Think back for a moment to your own adolescence. A time of monumental awkwardness, it was most likely stressful enough just dealing with grades, homework, not to mention relationship conflicts with parents, siblings, and friends. Now take a moment to think about what it’s like to be a teenager today. They are exposed to so much through omnipresent social media, instant gratification, access to mature content, and the constant bombardment of terrible events in the news. They can’t unplug, disconnect, or recharge. They have no means of turning it off.

We are seeing worrying increases in teenage depression, stress, and anxiety levels which lead to increased drug use, self-harming and suicide.

In today’s world, it is imperative for every child’s well-being to be a vital component of every school’s efforts. We have failed as educators if our students do not learn to be resilient, happy, balanced, engaged, altruistic, grateful and to find purpose in life.

How do we do this?

Educators must work to help students flourish. According to renowned positive psychology expert Dr. Martin Seligman, people who flourish have deeper, more engaged, and more meaningful experiences, more of the time. A robust educational environment cannot exist without a foundation based on well-being, achieved by developing a working vocabulary and practices around the following:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Or PERMA.

P is for positive emotions. Emotions, after all, affect how you think, what you pay attention to, your identity, your relationships. In other words, pretty much everything! To have a flourishing life, we need to learn to focus and build on our positive emotions.

Barbara Frederickson, research psychologist at UNC Chapel Hill, developed the ‘broaden and build’ theory around positive emotion. It states that building positive emotions broadens our thinking and attention, builds our resources, enhances resilience, undoes the impact of negative emotion, and triggers upward spirals.

Try this:

  • Begin noting when you experience the top 10 positive emotions (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, love). Set goals and make a plan to incorporate more of these experiences into your daily life.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Or better yet, document your gratitude daily with a picture and a brief explanation.
  • Act on your gratitude by taking time to send a thank you note or email.

E is for engagement. Psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihaly has done extensive work around the idea of flow. He believes that “the best moments occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” Educators know this is what we strive for in the classroom – students who love a highly challenging experience. We strive for this because we know that engaged living in adolescents predicts greater life satisfaction, gratitude, pro-social behaviors, increased school enjoyment, and higher academic grades.

Try this:

  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Practice your passion.
  • Learn a new skill.

R is for relationships. Positive and secure relationships correlate directly to motivation and school engagement (Kathryn Wentzel; Carrie Furrer & Ellen Skinner), subjective well-being (David Myers; Ed Diener & Marting Seligman), and the reduction of anxiety and depression. They also allow us the opportunity to explore, take risks, and try new experiences because we know we have people to count on, fall back on, and turn to for reassurance and encouragement. While we hope all relationships are positive, we also know that every single interaction we have with others is important.

Try this:

  • Do the five-finger exercise: count on your fingers the people you know you can turn to for love and support.
  • Practice the true art of conversation. Listen while others are talking, and respond positively to what they said (and not how it relates back to you).

M is for meaning or positive purpose. As our society moves from being introspective to outrospective, and we consider the importance of gratitude, we must take a look at our perspective on life. We have the hedonistic view, or the life of I, where we indulge in leisure activities and rest and fun, which make us feel good in the short term. On the other hand, we have the eudemonic perspective, or the WE world. It is in this WE world, where we help others and develop skills that will help us gain greater long-term life satisfaction. Knowing one’s self, identifying goals to grow as well as serve, creates a positive sense of purpose.

Try this:

  • Become involved in service to your community.
  • Practice spirituality through self-awareness cultivated through meditation.

A is for accomplishment. Directly related to meaning, accomplishment focuses on developing individual potential through striving for and achieving meaningful outcomes. Dr. Carol Dweck, pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, believes the key to accomplishment is developing a growth mindset, a way of thinking in which people believe abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. With a growth mindset, people have a willingness to try new things, learn from mistakes, are open to feedback, and celebrate the successes of others.

Try this:

  • Use process praise instead of person praise (examples and further details).
  • Bounce back, and spring forward, from your mistakes.
  • Model resiliency by talking about your own mistakes (and how you learned from them) with your children.

The lifelong happiness of our children is the perfect reason to make well-being a foundational part of every school’s curriculum. The more we can influence and engage our students today in the practice of PERMA, the better chance we have at impacting youth who will grow into happy adults with a greater sense of long-term satisfaction in life.

For more, see:

Erin Noviski is the Head of Middle School at The Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio.


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