By Fiona Forman, co-author of the Weaving Well-being Programme in Dublin, Ireland
I’ve had a huge interest in children’s well-being and mental health for as long as I can remember. I think I always had an instinctive understanding, as most teachers do, that it is the foundation of so many other aspects of children’s development. Nurturing and supportive relationships are the starting point for children’s mental health, and providing a safe and secure environment in which they can grow and reach their potential is critical. So, when I first discovered the field of Positive Psychology in the summer of 2011, it’s hard to describe the sense of enthusiasm, joy and connection I felt. It was as if I’d finally found what I’d been searching for, both on a personal and professional level – a holistic, practical, scientific and comprehensive exploration of well-being and mental health.
Positive Psychology is a relatively new field of study. Founded by Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, it aims to broaden the field of psychology to focus on positive aspects of mental health and well-being. As such, it provides a strengths-based approach and is concerned with optimal psychological functioning, as opposed to repairing deficits or focusing on weaknesses. It’s underpinned by concepts such as Character Strengths, resilience, positive emotions, relationships, flow, meaning in life and self-efficacy. Positive Psychology Interventions are evidence -based activities and strategies that enhance well-being. So often, we just aren’t aware of the evidence showing the many things we can do on a daily basis to enhance well-being.
To say I caught the bug is an understatement! It was as if a lightbulb came on in my head and a passion was ignited which has taken me on a wonderful journey. Over the last few years I have completed a Masters of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) and published the Weaving Well-Being programme here in Ireland in April of 2017. The programme is a multi-year, Positive Psychology and well-being programme for primary school children. I’m the co-author of the programme and it developed from my classroom practices, which are grounded in Positive Psychology.
In addition to providing supportive relationships and environments, schools can also enhance children’s mental health by teaching them specific skills and strategies which are designed to support well-being. The purpose of Weaving Well-Being is to provide teachers and children with a comprehensive, structured and child-centred programme of such evidence-based skills.
Background to the Programme
I’d been already teaching for more than twenty years before I discovered Positive Psychology. On an informal level I had always prioritised the emotional and psychological well-being of my students as my experience had shown me that this led so many other positive outcomes for them. It was interesting for me to subsequently read research showing that initiatives and programmes designed to support children’s well-being in school on a universal level lead to other outcomes, including increases in academic achievement, enhanced relationships and increased resilience.
As I learned about different interventions and strategies, I continued to use them on a personal level and to adapt them for use in my classroom. The response from both children and parents was overwhelmingly positive. The children were eager to learn all about their minds and about how they could be proactive in understanding and enhancing their own well-being. We learned how kindness, gratitude and flow activities could play a big part in our happiness. Adding a daily mindfulness practice to our school day began to reap benefits both in terms of mood and concentration. As I studied and learned about resilience, I began to teach the children concrete and practical ways to deal with their challenges, disappointments and failures. I shared these ideas and lessons with other teachers in the school, and once again the response was very positive. This led to my expanding and developing the Weaving Well-Being programme further and deciding to see if it might be possible to get it published.
I then began my collaboration with my co-author, Mick Rock, who had just finished his Masters in Applied Positive Psychology. Mick had conducted research in our local school on the effects of Positive Psychology Interventions on children’s well-being. We were thrilled to secure a publishing deal with Conor Holmes of Outside the Box Learning Resources here in Ireland in July 2015.
We expanded and developed the lessons into a multi-year programme for Grades 2 to 6, with ten specific lessons for each year level. We drew from Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being to provide a solid base for the programme. Seligman suggests that five specific components contribute to wellbeing and PERMA is an acronym for these components. P stands for Positive Emotions, E is for Engagement with life at an optimal level through use of character strengths, R is for Relationships, M is for Meaning and A is for Accomplishment, in terms of attainment of intrinsically-valued goals.
