The following is comprised of excerpts from Dr. Peggy Kern's presentation.
"Success has come, but at a price. The cost is the mental health of our young people.
This isn't the sole reason for mental health issues. We live in complex times – we've just experienced COVID and seen many changes over the past decade. However, it's evident that our young people are struggling. We see disengagement in learning, domestic violence at home, cyberbullying, self-harm behaviors, and eating disorders among them.
In the US, unlike Australia, there's a significant problem with gun violence. My colleagues in the US describe drills for active shooter situations in schools. This is the harsh reality many young people face.
The view of society reflected in our schools is disheartening. Many teachers are overwhelmed and burnt out. Statistics show a high burnout rate, especially among those in their first five years, leading them to consider leaving the profession altogether.
We must reflect on our own challenges and feelings. Our young people, teachers, staff, and leaders face numerous challenges. High-stress environments, if not managed well, can lead to burnout and mental illness.
We're facing a grim reality in our schools. How do we address these problems? Psychology, especially positive psychology, offers solutions. The traditional approach diagnoses and treats mental illness to restore normal functioning. For example, a student with anxiety might receive talk therapy or medication. While this works for acute illnesses like strep throat, mental health issues are more complex.
Before moving to Australia, I spent four years in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, the birthplace of positive psychology, working with Professors Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth. I noticed that, in bad weather, driving behavior worsens – a universal phenomenon. Tow trucks wait for inevitable accidents, suggesting that prevention is better than rapid response.
Psychology and medicine have advanced in treating mental illness, but prevention is key. Imagine a world free from mental illness symptoms, yet this wouldn't be a psychological utopia. The difference between a young person who is not depressed and one who is actively joyful and engaged is significant.
Positive psychology, founded in 1998 by Seligman and colleagues, focuses on optimal functioning in individuals, organizations, and communities. It emphasizes resilience, positive attitudes, behaviors, skills, and character. The aim is to move from normal functioning to flourishing.
This shift in perspective focuses on well-being, strengths, and enhancing what can be strengthened, rather than just fixing problems. Positive psychology doesn't ignore problems but emphasizes the positive aspects of life.
Schools play a critical role in proactively addressing mental health. Preventing mental illness is just as important as treating it. Schools should balance mental health with academic success.
The question is, how do schools play this role? Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina highlights the importance of managing negative emotions effectively.
To nurture student well-being, we can remove obstacles and bring in strengths. For instance, addressing the 'HALTS' – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Sad – can significantly improve well-being. Strategies like recognizing and addressing these states, creating jolts of joy, and practicing gratitude can be effective. Mindfulness and meditation, focusing on character strengths, cultivating healthy thinking, prioritizing positive social relationships, and creating a supportive environment are all crucial.
For educators, self-care is essential. We must take care of ourselves to effectively care for our students. Seeking support when needed is also vital.
Ultimately, embedding positive psychology in schools requires strategic planning, language use, visual design, timetabling, curriculum, and community involvement. Schools thriving in positive psychology are happy places with engaged students.
So, I leave you with this question: How might you nurture student well-being in your school?
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts tonight. I wish you the best on your journey."