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Why Depth is More Important than Breadth - A Comment on Whole School Wellbeing

‘Positive Schools’ is NOT ‘Positive Education’ (but it might be one day...) Do you know the difference?

Why Schools Need to Spend Less Time Thinking About Students (and More Time Thinking About Culture)

The Social Side of Wellbeing – an extract from Contextual Wellbeing


Why Depth is More Important than Breadth - A Comment on Whole School Wellbeing
Dr Helen Street
Many schools seeking to support school wellbeing in 2022, are keen to support a ‘whole school approach’. This sounds like a great idea. Afterall, surely if we want all staff and students to benefit, and be well; best practice needs to be as universal as possible?
Unfortunately, as with many ideas taken at face value, conceptualizations of ‘whole school wellbeing programs’ can be dangerously ambiguous and substantially flawed.
If we want to support a whole school approach to building wellbeing in our schools, it is vital we begin with a definition and clear understanding of what a ‘whole school approach to wellbeing’ actually is.
For many schools a ‘whole school approach to wellbeing’ mean supporting theory and behaviour across the entire school community. For example, lets imagine ‘Local Primary School’. Local Primary wants to create a whole school focus on gratitude. Their whole school approach, taken over two to three weeks, looks something like this: 

Some of the above may sound great, some of it possibly less so. Some of the ideas may seem simple, others too idealistic. Some of Local Primary’s ideas may reflect strategies you have seen implemented in your local schools. Some may have a positive impact, others may not. But, good or bad, realistic or not, do they constitute a whole school approach? Moreover, is there a better way to develop a whole school focus on wellbeing, and in this case, gratitude?
First, let me share that I have seen all of the above ideas implemented in western primary schools. Not at the same time, in the same school, but none-the-less they are all based in real experience.  I have seen a forest of gratitude trees standing across Australia, and quite a few gratitude walls. I have heard about numerous options for the public acknowledgement of gratitude; be they in the form of certificates, prizes or honorable mentions. I have also seen more than a few colourful ‘gratitude posters’.
These ideas may well raise whole school awareness of ‘gratitude’ as a subject on the school calendar. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, I do not believe they are indicative of a whole school approach to significantly increasing gratitude, and whole school wellbeing for the long term.
So, if everyone is involved in some way in the above list, why is this not a whole school approach to effective change? Simply put, because it is involving the participation of the whole school community; rather than involving the evolving of the whole school system.
Raising awareness of wellbeing elements, in this case gratitude, is a great beginning, but it is not enough. Gratitude, and indeed other elements of wellbeing, are more than sets of behaviours or visible actions. Gratitude, like other elements of wellbeing, is a behaviour linked to an intention, which in turn is linked to a belief.  For example, a child who says they are ‘grateful for lunch’ in order to get their name on the gratitude wall; is believing, and doing something very different to the child who says they are  ‘grateful for lunch’ because they want to express their appreciation for the food that they have been given. The two actions may appear the same, but they are two wholly different things once we look under the surface.
It is not enough to suggest that gratitude is important, or to reward a public display of gratitude-like behaviour. It is certainly not enough to garner behavioural compliance using overt judgement and rewards. A school covered in colourful posters, handmade trees and stickers of appreciation is a school with words of gratitude on the surface. It is not necessarily a school embracing the intention, the experience and the reality of being a gratitude filled community. 
So, what could we do differently?
Whole school approaches to wellbeing need to encompass a focus on the development of wellbeing beliefs and intentions that lead to desirable behaviours, rather than purely on the behaviours per se. In the example of gratitude, this means creating systemic development through the creation of normative gratitude . This will only happen in an environment that reflects ideas of gratitude and contributes to their fruition. The entire school context needs to  support a deep-seated belief about the power of appreciation, and the intention to express that appreciation to others. This may sound a bit all encompassing and possibly grandiose. So, what does this look like in concrete, practical terms? To address this question, lets return to Local Primary School and our original list of ideas.
The posters of gratitude developed by the years three and four students could still form the basis of a lovely activity but, the activity would be far more powerful if centered around the organic development of appreciation. For example, a discussion about the wonders of paint and paper making. If time permitted, the children could focus on making their posters from recycled paper, so that they could organically appreciate the work and science behind every sheet of A4 that crosses their desk.
The children in year five could indeed have a useful discussion about the value of gratitude; as could the children in every year. This, however, only becomes meaningful if their teacher demonstrates gratitude in action. For example, the teacher could begin every class with a few moments genuinely reflecting on something that they are grateful for in their day. “I had a great coffee at break and am so grateful Mrs. Smith bought it for me”. “I feel so grateful to know everyone has found a place in a group today, and no-one is left wondering where to sit” These are simple examples of ‘show’ being more powerful than ‘tell’.
To ensure that expressions of gratitude in class are authentic, teachers also need to develop gratitude practice in the staff room, at meetings and when on duty in the playground. Even the most involved and complex discussion about the power of gratitude will be lost in a room that is full of people not feeling gratitude themselves.
On consideration of the principal handing out awards in assembly; as an alternative, everyone could share more equitably in an anonymous gratitude practice. For example,  at assembly everyone could take two minutes to consider someone or something they are grateful for, in quiet contemplation. Community honoring of gratitude is at its most powerful when it involves sharing in the power of gratitude; rather than judging the actions of others.
Similarly, rather than handing out smiley face stickers to children who express appreciation, teachers could simply encourage self-reflection about how good it feels to say thank you and mean it. Supporting self-determined behaviour is far more powerful than garnering compliance.
Finally, the gratitude tree could indeed be a beautiful symbol of shared appreciation in a school. However, once again, it is important that it reflects the broader context of the school; and does not stand separate to it. As such, consider the normative development of gratitude within the school context, rather than the development of gratitude behaviours across it.
If we conceptualize whole school approaches to wellbeing as approaches that focus on positive behaviours and the seeking of extrinsic rewards, we may be making broad strokes to wellbeing, but any progress will be lacking in depth or longevity. We want children to learn to express appreciation because they experience beauty in the details of their lives; not because they want a gel pen or certificate. We want the gratitude tree in the courtyard to represent the school values, not stand separate to them.
Whole school wellbeing needs to involve contextual development within the school that leads to the creation of a wellbeing reality; not simply a wellbeing lesson.

