There is no denying that wellbeing is gaining traction in the middle east, particularly in Dubai. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) take wellbeing in education so seriously that they collaborated with the South Australian Government to create a Student Wellbeing Census, which has been disseminated through schools for two years so far; this measurement is set to continue in future. They also recognise the importance of adult wellbeing and more recently provided the staff in school communities with the Adults @ School survey, where participants gained access to an individualised action plan to support them in increasing their overall wellbeing at work. Positive Education is certainly coming into focus within the region, with many schools looking for resources and training which are the most suitable for their contexts.
Positive Education is an integrated approach where children are taught skills for wellbeing, alongside academics, promoting mental wellbeing through a range of concepts which all have foundations in positive psychology. This can include character strengths, mindfulness, resilience and gratitude to name a few. Often held as the beating heart of positive psychology, character strengths are a fantastic way for schools to begin their wellbeing journeys. Although, without a true understanding of strengths, or having a suitable timescale and action plan, schools run the risk of ‘ticking a box’ or adding just ‘another thing’ to the already demanding to-do list teachers face. When utilised effectively, character strengths can become part of the everyday ecology of the school, where not only students but all staff, can use the same strengths and language throughout subjects, lessons and meetings to understand what is best in human beings, ultimately having the capacity to increase overall wellbeing.
The VIA Institute on Character (www.viacharacter.org) a non-profit organisation, consisting of 55 well-regarded scientists, led by Professor Martin Seligman and the late Professor Chris Peterson, worked for 3 years studying literature from as far back as Aristotle’s time, as well as studying people from all over the world, before coming up with a classification comprising of 6 virtue categories where the 24 character strengths are grouped. The findings from this study can now be applied in a survey to determine the order of your strengths, with the top five being your signature strengths; currently, someone takes the survey across the world every 15 seconds.
How do strengths work in schools?
A simple visit to the VIA character website can open up a whole new world of information to any parent, teacher or school leader, but it can often be quite daunting when deciding where to start. Firstly, it is important to become familiar with the virtues and strengths themselves; find out what the strengths and virtues are. Before taking the survey, write down what you think your top strengths are, it can be fun to compare these with the results of the survey! Take the survey for yourself, it should take around 15-20 minutes. Once you have received your results you can begin familiarising yourself with your signature strengths and learning more about each one. It is possible fora whole school staff to complete the survey and compile strengths lists in departments or teams; imagine an environment where you can turn to your strengths to find solutions, focus on improvements by utilising people’s best attributes and turning away from ‘constructive criticism’ which often, is still perceived as criticism! Another wonderful way to increase strengths within the school is ‘strength spotting’, seeing someone use a strength, explaining it to them and showing appreciation for it; a wellbeing boost for both parties. Staff can then work together in teams to decide how strengths will look in their context. For example, a whole school launch day (World Character day is an annual event on the 27th of September, www.letitripple.org), or picking out strengths of a fictional character during an English lesson or perhaps debating which strengths could be better utilised by world leaders during social studies – the possibilities are endless! Of course, this all begins with children learning the vocabulary and definitions over time, but this can begin right from year 1.
A pack of character strengths cards can be a tangible resource that primary teachers can use for children, especially the little ones, to begin learning the strengths language. The cards can be taken out at any given time during lessons and children can easily begin spotting strengths in their friends. Perhaps you can have a strength of the week or day displayed in the classroom where the children work collectively to deepen that strength. Children will amaze you with their insights about the strengths! The good news is, children from the age of 10 and above can take part in their own survey on www.viacharacter.org which can be a useful tool for teachers looking to personalise learning even further by knowing the strengths of their children.
It is an exciting time for education in the Middle East; not only is there research finding which supports the notion that academic performance increases in students when there wellbeing is given priority, but there is also a shift towards wellbeing becoming as valuable as academic learning and rightly so. The first thing any parent says when asked what they want for their children is; for them to be happy. Imagine a school where investment is made to support the wellbeing of staff and train them in positive education – staff engagement increases alongside life-satisfaction, the children learn ways to manage emotions and improve their own wellbeing from a young age – beautiful isn’t it?
By: Ashley Green
Ashley is a class teacher in JESS Dubai as well as wellbeing leader for the school. She is currently studying for a master’s degree in Positive Psychology and Coaching with plans to conduct research into teacher wellbeing in Dubai. For Character Strength cards, resources and guided meditations, which are all suitable for classroom use, please visit www.mindfulteachinguae.com.
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