Teaching our kids to be happy


'Learned optimism', the practice of teaching children to be happy, is changing teaching. Advocates say it improves children's resilience and academic performance - and also benefits their teachers, writes Cian Traynor

BEFORE MARTIN Seligman became a happiness guru, he spent years studying why humans and animals would give up in apparently hopeless situations. Seligman himself wasn’t known for looking on the bright side. By the psychologist’s own account, he was a depressive grump for 40 years.

So when his five-year-old daughter confronted him one day, saying: “Daddy, if I could learn to stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch,” something clicked.

He shifted his study from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”, discovering in the process that resilience can be conditioned and that happy children make for better academic performers.

Today, Seligman’s field of “positive psychology” is slowly altering the approach to teaching in the US and UK. Children are being taught how to handle day-to-day stress and improve decision-making from pre-school upwards. Yet part of the movement’s popularity is due to the effect it has on the well-being of teachers.

When Isabelle Flynn was made principal of St Joseph’s in Ballymitty, Co Wexford, she was exhausted. A stressful school year had culminated in an evaluation of the school and the hospitalisation of her mother in the same week.

At that point, she wondered if signing up to a summer course entitled Teaching Happiness was desperately naive. “I feared it would be a load of American psycho-babble,” she says. “But I thought, ‘if there’s some kind of happiness in this job, I need to latch on to it’.”

By the first staff meeting of the new term, she was urging the other teachers to implement the course’s techniques. “I felt genuinely rejuvenated,” she says. “Telling someone they need to teach happiness in this climate of pessimism might seem like a big ask. But when you’re in a dark place, you need a flicker of light.”

More than 400 primary and second-level teachers around Ireland have already signed up to the programme, which is run by the Institute for Child Education and Psychology Europe (ICEP Europe), an independent training and research institute based in Maynooth. It’s an online module that draws together more than 10 years’ research into how happiness improves our attention spans, working memory and problem-solving ability.

Two of the key concepts are promoting mindfulness – an intentional resting of the nervous system – and cultivating flow, the ability to be completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The overarching idea is that when children are happy, they’re engaged in what they’re doing, so the need for discipline disappears and they’re functioning at their highest level. It also broadens the capacity to cope with difficulty for both teachers and pupils.

One of the most challenging situations Flynn encountered was when a boy in her junior infants class was killed in a car crash along with his mother and sister. “I had to explain to the other little ones why he wouldn’t be there anymore,” she says. “It was unbelievably difficult. Without realising it, I was practising what this course is about. For the sake of the other children, I had click into that optimism. Being able to advocate that to children at an early level is huge.”

“It should be compulsory for all teachers,” says Finola D’Arcy, who teaches children with disabilities between the ages of seven and 12 at Clonenagh National School, in Co Laois.When D’Arcy takes out a sculpture of a heart every day, her pupils gather to share stories about random acts of kindness and reflect on what contributed to the highlights of their day.

Those measures have helped build a positive classroom where everyone feels fulfilled. “Happiness isn’t a simple concept but the basis for it can be eroded at a very young age,” says D’Arcy. “Children inherently have fabulous hearts. They just need to be given the opportunities to display them. When they do, it brings out the best in all of us.”

Given the pervading climate of negativity in Ireland, this is what Dr Deirdre MacIntyre or ICEP Europe had in mind when she launched the course. “We’re being beaten over the head with doom and gloom,” MacIntyre says. “Collectively, it’s as if we’re in an emotional cul-de-sac. We need something to combat that and the best place to start is in the classroom.”

Part of the urgency stems from the fact that in the past 50 years, the average age for the onset of depression has dropped from 30 to 15.

Jean Johnson, a teacher at Schull Community College, Cork, says unhappiness and the fear of failure feed into a vicious cycle of learning difficulties, but her classroom feels noticeably different since she took the course.

She pairs students up to assess each other’s work, gives them an opportunity to talk about their personal lives and, when she asks a question, she gives them a minute to think about it rather than picking the quickest hand up. It settles the class, she says, and puts everyone in the mood to work harder.

“It’s absorption in the learning process rather than the product,” Johnson says. “All students get down sometimes but it’s amazing how much just doing things slightly different boosts them.”

Since positive psychology is more concerned with reshaping the approach to everyday tasks rather than introducing new content, both teachers and psychologists agree there is room to implement its techniques in the national curriculum.

Learning to do so properly, however, requires sensitivity. Clinical psychologist and author Dr Marie Murray says applying indiscriminate positivity would be anti-therapeutic.

“When we ask people to be positive, we need to consider what’s happening in their private lives as well,” she says. “It falls to the social and emotional competence of the teacher or parent. But when we strike the right balance, there’s no doubt it has a positive effect on our well-being, immune system and general resilience.”

Enrolment for Teaching Happiness: Positive Psychology for Behaviour and Learning is open until Nov 29 at www.icepe.ie. The course costs €99

What is 'learned optimism'?

LEARNED OPTIMISM, a field of psychology that promotes healthy emotional intelligence from an early age, stems from studies showing that 50 per cent of our happiness levels are determined by genetics, 10 per cent by circumstances, while the remaining 40 per cent is under our own control.

The main tenet of learned optimism is that positive emotion acts like a hidden reset button that repairs us psychologically and physiologically. Using positivity to engage children academically opens up their willingness to put in extra effort and feel less afraid of failure, says Dr Deirdre MacIntyre, director of the Institute for Child Education and Psychology Europe. It can range from the practice of savouring the moment and recognising what is good, to introducing children to waking meditation or yoga.

“Children have a natural impulse for discovery, and sometimes traditional approaches can thwart that,” says MacIntyre. “Education should be about meaningful engagement rather than force-feeding kids facts.”

Psychologist Oliver James, author of How Not To F*** Them Up, says the act of encouraging children to take a malleable view of their abilities can lead to significantly higher results. “Even when you take four lessons to teach children that genes do not determine their happiness, there’s a dramatic improvement in academic performance,” he says.