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‘Positive Schools’ is NOT ‘Positive Education’ (but it might be one day…) Dr Helen Street July 2021

Positive Schools in 2021 is NOT the same thing as Positive Education in 2021. These two approaches to supporting wellbeing in schools do not understand wellbeing in the same way, nor do they incorporate the same understanding of how wellbeing can best be put into action. These are bold statements, but they need making. Understanding what ‘Positive Schools’ is about in 2021 and beyond, needs discussion, exploration and clarification.

Over the past thirteen years I have spent an increasing amount of time explaining that the Positive Schools conferences are not wholly ‘Positive Education’ conferences, although they have indeed frequently included Positive Education presentations. I have also spent time listening to people tell me they have been to a ‘Positive Schools’ event, when in fact, they have been to a ‘Positive Education’ one. Positive Schools began in 2008 around the same time that Positive Education was being introduced to Australian schools. As such, it is understandable that these related, but distinct terms have been used interchangeably. They both relate to wellbeing in schools… and of course they both contain the word ‘positive’… Moreover, both Positive Schools and Positive Education aim to better understand and support the wellbeing of all members of school and college communities, in a solution focused and evidence-based way.

Both want to offer ideas grounded in good research. Both aim to instigate change with a focus on building what works, rather than mending what is fractured or broken. With these similarities in mind, the word ‘positive’ symbolises a shared desire to help school communities to thrive, rather than to merely survive. However, it is here that these two distinct but related approaches part ways: Wellbeing Responsibility Positive Education has chosen a pathway that primarily focuses on supporting the individual wellbeing of all members of a school community.

In contrast Positive Schools is primarily concerned with supporting the wellbeing of the community as a social system, made up of many unique individuals. This subtle difference is significant in that it speaks volumes about ‘wellbeing responsibility’. When the spotlight is placed on supporting individuals (as in traditional Positive Education), there is an implicit assumption made that ‘being well’ is an individual responsibility.

When the focus becomes more about context (as in Positive Schools), being well becomes more of a contextual responsibility. Positive Schools believes firmly that although each person is in part, responsible for their own wellbeing, they are also, in part, responsible for the wellbeing of everyone else around them. As such, the social context of a school is to a large part, responsible for the wellbeing of everyone within it. When a child is struggling, supporters of Positive Education might ask: ‘how can we help this child build wellbeing knowledge and skills?’ In contrast, supporters of Positive Schools are more likely to ask: ‘How can we ensure the context better meets the needs of this child?’ Teaching and Learning Positive Education is generally delivered through the explicit teaching of wellbeing theory and practice, often in specific lessons or designated sessions.

