Wednesday 12 December 2018

It's time to teach our kids happiness, says psychologist

A Trinity College researcher says students need to develop resilience, by focusing on their strengths.

Trinity psychologist Jolanta Burke says positive psychology should form part of the Irish school curriculum
Trinity psychologist Jolanta Burke says positive psychology should form part of the Irish school curriculum
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Psychologist Jolanta Burke says if you ask most parents what they want for their children, they usually point to happiness.

They may hope that their children will become academic high achievers, but they probably believe that it is more important that they are content.

Jolanta Burke believes not enough attention is paid to what makes children happy in the Irish curriculum, and yet it has a huge bearing on how well they perform in school.

Ms Burke, a psychologist and PhD researcher at Trinity College's School of Education, believes we should embed positive psychology in the Irish curriculum. She has been advising guidance counsellors on how to use it in schools and says teachers should also receive training.

Positive psychology is defined by Jolanta Burke as the "science of well-being".

"Until now, psychologists in schools have tended to focus on students with problems. They focus on the students' weaknesses and how they fall apart.

"Positive psychology looks at the school differently. We look at the top students and learn from them as much as possible, so that we can help the majority of students become better. Rather than focusing on the weaknesses of students, we focus on their strengths."

Jolanta Burke, who is currently carrying out research into the causes of bullying, says the mental health of adolescents is now a huge issue.

"Teachers are coming across cases of depression among students as young as 11 to 15", she says.

Jolanta Burke believes teachers should be trained in psychology.

She cites the example of Geelong Grammar School in Melbourne, which adopted positive psychology techniques. A Positive Education department was created in the school. As well as subjects such as Geography and Maths, students are taught life skills such as positive relationships, critical thinking and resilience.

Teachers at the Melbourne school are encouraged to incorporate the science of happiness into their daily classes. Geography teachers discuss the well-being of nations; English teachers highlight King Lear's character strengths; and PE teachers encourage activities that help students to "let go of grudges".

Parents at the school are called in and given talks about exercises and activities that can be used to improve their child's mood.

Jolanta Burke says: "Positive psychology is becoming popular in schools in Britain and the United States. I believe we need to develop an Irish programme."

The psychologist is keen to emphasise that this is not a "happy clappy" approach, where children are told how wonderful they are.

"It is not about building up self-esteem. That was a mistake among the 1970s generation of parents. They tried to blow up their child's sef-esteem by telling them how fabulous they were and that they could do anything. That is actually not good for a child because it reduces their resilience."

The positive psychology programmes in schools place a strong emphasis on developing character strengths and encouraging resilience.

Jolanta Burke believes resilience can be encouraged in three ways:

• children can be taught to bounce back after disappointments - for example, if they fail exams

• they can be taught to build up a shield that protects them from hurt in certain situations

• kids can learn how to keep going and the importance of perseverence when facing up to the challenges in life

The psychologist says perseverance and an attitude of not wanting to give up are hugely important when it comes to performance in schools.

"You might have a talent for music, but unless you are prepared to put the effort in, it can be wasted."

While Jolanta Burke does not believe in inflating self-esteem, she wants to encourage more positive emotions and a more optimistic outlook.

"An optimistic way of thinking is very important. I am doing research on bullying at the moment, and it is associated with a pessimistic thinking style.

"Adolescents who think optimistically believe adversity is temporary, and that it affects only one aspect of their lives, and they do not tend to blame themselves for the situation.

"Those who are pessimistic believe adversity is permanent and affects all aspects of their lives and that they themselves are to blame. We try to get students to think more optimistically, and this can reduce depression and anxiety."

Case study — positive guidance

Billy is a sixth year student who struggled though his Junior Cert. His parents are concerned about his attitude and seek help from a guidance counsellor.

Billy doesn’t give much away. However, he does reveal that he hates all his classes apart from PE. He is unhappy with all the negative attention from parents and teachers.

The guidance counsellor tries to open up his mind to change by focusing on positive experiences of school. He asks him what he enjoys, and what his friends see as his strengths. They appreciate how helpful he can be when they are in need and how disciplined he is when preparing for basketball matches.

The counsellor praises him for his sporting achievements, and gets him to talk about his discipline and focus. The guidance counsellor then discusses how he can use the same focus to study for the Leaving Cert.

Irish Independent

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