In an ever-changing world, many students find it difficult to remain positive when they are confronted with new problems and unfamiliar situations. To help every child attain academic success without compromising their overall well-being, teachers at Westwood Primary School encourage their pupils to cope with setbacks by nurturing resilient and positive mind-sets.
A Positive Climate for Healthier Minds
An entire cohort of Primary 4 pupils sits quietly on the floor of the school hall with their eyes closed, some with their palms facing upward. This image of a mindfulness session was shown during Mr Khoo Rong Huang, Mrs Tan Phui Lea and Ms Sophia Tan’s presentation at the Teachers’ Conference 2016.
Since welcoming its first batch of pupils in 2013, teachers at Westwood Primary School (WWPS) have been imparting the principles of positive education to them to help them develop resilient mind-sets and positive attitudes.
In a nutshell, positive education is the incorporation of the science of positive psychology into the life and work of schools (Seligman, Ernst, Gilham, Reivich & Linkins, 2009).
What does a positive school look like? “It should set a positive climate so that every pupil and staff would have a growth mind-set,” says Sophia. “We believe that everyone has strengths and potential for learning.”
To do that, teachers in WWPS conceptualized a framework called “THRIVE” in 2013 that focuses on positive education and implemented it in 2014.
Three main strategies of positive education were mentioned as they tie in closely with WWPS’s school programmes in encouraging students to have positive mind-sets and resilience.
Gratitude Begets Happiness
Typically, students only approached their teachers to complain about negative experiences. Things began to change last year for WWPS when students started penning down positive events on a weekly basis under its “What Went Well” programme.
This practice promotes positive reflections of their life experiences. In cases where students find it difficult to focus on positive events, they are guided to talk about the challenges they faced instead and how they overcame them. Through this process, students learn to identify positive aspects that can arise from a situation that may seem negative.
To nurture a heart of appreciation and gratitude for others, students also write gratitude cards for the important people in their life once a term. “Although the notes are very simple, pupils are very happy when they give cards to and receive cards from their friends,” Sophia shares.
One of the students reflected in his journal: “We should not hesitate to show love and express gratitude on a daily basis because a simple act of kindness may just brighten another person’s day!”
We should not hesitate to show love and express gratitude on a daily basis because a simple act of kindness may just brighten another person’s day!
– A student, about writing gratitude notes.
Focusing the Mind for Better Engagement
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment and clearing the mind of distracting thoughts so one can focus better. Mindfulness activities can come in the form of games.
During a game of giant Jenga, a trainer poses specific challenges for pupils to discuss. They also have to think mindfully about their feelings if the Jenga stack were to tumble down and how they can learn from their mistakes to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Sophia says, “It’s very hard to tell young children to just ‘apply mindful thinking, be focused and be engaged’ because they don’t see the link.” For students to internalize the concept of mindfulness, it is more effective to let them try hands-on activities as experiential learning allows them to go through the process, reflect on the application and draw their own learning points.
Besides mindful breathing and playing, there are other kinds of activities that teachers can work with, including mindful listening, eating and movement.
Initially, the teachers were unsure of the effects of mindful activities. But what they noticed eventually was that pupils were able to settle down and start work on their tasks more effectively after practicing mindfulness for 2 to 3 minutes. This was apparent even after recess, when students were especially rowdy and restless.
Praising the Process, Not the Outcome
It is not uncommon to praise students for being “smart” or “clever” when they do well in a subject. However, this actually impedes students’ willingness to learn new things as they will believe that their intelligence is fixed and cannot be developed further.
As a result, they tend to give up on subjects which they are not “smart” at and this leads to them doing even worse. Many pupils tend to focus only on the outcome, such as results or test grades, rather than the process of learning and overcoming challenges.
Phui Lea shares that one of her pupils always thought that he cannot solve Math problems and laments that he is not as good as his friends. To counter his negative thoughts, Phui Lea used process praise (Haimovitz & Corpus, 2011).
Contrary to person praise, which praises pupils for skills that they are already good at, process praise shows pupils how they can achieve a goal by unpacking the learning methods with them and praising them for taking the right steps.
It is not enough to just give pupils instructions like “draw the model correctly” as they would not understand how to do that. Instead, teachers should give specific instructions like “identify the items and label them”. “Pupils will realize that their performance is determined by factors that are within their control,” says Phui Lea.
Pupils will realize that their performance is determined by factors that are within their control.
– Tan Phui Lea, Westwood Primary School
Another pupil caught Rong Huang’s attention when he wrote “I hate school” in his test paper. To draw focus away from the pupil’s inability to do well, Rong Huang followed the three simple steps of process praise to help the pupil see the value of learning and to instil a growth mindset in him.
Firstly, he identified the learning objectives with the pupil, which was to correct the pupil’s careless mistakes in Math. In one scenario, he noticed that the pupil did his working steps for multiplication correctly – writing 67 x 7 – but only forgot to transfer the correct number down to the answer space. As a result, his answer became 69, which was incorrect.
Next, he unpacked the process with the pupil, which was to teach the student how to work backwards to check for careless mistakes. Instead of saying “work backwards”, which the student might not understand, Rong Huang tells him to use his final answer to divide by 7 and he was right if he got the original answer, which was 67.
They start to reflect on their own rather than wait for us to tell them the next step to take. That is a good change indeed.
– Khoo Rong Huang, Westwood Primary School
Lastly, when the student got it right, he praised the student for using the process correctly, saying “I can see that you have started to work backwards to check your answer!”
“We need to let the pupil see that it is because of the process that he has undertaken that helped him to solve the problem. It has nothing to do with whether he is clever or not,” Rong Huang concludes.
While process praise is the key to a growth mindset, it does not come without challenges. A lot of time and effort is needed to go through the process and get feedback from the pupils on whether the methods work. However, Sophia, Phui Lea and Rong Huang have seen how it has benefitted the students immensely.
Rong Huang shares, “They start to reflect on their own rather than wait for us to tell them the next step to take. That is a good change indeed.”
Having shared their research on process praise with the rest of WWPS’s teachers, the team hopes that this practice will become another common strategy that will contribute to WWPS’s culture of positive education.
Seligman, M. E., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311.
Haimovitz, K., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: Stability and change in emerging adulthood. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 31(5), 595–609.