Structure of the Programme
Having a concrete theory on which to structure the programme helped us to clarify our vision and planning. We studied interventions on each of the components and carefully planned how to introduce them to children to ensure that they were age-appropriate and child-centred. We used active learning methodologies with multi-media links and integration across the curriculum to ensure that the lessons were practical and enjoyable for the children. We decided on a specific topic for each year level – Character Strengths for Grade 2, Positive Emotions for Grade 3, Tools of Resilience for Grade 4, Positive Relationships for Grade 5 and Empowering Beliefs (self-efficacy) for Grade 6. Topics and skills are also reinforced and revised across all the grade levels. We also gave each topic a particular theme to make it appealing to children, for example, the theme of the second- grade programme, Character Strengths, is treasure. Character Strengths are presented as our inner treasure, and each strength has its own specially designed treasure coin image. We developed a Teacher Manual, Children’s Activity Book and Parent Guide to accompany each level of the programme to make it as cohesive as possible.
We got a huge amount of support and encouragement along the way and many schools all across Ireland signed up for our pilot stage from September 2015 to December 2016. Once again, we had an extremely positive response and some suggestions as to how to improve the programme further. This allowed us to refine the materials using teacher, student and parent feedback which proved invaluable. We also developed both online and face-to- face teacher training courses to accompany the programme.
The programme was formally launched in our local Education Centre in April 2017. It was a wonderful event and it felt slightly surreal after all of the years of hard work and planning! When I finally completed the M. Sc. last August I felt as if I had run a marathon (not that I ever have!) I genuinely believe that the Positive Psychology concepts and skills I used all along the way kept me going and enabled me to enjoy and savour the process, despite feeling overwhelmed from time to time!
The programme is now in use in hundreds of schools in Ireland and continues to go from strength to strength. The first piece of independent research was completed in October of 2017 on the Fourth Grade Programme, Tools of Resilience. It showed that the programme had a significant impact, in terms of lowering children’s anxiety scores and increasing their levels of positivity, autonomy, problem-solving, confidence and self-efficacy. Although it was a small study, it is very encouraging and we were delighted to see that the programme has such potential. Further extensive research is planned for the near future. We also hope to bring the programme to an international level as soon as possible.
Ideas for Parents and Teachers
There are so many skills and strategies that parents and teachers can teach children to help enhance their well-being. Here are a couple of suggestions from the programme to try out.
Rainbow Moments: This is from the Third Grade Programme, Positive Emotions, and is based on Seligman’s ‘Three Good Things’ intervention. Rainbow Moments aims to encourage children to train their minds to notice and savour the many small positive events of the day which often go unnoticed – we call these Rainbow Moments. Children are to write down three positive things daily and to savour and appreciate these small moments. They can use a notebook and this can be done in the evening at home, or each morning in school. I start each school day with Rainbow Moments (from the previous day) and it gives a wonderful positive start to the day. The children love personalising their notebooks and listening to each other’s Rainbow Moments. This helps to counter-balance the ‘negativity bias’ of the mind in which negative events tend to dominate mood and have a stronger psychological impact. We suggest trying it for at least a week, in line with research, however, in my experience, children usually enjoy continuing for longer periods of time. You can have a look at short video of children engaging the activity here: https://vimeo.com/166080724
Jigsaw of Perspective: This is from the Fourth Grade Programme, Tools of Resilience. Getting problems and disappointments into perspective is an important skill which can help children to develop resilience. In this activity, children draw and colour all of the positive elements of their lives onto a blank jigsaw puzzle template. They write the words ‘My Problem or Worry’ in the middle piece of the puzzle. When they are faced with a small disappointment or problem, they can look at the puzzle as a visual reminder that the disappointment is only one small part of their lives. This encourages them to use perspective to help them to maintain a positive outlook. I also have a large classroom display in which each child contributed one piece of the puzzle. The full lesson plan and template can be downloaded here:
It’s important to remember that by looking after your own mental health as a parent or teacher, you are acting as a powerful role model for your children. So, don’t forget to prioritise self-care, happiness and well-being in your own life!
Fiona Forman is a primary teacher and author who holds an M. Sc. in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP). She is the co-author of Weaving Well-Being, a recently- launched positive mental health educational programme. Fiona lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and more information on the Weaving Well-Being programme is available from www.otb/wwb or on Twitter @Weaving_Wb.
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