Certainly, Positive Education is keen to ensure that presented ideas and strategies are embedded into the school context, however they do not generally challenge the context in itself. In complete contrast, Positive Schools firmly believes that wellbeing grows from a healthy connection to a healthy context and is focused on healthy contextual development far more than it is concerned with distinct wellbeing teaching. The incorporation of wellbeing strategies into a school can certainly offer value to the development of a positive school community. Yet, we at Positive Schools believe that wellbeing strategies are only as effective as they are upheld within the context into which they are embedded. For example, a program that embraces five minutes of mindfulness each day, is going to fail in a school context that is anything but mindful the rest of the time.

Similarly, a day spent helping children to create healthy friendships is going to be minimalised in a context that embraces competition and hierarchies, continually pitting the ‘friends’ against each other. At Positive Schools we are keen to ensure that the school context is developed as a key to creating a thriving school community. Motivation Positive Education often talks about rewarding children for positive behaviours or handing out prizes and awards for acts considered to be supporting wellbeing. As such, followers of Positive Education accept the common use of extrinsic motivators in schools; and often encourages their use in the promotion of wellbeing. I suggest that this represents a fundamental failure to understand autonomous motivation.

One that that has resulted in Positive Education failing to effectively support wellbeing in schools, in a way that it wants to, needs to and could do. It seems to me, that Positive Education stems from a fundamentally clinical perspective, rather than a social psychological one. This is important to realise, as it explains why Positive Education is built with a deep understanding of the facets of individual positive mental health but conveys far less understanding of how to support these facets in school communities. The differences between Positive Schools and Positive Education approaches to motivation are at notable odds with each other. In complete opposition to the traditional Positive Education approach, Positive Schools believes that ‘autonomous motivation’ is the key driver of ‘wellbeing in action’ and is diminished by the use of extrinsic rewards and awards. Moreover, The Positive Schools approach considers the ‘carrot – stick’ method to motivation as conducive to illbeing and unhealthy contextual growth. Positive Schools is built on the science of applied social psychology, which embraces the understanding of wellbeing from a social systems approach.

Applied social psychology is also the home of much of our current understanding of human motivation. Social psychological research has repeatedly found that extrinsic rewards and awards can absolutely engender behavioural compliance, but not necessarily with healthy intentions attached. A child might help another child if they think they will receive a gold star, however, their ‘helpful’ behaviour is more likely to be driven by the intention to be noticed, approved of and praised. In contrast, behaviours which truly represent kindness and compassion are built on the intentions of helping and supporting others, no matter who is watching.

As many others have argued with much passion[i], I believe that the use of extrinsic rewards to garner positive behaviours diminishes wellbeing and also the opportunity to learn how to be well. Extrinsic rewards and awards minimise the opportunity for an individual to experience autonomy, healthy relationships and a sense of competency. The more we act on the basis of other’s requests (even when they are requests wrapped in the offer of tempting rewards), the less we are acting with agency and ownership over our behaviour. The more we are adhering to other’s requests and demands, the less we are likely to feel cohesion with those who are excerpting power over us and judging us.

Finally, every time we fail to ‘win’ the prize or approval we are working to gain, the less competent we feel. Simply put, extrinsic motivation reduces the likelihood we will have our key needs of autonomy, relatedness and competency met. The less our key needs are met, the less ‘well’ we become, and the less engaged in learning we are[ii]. Positive Education advocates may encourage people to behave in ways that appear well, but their repeated use of extrinsic rewards diminishes opportunity for people to actually be well. Back to the Future Positive Schools is currently, not Positive Education but perhaps, in the future things will change. A few years ago, Positive Schools supported the tag line ‘bringing positive education alive’.

This stemmed from a belief that Positive Education science has much to contribute to the development of thriving school contexts, and hence, thriving school communities. Sadly, the significant differences described here, between Positive Schools ethos and that of Positive Education, have led to the removal of this line. Perhaps in the future, school contexts will better thrive because both advocates of Positive Schools philosophy and advocates of Positive Education will have learned more and grown more, both in themselves, and in relation to each other. The more that Positive Schools approaches incorporate valuable findings from Positive Education, such as the importance of strength-based feedback; or the power of gratitude in daily life, the better and healthier school context can become. Similarly, the more that followers of Positive Education can appreciate and acknowledge the importance of context, and the power of autonomous motivation, the more powerful and effective every wellbeing lesson will be. It is already encouraging to see Positive Education starting to embrace a more systems approach to understanding wellbeing; and a better understanding of how to translate great intentions into great actions.

