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Well-Doing + Well-Being

December 16, 2014 by ·

“…..all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.” -William James (1902)

Group of pupilsWhether it’s the boisterous laughter on the playground or anxiety in the classroom, emotions in children are contagious.  But, if we watch carefully, the way that social and emotional situations are dealt with vary, sometimes subtly, and sometimes profoundly from child to child.

In recent years the link between social and emotional learning (SEL) and academic success has been well established.  SEL has become an accepted and celebrated component of educating the whole child.  However, I wonder if we have given enough thought to exactly “what” is being learned in SEL. I suggest the SEL field is too concerned with the acquiring of prescribed prosocial skill sets at the expense of acquiring individual positive mindsets.  Said another way, we are too focused on behavioral “well-doing” and not sufficiently focused on experiential “well-being.”

In preschool, kindergarten and early primary grades we all agree that the skills of turn-taking, cooperation, and perspective-taking are crucial to academic and life success.  However, we seem less concerned about what are the beliefs the child is learning and developing about herself, other people and the world in general.

These belief systems are the “subjective” filters through which the “objective” world is perceived and understood.  They are what Alfred Adler described as “schemas of apperception” almost a hundred years ago.  Yet in SEL, little attention is placed on how these belief systems develop.  Do we understand how EVENTS in the life of a child are sufficiently attended to so that they become meaningful EXPERIENCES that are connected to other events to become part of narrative MEMORIES that in turn are rehearsed through self-talk so that they become BELIEFS by which she understands her world?

The fields of neuroscience and positive psychology describe the brain’s negativity bias through which a child is more likely to attend to, process and remember negative events than positive events.  As educators, we would benefit from understanding how to help children attend to and process positive events into impactful experiences that are encoded in memory and nurtured to beliefs.  Therefore, I suggest educators, parents, teachers, and practitioners begin to apply 4 key strategies. These are listed, each with an example, below:

  • Moment-Making: Being intentional about two specific strategies: 1) Orchestrating positive emotional experiences for young children, keeping in mind that most often frequency and consistency trump intensity and duration; 2) Observing positive events and helping a child attend to that event for a sufficient duration that it becomes a meaningful experience.
  • Meaning-Making: “Connecting the dots” between positive events and positive emotions.  Once you have focused the child’s awareness on the positive event, the next step is helping to connect their positive feeling to their actions or the actions of others. “Your face tells me you feel very happy. When you helped Kristin clean up, I think you made her happy and you felt good too.”
  • Memory-Making: “Connecting the dots” between these events and other positive experiences so that they become a thematic element in the child’s personal narrative memory.  “I noticed how you helped Mason when he was upset.  It reminded me of the time you invited Sarah to play with the group when she felt left out.”
  • Mindset-Making: Reinforcing positive beliefs about oneself, others and the world through positive self-talk.  At Growing Sound we use what we call “self-talk” songs to help children internalize positive beliefs.  Songs like “I Can Do It” and “I’m Gonna Find a Way” help internalize private speech around initiative and perseverance.
  • Social and emotional learning songs can be previewed at or

The field of character science, a pillar of positive psychology, is uniquely positioned to be the nexus of both “well-being” and “well-doing.”  The application of character strengths in education, and early childhood education in particular, means identifying and promoting the unique constellation of character strengths in each child.

Helping every child to notice, appreciate, and apply these emerging strengths in the classroom not only reinforces the likely repetition of prosocial “well-doing” but also the boosting of positive “well-being.”

tomlottmanThe author: Tom Lottman, Children, Inc., Covington, KY. Tom Lottman is an early education administrator at Children, Inc. in Northern Kentucky and Research Director of Growing Sound, an initiative that produces research-based children’s music to promote social and emotional development.

Additional Resources:

Children Inc. (nonprofit focused on early childhood education)

VIA Institute (nonprofit focused on advancing character strengths research/practice)

VIA Classification (the universal classification of strengths and virtues)

VIA Survey (the research-validated test of character strengths)

Character Strengths Research (up-to-date science on character strengths)


Ansbacher, H.L., & Ansbacher, R.R. (1964).  The individual psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D. & Schellinger, K.B. (2011).  The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Hanson, R. (2013). Hard-wiring happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. New York: Harmony Books.

James, W. The varieties of religious experience. (1902). Gifford lectures, University of Edinburgh. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E.B. (2001).  Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320.

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