Positive Education: Making a Successful School

Happy School Kids

Last month a Positive Education Summit took place in the UK, led by Professor Martin Seligman and sponsored by Wellington College, one of the top public schools and, under the leadership of Dr Anthony Seldon, probably the longest-standing exponent of applying positive psychology in schools anywhere in the world.

The Positive Education Summit was attended by 30 academics and practitioners from all corners of the globe, including Dr Ilona Boniwell, former leader of the UEL MAPP;  Dr Jane Gillham, creator of the Penn Resilience Program at the University of Pennsylvania; Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme in the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics; Dr. Héctor Escamilla, Rector, Universidad TecMilenio, Mexico;  Stephen Meek, Principal, Geelong Grammar School, Australia; Allison Webster, Assistant Head, Shady Hill School, USA; Simon Murray, Headmaster and Dr Mathew White, Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education at St Peter’s College, Australia.

I was exceedingly fortunate to be invited by Martin Seligman to a dinner at the Positive Education Summit. The general topic of conversation was the future of positive psychology, and positive education. At Seligman’s request, we stuck to the one-conversation rule over the dinner table which meant that everyone could hear and respond to everyone else’s contributions. Items discussed during the evening included:

  • Prospection,  a term coined by Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson back in 2007, and in particular positive prospection, which featured in Seligman and Baumeister’s opening remarks at the June 2013 World Congress on Positive Psychology. To find out more read this PPND article where Kathryn Britton discusses prospection. It includes a video interview with Martin Seligman about the importance of positive prospection.
  • Well-being as a community endeavor versus individual endeavor, in other words, positive psychology as it applies to groups of people at school or college, in families, in neighborhoods, or in workplaces. Although positive education as a field is blossoming, many people have pointed to the lack of research being carried out on positive psychology in families.
  • The role of change management in positive change, such as implementing a well-being curriculum in school.  This is the topic I’ll explore here.


Different Forms of Positive Education?

If you look across the world at the different schools which are applying positive psychology, you’ll see that there are both many similarities and key differences. Some schools have opted to implement one overarching off-the-peg curriculum, such as the Penn Resiliency Program or the Bounce Back program, a flexible positive education program which focuses not just on developing resilience but on building positive relationships, positive emotions, strengths, and so on.

Other schools have created their own well-being curricula that are tailor-made to their specific objectives. The Haberdasher’s Aske’s Academies Federation in the UK decided this was the right route for them. Ilona Boniwell, Lucy Ryan, and I were involved in designing and developing their primary and secondary well-being curricula. At the Luanda International School in Angola, my colleague Bora Rancic is leading a cross-disciplinary group of staff on a whole-school program called Well-being Across Borders to  bring positive psychology applications into school using the VIA Strengths Inventory as their framework.

Still other schools, such as St Peter’s College, Australia,  are implementing a mix of off-the-peg and tailor-made programs.


Which Approach to Positive Education is Right for Your School?

Assuming that implementing a Positive Education program is right for your school, how do you decide which approach to take? There is no easy answer. It depends! Of course, the cost of the program you have in mind is a major consideration, as is the time it takes for staff to be trained to run it. A number of specific questions need to be considered such as

  • Whether to buy a ready-made curriculum, such as Bounce Back! or the PRP, or to create your own tailor-made program
  • Whether to go for a broad holistic approach where you also take the school’s culture and values into account or a more contained approach consisting only of a specific time-table of well-being lessons
  • Whether to focus on student well-being or staff well-being, or both

These are not necessarily easy questions to answer. In implementing Positive Education, I’m very much reminded of Tony Hsieh and Zappos, the footwear company.  Hsieh has been very open about what he has done at Zappos, writing a book about this experience, speaking around the world, and even offering consultancy to other companies who want to emulate the success he has achieved. For Hsieh there is no competitive risk. Revealing what he has done at Zappos is not the same thing as telling you how he has done it.

My point is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Positive Education. I’ve worked on well-being with a great many schools across the UK: primary, secondary, special, state and private, and each is unique.  What is right for one school may not work so well for another. Bearing in mind its distinctive features,  each school has to decide its own approach. Yet there are some general principles of leading change successfully which need to be taken into account.


Happy school poster

Leading Positive Change

The discussion we had over the dinner table at the Positive Education Summit reminded me that in order to have flourishing schools, we still need to understand the basics of what makes change successful, and what gets in the way. Just because we’re talking about implementing a positive program of change (as opposed to say, an organizational restructure or introducing a new IT system, which are generally seen as negative changes) doesn’t mean that the principles of good change management fly out the window. In other words, just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it’s easy.

But there are things you can do which will help make the change easier.  These include tasks such as

  1. Getting sponsorship from the Head and senior leadership team
  2. Getting buy-in from the staff and parents
  3. Having a clear vision of what the school will look like in the future and how the students (and staff and parents) will benefit from Positive Education

These might seem tiresome, but they are essential to the success of your Positive Education initiative. If you can’t describe a  positive future for your school, its staff and students that is ambitious, compelling, and inspiring you may as well throw in the towel now.

Perhaps it’s time to look more seriously at how to become a positive prospector!




Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 351, 1351–1354.

Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. New York: Business Plus.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program. Years 5-8. Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program.  Years 3-4. Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

McGrath, H. & Noble, T. (2011). Bounce back! : A wellbeing and resilience program. Rears k – 2 . Melbourne, Aus: Pearson Education.

Seligman, M., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigation into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.



Sumatra school kids courtesy of Marc Veraat
Happy class courtesy of  www.audio-luci0-store.it
Happy school poster courtesy of LindaH


This article was originally published here on Positive Psychology News. com on 18th October 2013

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.