In 2021, Positive Schools is all about creating Positive Schools. Positive Education is all about ensuring that education supports wellbeing as well as academic learning. Both approaches aim to support the ongoing development of thriving school communities. In time, I hope that a synergy will emerge from these two approaches. One that supports a more equitable future for education, and a world filled with more positive school communities. Certainly, individual members of any school community benefit from understanding the ‘ingredients’ of wellbeing, including kindness, trust, honesty and collaboration. In addition, school communities become healthier when they pay attention to the key needs of student voice, strength-based feedback and healthy relationships in an equitable way. In many ways Positive Schools and Positive Education have grown miles apart from each other, but I hope that, given time and increasingly shared aims and ideals, they will meaningfully grow together.

MAKING YOUR SCHOOL A POSITIVE SCHOOL Contact Helen at to discuss how she can best work with you, your leadership team, your staff and your parents, to help you develop a sustainable, equitable, thriving school community. REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING [i] Many world-renowned experts in both education and motivation talk about the dangers of using extrinsic rewards and awards in schools to garner desired behaviours. I suggest looking at the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the worlds foremost leaders in motivation; or the work of Alfie Kohn whose many books talk in detail about the many problems with school context, including that of extrinsic rewards and awards. You may also find my book ‘Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out’ of interest [ii] Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self-determination theory states that as social beings, we need to have our key needs for autonomy, relatedness and competency met if we are to experience wellbeing, intrinsic motivation and ultimately, self-determination. There is over thirty-five years of research supporting the theory for anyone interested in finding out more! Positive Schools is proud to have Professor Richard Ryan as an ambassador.


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Why Schools Need to Spend Less Time Thinking About Students (and More Time Thinking About Culture) Dr Helen Street

Over the past twenty years, there has been an increasing consideration of the role schools can, and indeed ‘should’ play in supporting the mental health of young Australians. But good intentions do not always translate into good actions. Moreover, poorly implemented actions can arguably exacerbate any given problem, rather than offering any sustainable or meaningful solution. Imagine a school with a population of 1000 students. Now imagine that while 950 of those students are thriving, 50 are struggling with their wellbeing.

It would be understandable that we would want to help those 50 students so that they could also ultimately thrive. It would make sense if we chose to give those struggling young people some extra support, possibly in the form of counselling or coaching, depending on the focus and degree of each of their difficulties. Some might require professional psychological support for a specific mental health concern. Others might be surviving, doing OK, but could really benefit from some explicit teaching of wellbeing skills. For example, they might need some extra help understanding the nuances of social interactions, or support in learning to be assertive, respectful and fair minded.

Others might benefit if they learnt more about compassionate behavior; or increased their focus on the positive events going on in their life. Others might specifically benefit from study skills and stress management advice; ideas and strategies to help them manage the challenges of academic learning. Similarly, others could be better equipped to thrive if they better understand procrastination and the benefits of developing a ‘sense of mastery’. In summary, in our imagined reality, I propose that it would be reasonable to want to offer individualized support to the 5% of the student population that were not doing as well as everyone else.

It would also be reasonable, and arguably progressive, to then want to expand some of those helpful ideas and strategies to those who were thriving. Afterall, if skills and strategies can help those who struggle, they could probably also help those who are not. In essence, it would arguably be worthwhile and indeed extremely beneficial to embed positive education, as we know and understand it today, into the school context. As much as we can certainly want to help those who are unhappy, If we had less than 5% of students dissatisfied or distressed within any large school, I think we could reasonably report that the school system was working well. This seems a reasonable deduction given the complexities of both social systems, and of being human.

As Poet John Lydgate famously said, ‘we can’t please all of the people all of the time’. In reality, an average school with 1000 students includes at least 250 students who are not thriving, not the 50 imagined above. For example, a recent study of more than 28,000 Australians between the ages of 15 and 19 by Mission Australia and The Black Dog Institute, has found that nearly one in four (24.2%) of young Australians in 2018 reported experiencing mental health challenges. The study has also found that young people are more likely to report feelings of psychological distress than they were seven years ago and that adolescent girls are twice as likely to report mental health challenges than are boys. We do not have an imagined 5% of our student population who are struggling, we have a real 25%. What’s more, many of the remaining 75% of students who do not report poor mental health, are none-the-less not as happy as we would like them to be.

