St Margaret’s Prep School News

The Science of Positive Psychology and Pupil Well-being

By Mr Bromwich

There has never been a more important time to bring children’s mental health to the forefront of our educational priorities.

The pandemic has thrown our world upside down and the last year has seen us face unprecedented challenges. We have drastically adapted our lives to contain the physical impact of Covid but in doing so, put a strain on our mental health which we must also acknowledge and address. The uncertainty of how our days and weeks will play out is hard. The lack of control we have over our lives is unsteadying for us all, including our children.  

For me, pupil well-being has always been at the forefront of any quality school agenda, but it is now more important than ever. It is safe to say, children in 2021 are being exposed to a vast range of pressures - from the obvious stresses of living through a pandemic, to exam stress, to social media, friendship and relationship woes to potential family turmoil - schools need to actively help pupils acquire suitable techniques to manage these external stressors so they can continue to thrive and be happy. 

Long before the pandemic there had been a growing interest in education surrounding the science of Positive Psychology and how it can impact pupil well-being. Dr M Seligman, working out of the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered this work. Ultimately, he wanted to shift from traditional psychology, which prioritised what can go wrong with our mental health, to focussing on what can go right. He aimed to help people adopt a range of well-being practices so that they could lead a happier and healthier life.  

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At St Margaret’s, our motto of ‘Inspiring Excellence’ is central to our approach in instilling a positive mindset in our pupils. When pupils talk about ‘Inspiring Excellence’, they describe it as a promise to be the best that they can be and to develop a ‘have a go attitude’. Our six school values underpin this approach. Studying through a pandemic has called upon many of these values, but one which especially jumps out to me is resilience.   

In his research, Seligman found resilience was closely linked to optimism. If an individual believes and has faith that things will turn out for the best, as long as they are suitably equipped to solve a range of problems, often they will have greater resilience when faced with challenge. This is something I have had to keep at the forefront of my own mind in recent months! 

Educationalists have long known that when we expose pupils to suitable challenge, deep learning takes place. By developing the individual’s resilience, we can purposefully expose them to greater challenge, ultimately resulting in deeper learning. Maybe in the long term, learning through this pandemic will have equipped pupils with a greater skill set which will help them in the future... 

By reverting to the idea that optimism is linked to resilience, we can begin to unpick the ways that our pupils think and feel. Do they think in a helpful way? Is their thinking problem focussed, accepting and forward thinking, or does it tend to look to blame, refuse or avoid dealing with the situation and ultimately the consequences? One way to change the way we think is to focus on coaching as a model to turn our thinking around. Through careful reflection about their work or choices, we are increasing pupil resilience and self-reflection and encouraging them to think about learning from a helpful, positive perspective.  

Happily at St Margaret’s, most children are quickly adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of being back in school. A big focus for class teachers has been through PSHE where many issues are dealt with as a large group through discussion and/or various tools of Mindfulness. For others, it is not so easy. Mike Callahan, my Head of Computing and Mindfulness teacher remarks: 

“I’m finding many children are needing support when returning back to school and integrating back into the classroom and school life in general. Some children had frequent one-to-one sessions during home learning and it is a matter of continuing that and making the transition from home to school learning smooth and positive. In other cases, it is only by returning to school where we can identify where there is greater need and where support is required. Again, one-to-one sessions are necessary to ensure a positive transition and there is no time limit on this.”  

Juliette Heal, Deputy Head Pastoral adds: 

“Team building games in pairs seem to help, activities involving discussion of feelings and emotions are encouraged and at times just being there to listen is often all that is needed. An open, friendly and smiling face with a listening ear goes a long way.” 

Pupil focus and engagement are also hugely influential when considering how to impact well-being. If we can match a suitably challenging task to a child’s skill set then we can create a state of ‘Flow’. Some of the characteristics of this state include absorption and loss of self-consciousness. Most people will have experienced Flow, but probably do not understand that we are witnessing our optimal learning state. I often see it in my son, when he is totally absorbed in his play. Maybe you saw it in your own child when they were learning from home? 

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In schools, we can encourage Flow by ensuring tasks are correctly pitched, but by also exposing them to engaging experiences. I really believe the breadth of opportunities we offer our pupils at St Margaret’s - from music, to sport, to languages and computing - all taught by a specialist teacher, give our pupils optimal opportunities to find something where they slide easily into that state of Flow. 

By openly teaching children some of these ideas and the theory that underpins them, we as educators and parents can help children develop a set of skills to help them become not only robust, successful learners, but also individuals equipped with self-awareness and some techniques to help cope with the pressures and strains life will throw at them. 

If you are interested in visiting St Margaret’s and meeting Mr Bromwich, contact Mrs Simone Hughes in Admissions at admissions@stmargaretsprep.org.uk to arrange a tour. St Margaret’s is also welcoming visitors to a virtual open event on April 29th at 4.15pm.