem-solving skills.
Through the curriculum, children and young people learn how to side-step negative and unhelpful thinking and experience positive emotions. In all the activities, there is an emphasis on developing thinking and participatory skills.
The curriculum is built around ten sessions. These are developmental and need to be delivered in sequence. In the pilot schools, they took place on a weekly basis and lasted for one hour. The programme is suitable for children of all abilities.
Core ingredients of the programme
An introductory activity asks pupils what is going well for them in school. This enables pupils to get in touch with their positive feelings about school. It has a special significance for ‘hard to reach’ pupils who have difficulty expressing their thoughts. Listening to their peers’ contributions enables them to reconsider their own, often diffident, ‘I don’t know’ responses. Consistently at the top of the list of features valued by pupils were their relationships with staff.
Mindfulness: Stopping the gossip in your head
Each session proper starts with a few minutes spent practising mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being calm, not thinking about the past or worrying about the future and being free to enjoy the here and now. It has the capacity to ‘stop the gossip in your head’.
Anxious and restless pupils benefit from being offered a visual stimulus to help them relax; a jar of water containing sand, gravel and water is shaken gently so that pupils can focus on the movement of the contents of the jar. Pupils are asked to think about their mind being like the jar of water with their all thoughts moving about and then, as the stones and sand settle in the water, so they should let their thoughts settle too leaving their mind clear just like the water in the jar.
An important message for staff from the programme is that, too often in school, an emergency response is activated for non-emergency situations, such as being late, misplacing a book or failure to complete homework. Continual release of stress hormones automatically places our body in overdrive resulting in a cycle of exacerbated stress.
By the end of the programme many children reported that they had begun to use mindfulness in a variety of situations, such as doing a test or preparing for a football match.
Enjoyment is a core skill of happiness. It is about experiencing good feelings in the here and now. This may seem an easy thing, but human beings have strong powers of adaptation: something new may make us feel good at first; yet we soon adapt as the novelty wears off, so that over time we hardly notice the experience.
Throughout the programme, pupils are encouraged to write down three things that they feel thankful for. This deceptively simple exercise works by re-educating our attention to look for what is good in life. Translating thoughts into writing assists in the process of internalising one’s experiences. An example from one pupil reads: having a peer mediator meeting; doing well in French; having fun in tag rugby.
This exercise teaches children that it is the small, seemingly insignificant moments that can make the big picture of their lives work and that by consciously enjoying the sources of happiness in the here and now they are each investing in their future happiness.
The American psychologist Carol Dweck has identified that a ‘fixed’ mindset is based on a belief that ability is carved in stone and cannot be changed. Within the programme, children are encouraged to actively develop an alternative ‘growth mindset’ through persisting at tasks, focusing on effort rather than ability and enjoying the challenge.
Many children learn that their performance reflects their skills and effort rather than their intelligence.
Children are introduced to the concept of cognitive fitness; that the brain works just as muscles do – growing with use and deteriorating with inactivity. The programme teaches that positive thinking, confidence and an optimistic outlook also build and condition the brain. A number of pupils challenged the argument that being positive might enable us to live longer. One said: ‘No, Miss, when you have got to go, you have got to go.’
Go for goals
Goals are an important part of the growth mindset. Children learn that striving for something personally significant is important; goals enable children to feel that they have some control over their lives and that they can change things for the better. Goals identified by pupils during the programme included:
- I am going to earn more money for myself.
- I am going to convince my mum to buy me a dog.
- I am going to dance like Billy Elliott.
Behaving ‘as if’
Delivery of the programme centres around discussion, role play, group and partner-work; so children are encouraged to work with a wide range of peers. This can trigger occasions when it is necessary to convey to pupils the importance of acting ‘as if’. If you behave as if you genuinely like someone, before long you will really like them. Throughout the programme, pupils are taught that behaviour change precedes attitude change. They are encouraged to smile, stand tall, make connections with others and go for it.
Children are encouraged to note those times when they they are in ‘flow’ – feeling so engrossed in what they are doing that they forget time. These invariably fall into three main categories:
- being with family and friends
- engaging in sports, hobbies, pastimes
- enjoying the natural world such as playing with pets and visiting the local park and new places.
For many children flow was a difficult concept to grasp. Some, for example, suggested that sleep was a ‘top’ flow activity for them. This meant that the concept had to be revisited on a regular basis throughout the programme.
Think good; feel good
Central to the field of positive psychology is the paradox that while the mind finds it easy to be negative, it is important for individuals to experience positive emotions. It is by changing thought patterns that we can shift the way we feel.
The programme introduces children to the concept of ‘self talk’. Children explore the fact that negative self talk - nobody likes me’, ‘I won’t get invited to that party’ – can become automatic, so that we don’t even realise that we are doing it or understand the pervasive effect it is having.
They also learn that what we think about a negative event exaggerates our emotional and behavioural reactions. If we are upset that something at school has gone wrong it is easy to feel that it can never be repaired and that, as a result, everything will go wrong. Although children varied enormously in their capacity to engage in discussion about such experiences there was agreement that stress and worry are not helpful, making us more hostile and less available to recognise the good things that may come along.
A first step in the process of dealing with negative thoughts is to encourage children to be aware of them and stop them spiralling into a self-fulfilling prophecy of stress. They then learn how to replace them with nurturing affirmations. Children learn that we can change our mood by changing what we say to ourselves.
Once pupils have understood the concept and power of internal dialogue, the next stage is to build the link between thinking and feeling: emphasising that happiness or unhappiness stems mainly from how we think about what happens to us rather than what actually happens.
This exercise provided pupils with a powerful insight into their peers’ view of life. For some it was inconceivable that a group of children standing together laughing in the street could be laughing at them, while for others such a scene was extremely threatening.
People who are optimistic look on the bright side, believe that setbacks are normal and can be overcome by their own actions. Children learn that developing a positive, ‘glass half-full’ way of thinking can, with practice, become instinctive. Optimism activities involve pupils in reframing a variety of situations. One student captured this by saying: ‘It’s good to be an optimist when you are losing in football, because you can just forget about it and start to play well.’
The introductory activity at the beginning of the programme asked children what they considered their school was doing to ensure their wellbeing. At the end of the programme, children were asked what sorts of things they could do to make themselves and their school a happier place. They said things like:
- I can make myself enjoy learning by emptying my brain before each lesson with mindfulness
- Now I know my intelligence can grow and develop. That is good news for me.
- I can make my school better by being kind and helpful to everybody.
- I can practice mindfulness and write down three things that make me happy.
- Be an optimist and a pessimist at the correct times.
- I am going to believe in myself and do more things.
Teaching happiness is an ambitious goal. As with social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL), it make sense to adopt a spiral curriculum - repeatedly revisiting the basic ideas and gradually building upon what has been learned so that pupils can grasp concepts more fully.
‘What makes the school outstanding is a combination of excellent learning, high levels of enjoyment and strong and inclusive care.’
(From recent Ofsted report on Fielding Primary, where the happiness programme was initially delivered.)
See Ruth MacConville's ‘Teaching Happiness: A Ten Step Curriculum for Creating Positive Classrooms’, part of Optimus Education’s Teach to Inspire series