They might not be struggling, but nor are they thriving. In fact, recent reports from the OECD PISA survey in 2015[i] suggest that 28% of Australian adolescents do not feel like they belong at school, whereas 27% feel like outsiders and 28% report feeling awkward and out of place. Australian students feel a lower sense of belonging than their peers in 35 OECD countries surveyed, and their overall sense of belonging has declined significantly since the first PISA results in 2003. Similarly, mental health foundation ‘headspace’ has reported one in three (32%) young Australians (12 to 25-year olds) were reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress in 2018[ii]. This percentage is more than treble the rate in 2007 (which was 9%) I believe that this reality changes everything. With this number of students reporting social and emotional difficulties, we cannot feel confident in the educational context that supports young people in Australia.

This reality of youth distress tells us that we do not have a great education system in which a small minority of kids need some extra support; we have a dysfunctional system in which a significant number of kids are struggling to feel connected and struggling to thrive. This is not about blaming anyone, this is about the culture and context that influences us all. Absolutely there are other significant contexts in every young person’s life, namely the home context, each child’s broader social context and their online world. Undoubtedly there are many influences, both positive and negative, contributing to each person’s wellbeing across all these difference and important contextual domains. None-the-less, young people spend a significant amount of time in the school context, and as such, we cannot afford to underestimate the importance of this experience to overall youth mental health and wellbeing.

Research has found that half of all lifetime mental health disorders emerge by age 14 and three quarters by age 24[iii] Moreover, mental illness contributes to 45% of the global burden of disease among those aged 10 to 24 years[iv] You may or may not agree with my suggestion that 5% of students struggling in a school context is a percentage low enough to warrant a focus on individual social and psychological functioning, as opposed to contextual change. You may believe that it would be reasonable to expect up to 10% of students to struggle with social and psychological issues at school. In contrast you may believe that it is reasonable to expect less than 2 to 3% to be struggling in a truly healthy context. Whatever your personal opinion, I would hazard to guess that just about all of us would consider that if more than one in four students are struggling in any given context, there is a problem with that context, as opposed to a problem with those students.

And herein lies the rub. In Australia, we have continued to focus our wellbeing ideas and strategies firmly on individual improvement and paid little or no attention to contextual considerations. We are trying to support school based mental health and wellbeing with ideas and strategies that would work for an inherently healthy context, but experience is telling us that the school context is inherently unhealthy. As soon as we acknowledge this fact, we can usefully and meaningfully turn our attentions to creating a healthier educational context for young people, rather than continually trying to upskill or even ‘fix’ the people suffering at the hands of the reality of school life.

Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing[v] suggests that there are key pillars of behavior that underpin wellbeing in individuals across the world. This suggested model of understanding wellbeing has become widely adopted in the emerging field of positive psychology and consequently now underpins much of what we have come to understand as ‘positive education’. Positive education is therefore now widely accepted as a means of supporting social and psychological wellbeing in students alongside academic education. This PERMA approach to positive education suggests that individuals are more likely to experience wellbeing if they have a combination of five expressions of being well, namely positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement.

The model falters in making distinctions between signs and ‘symptoms’ of wellbeing (eg positive emotion) and underlying ‘causes’ (eg engagement). Rather it simply (perhaps over simply) suggests that significant relationships exist with certain ways of functioning and behaving. The PERMA model has led to many other explorations of the ‘ingredients’ of individual wellbeing. As such, there are many popular theories linking wellbeing to certain attitudes and behaviours, or indeed combinations of certain attitudes and behaviours. Many of these are being added to positive education theory and practice. For example, Angela Duckworth’s theory of ‘grit’[vi]; suggests that people with passion and determination are happier and achieve their goals more than do those with less gritty behaviours. Similarly, findings supporting a significant relationship between gratitude and wellbeing have led to the suggestion we practice gratitude more often[vii] The increasing list of human social and psychological factors linked to wellbeing, has resulted in an increasing list of topics to be ‘taught’, modelled and embedded at school, with a view to better supporting students in their ‘pursuit’ of a thriving life. This approach to wellbeing is enormously problematic. It is an approach designed to help students to better understand their own wellbeing as individuals, rather than to understand their wellbeing as part of a social system. As such, poor mental health is seen as a state to be unpacked, repacked, broadened and built.

