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How you can help your students develop positive well-being.

By Susan Antaramian

In the world of mental health, we tend to focus on problems such as anxiety, depression or behavioral issues, then plan treatments or interventions designed to eliminate the symptoms and fix the problem. Most people assume that if you don’t have distressing symptoms, you’re probably “mentally healthy.”

Positive psychology, on the other hand, argues that it’s not enough to be free of troubling symptoms: We need to have positive well-being, too – including characteristics like positive emotions, optimism, coping skills, creativity and interpersonal skills – to flourish and thrive.

How is this helpful for students and those of us who work in schools? First, research shows that we can be easily misled. Many adolescents are considered “healthy” based on a traditional approach because they don’t have any obvious symptoms of poor mental health—but many of these same students are missing the positive factors emphasized by positive psychologists. Their life satisfaction is low, and they don’t often experience positive emotions.  They may need help to promote positive well-being every bit as much as students in distress. Beyond that, students with low positive well-being are at risk for a variety of education-related difficulties.  Research shows they are less engaged in school than students with a positive well-being, don’t like school as much, value school less, and have lower GPAs. Students with positive well-being just do better in school.

Research tells us when individuals experience positive emotions, the result is broader thought and attention, more creativity, and a greater desire to explore. This broadened thinking in turn results in intellectual, social, and psychological resources. So positive emotions don’t just feel good; they actually serve a psychological function!

This makes promoting positive well-being in students an important goal. Here are some ways educators can do that:

Feeling appreciation and expressing gratitude, whether toward others or about one’s own life circumstances, can have a dramatic impact on happiness, and it can be cultivated with a couple of simple tasks. Students can be encouraged to express thankfulness by writing a gratitude letter: They identify someone important to them whom they have not properly thanked and write a letter of appreciation. Ideally, students would then deliver the letter or read it to the recipient, but they’ll benefit simply by writing the letter. Another way to cultivate gratitude is by keeping a journal of the things for which they are thankful.  It can include big things like having loving friends and family; little things like a warm, sunny day; and anything in between. Even writing only a sentence for each item once or twice a week can have a significant, positive impact. Practicing gratitude can increase satisfaction and positive emotions by encouraging students to focus on and appreciate what they have instead of wanting something they’re lacking.

Emphasizing students’ unique strengths is not a new idea, but a different twist is to focus on outstanding personal characteristics instead of on specialized skills and abilities. Researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have identified 24 character strengths, or personality traits, generally considered to be positive virtues, including kindness, curiosity, perseverance, leadership, hope and forgiveness.  Tools for assessing these character strengths are available at

Work with students to identify their unique strengths, and then encourage them to use those strengths in new and different ways. For example, a student whose strength is creativity may be given frequent opportunities to engage in creative writing, problem-solving, artistic or musical tasks. Educators and counselors can also work with students to choose strengths they would like to work on as targets for personal growth, and then encourage them to engage in activities to enhance those particular strengths.

Strengths are also nurtured when we simply acknowledge and praise them as they occur naturally. Many teachers do this regularly without even thinking about the positive impact, so making a conscious effort to do it can result in even greater positive well-being. When a student shows persistence on a challenging task, we might say, “I know that assignment was difficult for you, but you really showed perseverance when you kept working until you finished.” Or when a student helps a classmate who is a new student at the school, we could comment, “I noticed that you helped John since he is new to our class. That’s great! I appreciate your kindness and consideration, and I’m sure he does too.” This simple recognition and verbal praise conveys the message that these character strengths are valued.

Helping students develop positive emotions leads to positive outcomes. This doesn’t mean that every minute of the school day needs to be filled with fun and entertainment, but it does mean that learning doesn’t have to be drudgery. Incorporating even brief enjoyable experiences throughout the day can promote positive emotions in the context of learning. It can be as simple as beginning a lesson with a joke or funny anecdote or showing a humorous video clip between activities. Even playing games to review material or introduce new concepts can help to induce positive emotions beneficial for student learning. As another idea, Jenny Fox Eades suggests having students create a “treasure chest,” either individually or as an entire class, that serves essentially as a collection of happy memories. Students can document their good experiences and positive life events by taking photos, drawing pictures, or writing about them. These pictures and descriptions can then go into the treasure chest, to be brought out when students need to boost their mood and emotions.

Children are at greater risk for depression and low well-being if they think negatively and interpret their experiences in negative ways. We can fight this by encouraging students to focus on the positive. You could start the school day by asking students to describe what went well the day before, or end the day by having students list three good things that happened to them that day. Ask students to write about their positive experiences, including those yet to come.

One exercise involves envisioning an ideal future: Students can imagine what they’d like their life to be like in several years and write about it. We can also promote positive thinking by disputing students’ negative thoughts. When students experience a negative event or disappointment, too frequently they think, “I’m such a failure.” Educators can help students to challenge this thought by reframing the negative event, encouraging them to recognize things that they learned from it, and helping them to set goals for improvement. These strategies promote an optimistic style of thinking, which is linked to more success in school as well as better overall well-being.

Positive well-being in students goes a long way toward overall success in school. All teachers have too much to do and too little time to do it, but incorporating even a couple of strategies into everyday interactions can have a huge positive impact.

Antaramian is a Lecturer in Psychology at Christopher Newport University, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and has worked as a Resident in Professional Psychology at Virginia Beach City Public Schools.


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