Positive psychology is at the core of a program in Philadelphia called Positive Behavioral Support, or PBS, and I think it has tremendous value for the psychological health of our young people. I'd like to see positive psychology used in every classroom in America.
The concept is based on the idea that children thrive with love and praise. Schools across the country have specialized in punishment-suspensions, expulsions, detentions--and very little praise. Typically the belief that the child is capable of doing the work, and more, is not conveyed to the child. This is a serious omission, because many children never get a word of praise. Instead, they receive warnings, threats, or punishments. The child who might want to succeed in school finds it impossible to do without positive support.
In Philadelphia, the only successful antiviolence programs for youth use praise and love liberally. They have standards and expectations, but a stroke, a smile, or a comment tells the child he is valued. We see high recidivism in programs that fail to inject that essential ingredient into the caring of the child. And when youth get positive reactions from adults, you see them light up. They feel pride. Good teachers know how to incorporate PBS into the educational process.
I know of a case several years ago in which an elementary school tried an experiment. At the end of the year, the faculty and administration decided to work over the summer, repaint the classrooms, hang posters, and make the classrooms cheerful. Everyone agreed that they would tell the children that "they would succeed."
The grades went up three levels, and the children were surprised by the extent of their improvement. This experiment worked because it involved everyone in PBS and created a level of encouragement that led to extraordinary results. It is the best example of PBS that I know of.
The lives of many children are filled with trauma and abuse. These children come to school with images of the father beating the mother the night before or memories of being beaten by a parent for some minor infraction. They couldn't care less about reading or math. They need someone, such as a teacher, to be a loving guide.
Too often, children find school to be another place that is painful with no rewards and with a reminder that they are worthless.
Almost 50% of children who start the ninth grade in Philadelphia fail to graduate. They don't see any reason to go to school, which is filled with regimentation and responsibility, and offers no rewards. School cuts have limited the availability of sports, art, and music--three areas that turn children on. These pressures make it even more important for faculty members to view as an important aspect of their work making school an interesting place to be for children.
Recently, I visited a classroom of fourth-and fifth-graders who were too behaviorally problematic to remain in their regular classrooms. It was sad, because only 8 out of 15 children were present, so I knew that something was wrong. When children are engaged, they are not truant! As it turns out, the teacher was lecturing the children about the Civil War in a very boring way. Every time she asked a question, a child sitting near me would eagerly raise his hand and then call out the answer before he was recognized. I concluded that the child was an attention seeker. The teacher was angry and refused to call on him.
After calling out the answer for the sixth or seventh time, the student put his head down on the desk. I whispered to the person whom I was with that the child had just "checked out."
Next, the teacher distributed a sheet of paper with questions and a list of words to fill in blanks. The child I am describing called out three times that he did not understand the instructions. The teacher continued to ignore him. I …