It is an approach that assumes that those experiencing a lack of wellbeing need individualized support. Think back to my imagined school with 50 struggling students. The current approach to positive education, whether focused on class gratitude letters or the identification of frequently expressed ‘strengths’, would aim to help these and the other 950 students to feel better and to better connect with their educational context. As such, the focus of attention is firmly placed on understanding and improving individual wellbeing. This makes wellbeing, and indeed a lack of wellbeing, an individual responsibility, with individual accountability. Simply put, if you are not happy at school, current thinking tells us that you may need to change your attitude, your beliefs and/or your behaviour.

If you are not feeling a sense of belonging at school, or are feeling overly anxious or stressed, then maybe you need to practice more mindfulness, express more gratitude, or, possibly focus on greater levels of kindness and compassion. I have two major concerns with this individualized approach. The first major concern is that this approach assumes that most people are doing fine with the way things are. That the problems are with the inevitable outliers, and that in general, the context is fine. It ignores the many problems of our outdated industrial approach to education. If more than a quarter of Australian students are struggling at school, perhaps the context, the educational system, is at fault? Perhaps it is really a case of ‘it’s not me, it’s them’. If this is indeed the ‘current state of affairs’, and research increasingly and glaringly suggests it is, then struggling becomes a healthy means of surviving an unhealthy context, rather than a dysfunctional way of operating. Anxiety is a clear response to threat, feeling ‘ungrateful’ is a sign that a person’s needs are not being met, a lack of engagement is a positive response to a lack of healthy context to engage with…and a lack of joyous emotional expression is completely understandable.

With the above in mind, I suggest that it is not only unhelpful to aim to increase an individual’s ‘positive’ behaviours, it can be very unhealthy. Moreover, I suggest that we are exacerbating poor mental health in our youth by trying to change individual behaviours without changing the environment they are created within. The second major concern I have is one of confusing ‘knowing’ with ‘being’. It may well be true that happier people smile more than unhappy people, but that does not mean that smiling ‘makes’ you happy, or indeed that being happy makes you smile. However, lets assume that we can indeed increase wellbeing if we increase the factors associated with being well. Even with this assumption in place, this does not mean that we can increase any wellbeing factor with active practice that does not take environmental impact into consideration. For example, we may teach young people to be kind and compassionate to each other, however, if their context does not change in any way, are they likely to become kinder and more compassionate?

Ultimately, it seems to me to be futile and possible dangerous, to attempt to change the students, without attempting to change the system that is failing them. This seems comparable to being concerned about an increasing number of pedestrians being hit by fast moving vehicles in urban areas, and then offering advanced driving lessons rather than reducing the speed limit around town. Advanced driving skills may work for some drivers, but without a community approach, fatalities will still happen, the environment will still be a difficult one to navigate through. So, what can we do to build a healthy educational context? How do we reduce the speed limit in schools? We can examine the education system and ask: Is this system (my school context) meeting the three key human needs of kids in this school? I.e. does the system: Prioritize positive relationships and a sense of cohesion in all students Offer opportunity for student agency, choice and control Ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to experience a sense of growing competency and hope for the future Is this system equitable? I.e. does the school ensure that: Relationships are built in a fair and inclusive environment. Is there policy and normative practice ensuring that students are not continually competing against each other or, feeling more, or less, important than each other.

Autonomy is a real practice and not about lip service. It is not minimalized within a framework of judgement and control where having agency is confused with taking action to get positive feedback from someone else. Competency is an opportunity for everyone. Competency is about progressing towards our ‘personal best’ rather than trying to be ‘the best’ (which can only be achieved by a very few). Once we start to examine school context with the above considerations in mind, it is possible to see some of the many school norms and practices that are arguably contributing so heavily to the low levels of wellbeing in our youth. Schools today, are largely inequitable environments, defining success as a series of zero-sum games. Some kids win, but often with the loss of self-determination. Many others lose not only the award for being ‘best girl or boy’ but, also their sense of success, voice and belonging along the way. If schools could provide opportunity for every student to achieve their key needs in an equitable way, then perhaps students would organically develop wellbeing and engagement in learning. Perhaps they would develop Contextual Wellbeing[viii].

