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Interview by Chris Dawson, Senior Manager Program Delivery of the Berry Street Education Model

Chris Dawson sat down with Marita Hayes-Brown, CEO of the Positive Education Schools Association (PESA), to discuss all things positive education, including exciting developments in this space and four key actions that schools can take to start incorporating a positive education approach.

Chris Dawson: Who and what is PESA?

Marita Hayes-Brown: PESA is the Positive Education Schools Association. We are Australia’s National Positive Education peak body. We are an association supporting both local and international members, ranging from teachers and school leaders to parents, health professionals and academics.

At our very heart, we are a community of practice, bringing together those who share a commitment in an evidence-based approach to student, teacher and wider community wellbeing.

Our core priorities are to promote Positive Education and engage all stakeholders, equip our members with high quality resources, and facilitate collaboration so that our members can learn from each other.

CD: Tell me more about Positive Education…

MHB: Positive Education is the application of the science of wellbeing – also known as Positive Psychology – within educational settings. It has two crucial benefits: firstly, it teaches the knowledge and skills to enhance student, staff and community wellbeing. Secondly, a Positive Education approach can improve students’ academic engagement and attainment.

Our schools are essential, interconnected and influential components of our wider communities. Increasingly, they are acknowledging that their role extends beyond simply delivering curriculum, and that they are uniquely placed to teach students the skills build character, to look after their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. This is a fundamental shift in our concept of what ‘education’ should be.

Educators, parents and those who work with young people are increasingly concerned about youth mental illness and suicide rates, and there is research which suggests positive psychology interventions can help ‘immunise’ against the onset of mental ill-being. But mental health exists on a continuum – from flourishing to mental illness. Positive Education seeks not only to help those experiencing difficulties, but also to teach the skills individuals need throughout their lives to flourish and thrive.

CD: What’s going well? What are Australian schools connecting with, doing and seeing as a result?

MHB: So much is going well! Schools across Australia from the government, independent and religious-affiliated sectors are increasingly engaging and ‘leaning in’ to their roles as wellbeing promotion institutions. It’s hard-wired into teachers and school leaders to support their students, and Positive Education provides an evidence-based approach for educators to adopt.

It’s been so encouraging to watch the field grow and mature – in Australia, most early adopters were independent schools, but those schools were committed to share their knowledge and experience with others, and now government schools are engaging as never before. It has been wonderful to see more advanced schools mentor other schools as they started on their Positive Education journey – the spirit of generosity and collaboration is remarkable.

Schools are reporting improved wellbeing literacy, that students know their character strengths and understand key ideas such as flow, savouring and resilience. Schools are also encouraging a culture of ‘other person centredness’. Positive Education teaches us community-mindedness, that other people matter, and simple acts such as expressing gratitude can have positive and enduring benefits both to the receiver as well as the giver.

Increasingly, states and territories are including student wellbeing as a key priority in curricula. This is encouraging as it indicates governments are now placing student wellbeing at the heart of education.

CD: What are some innovative or inspiring examples of Pos. Ed in Australian schools?

MHB: It’s been wonderful to see schools embrace Positive Education as a whole school approach, and committing to cultural change. This is a huge shift from the early days when schools taught PosEd in Period 4 on a Wednesday! Of course, we need to teach students and staff the theory behind the science of wellbeing, but we also need to live a PosEd approach.

Many schools are starting with teacher wellbeing – schools with engaged, energised and connected staff tend to be the most thriving institutions. In these schools, staff are given the tools to grow their own wellbeing and allowed the time to observe the changes this can make in their own lives. This can reap enormous benefits when Positive Education is introduced to students as staff can share their lived experience with authenticity and enthusiasm.

Another inspiring development is the emergence of hubs: groups of schools that collaborate as a community to roll out an integrated wellbeing strategy. These schools sometimes include other community groups, such as local sporting clubs, to ensure the whole community understands the importance of wellbeing and is ‘singing from the same song-sheet’. Excellent examples of these hubs are the Maroondah network, the Langwarrin Positive Education Network and the Upper Hunter Hub.

CD: What are four key actions schools can take?

MHB: Firstly, I would encourage schools to ‘look for the good’. You don’t need to start from scratch – schools are already doing so much great work in the wellbeing space. Take an appreciative, strengths-based approach to look for these pockets of excellent policies and initiatives and effective practice. Be mindful of both proactive and reactive strategies.

Secondly, take some time to learn about the evidence base for a Positive Education approach. This is your ‘why’, and will assist you to explain your approach to staff, parents and families.

Thirdly, devise a wellbeing strategy that is firmly grounded in your school’s individual context, and which takes account of all stakeholders. Positive Education is not a one-size-fits-all approach: it won’t look the same in an affluent independent school as in a government school supporting a disadvantaged and culturally diverse community. Speak to other schools about their strategies – there is so much to be learned through collaboration. Ensure your strategy engages staff, parents and families from the outset, as they will be key to your success.

Finally, key to the long-term development and success of Positive Education in your school will be measurement – not only to determine where your community’s wellbeing is right now, but to inform your approach and to gauge its efficacy over time.

I would encourage you to collect data that indicates improvements in wellbeing and academic attainment over time. There are a number of excellent wellbeing measurement tools you may wish to utilise, but you should also consider data your school is already collecting, such as student attendance, behaviour management, academic outcomes, participation, and staff absenteeism/presenteeism.

CD: Where should schools go if they want to know more?

MHB: PESA is delighted to assist and support schools starting out on their Positive Education journey, as well as those more advanced. We offer resources, professional development events, and networking opportunities across Australia. Our annual national conference is a must-attend event for Positive Educators and anyone wanting to dip their toe in to understand more!

We have chapters in each state of Australia, as well as the ACT, to ensure we are able to support our members on a local level with professional development and networking opportunities. Our chapters run regular events throughout the year which are listed on our website.

There are numerous positive psychology, mental health, youth and wellbeing organisations across Australia for which we’re happy to provide referrals.