How Positive Psychology and Teaching Well-Being Can Change a School

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference here in NYC entitled What Works in Urban Education, with keynote speakers Martin Seligman, David Coleman, and Dave Levin. There were tons of great ideas and inspiration I obtained from that day, but I’m going to focus this post on Seligman first, as I feel his ideas have great bearing on viewing schools as ecosystems.

Martin Seligman is a champion of positive psychology, which is just about what it sounds like. He notes that schools traditionally focus on deficiencies and solely on academic achievement, but that we mostly leave out a critically important component of any human existence: well-being.

Seligman’s definition of well-being is summed up by the acronym PERMA, which stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment. I immediately took to this acronym, even if only for the entirely irrelevant sharing of the first 5 letters of the word ‘permaculture‘. (Much more on permaculture in posts to come.)

PERMA, or well-being, is something that is teachable and scalable, as demonstrated by research and active application. In viewing a school as an ecosystem, Seligman also points to a key idea: teaching PERMA isn’t really all that effective when it’s confined to a classroom–it is only when applied by the whole school that effects are seen. It is the strength of a positive school community that confers the greatest educational benefit.

As Seligman delineated each of the components of PERMA, there were a couple of key points that really stood out to me, especially as a teacher of special education.

1) Cultivating our strengths is just as important as working on our weaknesses
2) Use your greatest strengths to tackle your greatest challenges

Students with disabilities face great challenges, and all too often in their school life they are made to feel inadequate. And all students, with the high stakes of annual tests, are made abundantly aware of their deficiencies.

Any teacher who has worked with students undergoing acute or chronic stress in their lives will understand immediately how important this stuff is. Students living in stress desperately need a positive, nurturing environment and coaching in developing resiliency. And as a teacher of special education, I know that when writing goals for my student’s IEPs, it is important for me to bear in mind that child’s strengths and future outcomes, rather than solely focusing on their weaknesses.

Do you know what your character strengths are? Seligman conveniently has created a questionnaire that can help you and your students pinpoint them. Over on his website,, register and then take the questionnaire entitled ‘VIA Survey of Character Strengths.’ You might be surprised; I was!

My top 5 character strengths are:

  1. Love of learning
  2. Curiosity and interest in the world
  3. Industry, diligence, and perseverance
  4. Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
  5. Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness
What are yours?

Another key takeway I got from Seligman was the advice to develop gratefulness by writing down 3 things that went well, and why they went well, at the end of every day. I’ve begun doing this with my wife each night, and we then share our results with each other. This not only provides an opportunity for us to communicate about our day with each other, but furthermore to share and reflect on positive things. I’ve also begun assigning this activity to my students for their writing homework each night.

Simple shifts like this in our behavior and attitudes can have a tremendous impact. Teaching and promoting well-being (PERMA) is fundamental to education and lies at the heart of why I advocate for viewing a school as an ecosystem. A school’s function is not merely to promote academic achievement, but to promote life-long learning, emotional health, and the individual strengths of character that come together to create a community.

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