I don’t think that positive education is best placed to identify, categorize or change each student to ‘fit’ the system regardless of whether they ‘win’ or ‘lose’. Rather, positive education needs to trust the human condition as inheritably social and driven to collective survival. As such, schools could usefully spend less time thinking about the students, and far more time building cultures of wellbeing excellence. About Helen Helen is an education consultant, speaker and author who works with schools around the world. She has a background in applied social psychologist and mental health and maintains an honorary research fellow at The University of Western Australia. Helen has written four books, several book chapters and more than 100 articles and academic papers. Her book ‘Standing Without Shoes’ includes a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

During the past eleven years, Helen has created and chaired The Positive Schools conferences across Australia and SE Asia. She is also the creator and editor of ‘The Positive Times’, a consultant with the WA Health Department and the WA Association of Mental Health; and appears regularly on TV and radio. As a powerful advocate for the creation of positive school communities, Helen is particularly interested in the development of positive school contexts in which students can develop intrinsic motivation, self-determination and life-long wellbeing.

Helen believes that students will flourish when, and only when they feel connected to a healthy school context. Her work is being adopted by schools worldwide and has led to the publication of her latest book ‘Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive school from the inside out’ in 2018. Helen can be contacted at The University of Western Australia on helen.street(at) Tweet @drhelenstreet @positiveschools ‘Contextual Wellbeing’ FB group for educators References [i] De Bortoli, Lisa (2018) “PISA Australia in Focus Number 1: Sense of belonging at school” [ii] [iii] McGorry, P. D., Goldstone, S. D., Parker, A. G., Rickwood, D. J., & Hickie, I. B. (2014) Cultures for mental health care of young people: an Australian blueprint for reform. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1 (7), 559-568. Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R. & Walters, E.E. (2005) Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602. [iv]Gore, F. M., Bloem, P. J., Patton, G. C., Ferguson, J., Joseph, V., Coffey, C., Sawyer, S.M., & Mathers, C. D. (2011) Global burden of disease in young people aged 10–24 years: a systematic analysis. The Lancet, 377 (9783), 2093-2102. [v] Seligman, M (2018) PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 July, Vol.13(4), pp.333-335 [vi] Duckworth, Angela L. ; Eichstaedt, Johannes C. ; Ungar, Lyle H. (2015) The Mechanics of Human Achievement.(Report) Social and Personality Psychology Compass Vol.9(7), p.359(11) [vii] Lin, Chih-Che (2016) The roles of social support and coping style in the relationship between gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, January, Vol.89, pp.13-18 [viii] Street, Helen (2018) Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out. Wise Solutions Inc. Australia

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The Social Side of Wellbeing – an extract from Contextual Wellbeing By Dr Helen Street

