Mindfulness & Character Strengths: Teaching Students How to Flourish
July 27, 2016 by VIA Contributor ·
By applying a research-based approach to wellbeing across the school, our focus is to teach students the necessary skills to flourish and live a life of promise, purpose and fulfillment. As part of our positive education curriculum, students learn how to combine mindfulness and character strengths techniques. Arguably, the integration of mindfulness and character strengths offers a number of distinct and promising benefits. Dr Niemiec (2014) hypothesises that the integration of these two areas is a recipe for flourishing – for greater engagement in work, higher sense of meaning and purpose, higher physical and psychological wellbeing, and improved relationships.
Wilderness School in Adelaide, South Australia, founded in 1884, is a nondenominational school for girls (750 students) from Early Learning to Year 12 with boarding facilities for students from Year 7 – 12. The school leadership team has adopted a strategic whole school approach to wellbeing. The values of Wilderness (Adventurous Learning, Responsible Citizenship, Respectful Relationships & A True and Courageous Self) guide every part of the School’s culture, relationships, teaching and learning programs and practices – values which were developed 132 years ago by the founders of the school, the Brown sisters. The wellbeing of each student is central to the School’s mission, “To enable each girl to be the best that she can be throughout her life” with the School’s values being the foundation for our wellbeing model (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 (Wilderness School Wellbeing Model)
Wilderness’s Wellbeing model has been implemented across the whole school with the positive education curriculum being scoped and sequenced to the general capabilities from the Australian Curriculum. Instead of having solo approaches to wellbeing throughout the school based on the effort of individual teachers, the focus is written in the School’s strategic plan to ensure consistent application with fidelity. The Wellbeing model has a whole-school focus using the four values of the school for:
- Universal implementation which provides the system and processes across the whole school to support flourishing of each student (e.g. House, Form, Pastoral Care, Leadership, Assemblies, Sports, Music, Clubs).
- Targeted group programme interventions for students to learn specific skills to flourish (e.g. Gratitude, Stress Management, Social and Emotional Learning program – Kimochis, Wilderness Resilience Adolescent Program, Mindfulness-Based Strength Program, Positive Coaching Program).
- Individual students’ support services provides further individualised and intensive support for students who have more emotional and behavioural challenges towards flourishing (e.g. individual counselling and support).
This model, which builds a culture where positive behaviour and developing a true self is taught, is embedded across the whole school because schools are now seen as institutions where their role extends beyond academic competence to further preparing the ‘whole child’ (Huitt, 2010).
To enable our students to grow, a Mindfulness-Based Strength Program (MBSP) was implemented – a pilot program to teach students how to combine mindfulness and character strengths. The goal was to teach MBSP skills to Year 10 students so each girl could develop & apply these strategies when dealing with school/life pressures in the Senior School. In Years 7 – 9 students study and develop their character strengths and practice mindfulness as part of the positive education curriculum in a weekly Character & Wellbeing (CWB) class. Year 10 was chosen to teach the MBSP techniques, enabling girls to continually develop their wellbeing skills in the Senior School through this targeted group programme intervention. Due to the increase in academic work and associated pressures, Year 10 seemed an advantageous year level to bridge teaching these skills between the Middle and Senior School. Furthermore, building on student’s prior knowledge from learning wellbeing concepts in the Middle School CWB classes, it was beneficial to extend their understanding and application of these concepts. This positive education curriculum was written based on concepts outlined in Dr. Niemiec’s book Mindfulness & Character Strengths (2014). Classes were taught during home room time, including pre-post testing of students’ self-report on the Hope Scale (Schonert-Reichl, Oberle, Lawlor, Abbott, & Thomson, 2015).
Overview of the seven-week program:
- Define & identify mindfulness / evaluate autopilot
- Signature strengths / video / individual rating
- Obstacles are opportunities
- Strengthening mindfulness
- Mindfulness and the Golden Mean
- Authenticity & Best possible self
- Engagement & academic success
Eighty-four students participated in this program with girls completing their VIA character strengths profile as part of the course. Girls reported that they felt more relaxed and focused when doing their school work after learning and practicing the MBSP techniques. Another benefit that girls reported was how they were using this practice in other areas outside the classroom. For example, playing on a sports team and in their relationships in regards to how they are mindful in utilizing their strengths in a positive way, focusing on the golden mean. The golden mean refers to expressing the right combination of character strengths, to the right degree, in the right situation (Niemiec, 2014). The girls were also asked what character strengths they would use to describe their Form (home room group) with discussions about how they over and under use their strengths as a group. Interesting discussions unfolded regarding how girls could use their character strengths to support each other more in their friendships. One of the most noted benefits from teaching the course was seeing students become more mindful about when they overuse and underuse their character strengths, especially applying this understanding into their school work and what the core is for each strength in Finding the Strengths Zone. Several students commented that Love of Learning is one of their top character strengths and how they now have a deeper understanding and self awareness of when they are overusing (know-it-all) and underusing (complacency) this specific strength. Students also grew in their understanding of how other people perceive them when they overuse and underuse a strength.
Academic applications included:
- When you start to feel stressed, catch yourself and say “Stop! Aware! Go to your signature strengths!”.
- Be aware of overuse and underuse of your strengths when tackling school work.
- Be mindful of having a growth mindset.
- Practice mindfulness every day to help increase your attention and energy levels.
- Find ways to incorporate your signature strengths into the classroom.
- Do an activity once a week to tap into your signature strengths.
Student feedback about the program included:
“In the MBSP course we had time to evaluate things in life that I wouldn’t usually think about like my strengths and areas to grow. It was valuable because it helped me to apply my strengths in school work. For example, being mindful of my character strengths and how I used them in class to concentrate and be more engaged in my work.” Laura Montague, Year 11 student
“Learning about the Golden Mean and how to not overuse or underuse my strengths in a mindful way helped me when working on a team, especially in sports. In volleyball when playing I am more mindful of when I overuse my humour strength and when I need to be my best possible self in being fully engaged.” Emily Yull, Year 11 student
Due to the success of teaching the MBSP we are looking to implement this program again with the possibility of training staff so they can teach, reinforce and embed these concepts into academic classes.
Huitt, W. (2010). A holistic view of education and schooling: Guiding students to develop capacities, acquire virtues, and provide service. Paper presented at the 12th Annual International Conference sponsored by the Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), May 24-27, Athens, Greece.
Niemiec, R (2014) Mindfulness and Character Strengths A Practical Guide to Flourishing. Hogrefe Publishing, USA.
Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M.S., Abbott, D., & Thomson, K. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized control trial, Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.
Trina Cummins is the Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education at Wilderness School, Adelaide where she is a member of the Senior Leadership team and oversees Positive Education across the school (ELC – Year 12). She has extensive experience in managing the day to day planning and operations of programs across different school sectors (government and independent) in America and Australia. Feel free to visit the Wilderness School website http://www.wilderness.com.au/wellbeing/wholeschool- approach to learn more about the positive education and well-being programs being implemented, specifically how girls are taught flourishing skills.
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