(this is an extract from: Street, Helen (2018) Contextual Wellbeing: creating positive schools from the inside out, published by Wise Solutions) … It could be said that we are living in ‘emotional times’, with our focus so largely on finding the happiness we want. Hundreds, if not thousands of popular self-help books try to tell us how to help our children acquire the skills and knowledge for happy and successful living. But is this current focus on happiness a good thing? As my mother puts it, ‘In my day we just sort of got on with life, we knew if things were going OK, and we knew when they weren’t … now it seems that we are encouraged to spend so much time submerging ourselves in our feelings. I am really not sure that is of any benefit … for anyone’s children.’ Here lies the dilemma. Like my mother, I question whether this indiscriminate pursuit of happiness is in danger of diminishing the very quality of our day-to-day existence. Yet, with so many adults and young people living in mental and emotional turmoil, the idea of not focusing our attention on the active pursuit of happiness also seems an incredibly bad idea. It seems that we need to do ‘something’ to help the young people in our care, yet what that ‘something’ is, remains confused and uncertain. Do we continue to spend time actively teaching the art of happiness to our children, albeit in a new improved program? Or, might we be better off simply encouraging them to engage in a rich and busy life? To address these conundrums, it is time to look more closely at what wellbeing and happiness are, and how they relate to each other. If we can better and more comprehensively understand wellbeing, we will have a far greater chance of helping ourselves and our children to think about it effectively, or indeed, not think about it so much. Moreover, we may be far better equipped to achieve lasting wellbeing in a meaningful and sustainable way. So, what are these elusive goals of happiness and wellbeing we all so want to achieve? Is happiness an ongoing state of mind? Is wellbeing a set of optimum behaviours? Does happiness stem from life success, or perhaps something more? I am guessing that you could easily come up with a basic definition of wellbeing, at least in terms of what works for you. I am also guessing that this definition could quickly become confused or contrary, the more you think about it. At the most general of levels, we all know that wellbeing is something to do with embracing life proactively, but we are aware too that it is also about the acceptance of things we can’t control. Many motivational books suggest that our best foot forward is a creative and self-determined one. Yet just as many books are telling us to slow down from the relentless pursuit of our goals and live life more in the moment. Certainly, trying to come up with a definition of individual wellbeing can quickly seem like a task full of contradictions. At the very least, it is far more than simply feeling or acting in any single way. I believe that any comprehensive definition of individual wellbeing must include our ability to live well, live happily and to embrace life with passion and purpose. However, it also needs to include our ability to hold sorrow, live productively with grief and find hope in the face of adversity. Our individual wellbeing embraces two sides of every coin of feeling and behaving. ‘Feeling happy’ is just one side of that coin. True wellbeing lies in our ability to express happiness or sadness, as the situation demands it. Lasting wellbeing is all about ensuring that each coin of our various emotions faces the healthiest way up in any given situation. And therein lies the key: ‘any given situation.’ Context matters. In Mexico, on the annual Day of the Dead, people remember and celebrate the lives of those they have loved and lost. It is believed that death comes in three stages. First, we experience physical death; second, we are buried and third, we are forgotten. It is only when we are forgotten that we are truly considered to be dead. This understanding of death emphasises the importance of our identity beyond our physical form. We reside in every aspect of the context in which we live and die. Just as the boundaries of our physical form define us, so we are defined by the space around us. As much as every aspect of our wellbeing resides in our individual form, so too it resides in the spaces between us, within the cultural norms of our environment and within those with whom we connect. Have you kept hold of a childhood teddy-bear or doll, sensing that it was alive in some capacity? Have you held onto the clothes or treasured possessions of someone you have lost? Do you see reflections of the people you know in their homes, their gardens, their choice of friends? The very essence of who we are extends so much beyond our physical selves. It resides within the context of our lives as much as it resides within our individual selves. In a similar way, the various elements of wellbeing extend beyond the individual self. In his 2002 book Authentic Happiness,[i] Martin Seligman defines individual wellbeing across three domains: positive emotions and our experience of them; engagement with the things we do; and our sense of meaning and contribution to society. Since the publication of Authentic Happiness, he added two further domains: healthy relationships and a sense of accomplishment.[ii] These five pillars (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment) are captured by the acronym PERMA, and together they form the basis of the academic and clinical domain of positive psychology. The idea of engagement as a central notion of living and wellbeing is not new. Two thousand years before today’s version of positive psychology, Plato described the joy that comes from finding passion and immersion in a task. And in the 1970s, philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that we are often caught in a futile search for ‘the meaning of life’ when true happiness is about finding a ‘connection’ with life.[iii] When something grabs you with passion, he said, you need to grab it right back. This view is taken up in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1992 book Flow,[iv] where he talks about wellbeing as a sense of immersion and engagement with the things we do in life. When we are in ‘flow’ we are energised and challenged by what we do. We are caught in the moment to such a degree that time stands still, and then we find ourselves surprised at just how much time has passed. When we are in flow, we experience wellbeing as a state of deep satisfaction. These expressions of wellbeing and happiness recognise how we as individuals operate within and connect with our social context. Definitions of wellbeing that focus too narrowly on individual characteristics are in danger of becoming meaningless theories of everything. Wellbeing is not simply about individual expressions of thoughts, feelings and behaviours; it is not an isolated or solitary pursuit. It is just as much about the connections we form with others, the tasks we pursue and our wider sense of the world. Wellbeing concerns our ‘being well’ as social beings, not just human beings. It is about creating and reacting to a social context in a healthy and positive way. Ultimately, lasting wellbeing and happiness have far less to do with any aspect of our individual functioning than we might like to think, and far more to do with the spaces between us … To continue reading please click HERE to purchase a complete copy of Contextual Wellbeing References for this exert [i] Seligman, M. E. P. (2002) Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press [ii] Seligman, M. E. P. (2011) Flourishing. New York: Free Press [iii] Campbell, Joseph (1988) Interview with Bill Moyers – The Power of Myth (New York), 30 Campbell, J. (1993). Myths to Live By. New York, USA: Penguin Group [iv] Csikszentmihalyi, M (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row: New York, NY

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