Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'Build Resilience by Teaching Positivity before Puberty'

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'Build Resilience by Teaching Positivity before Puberty'

Article excerpt

Psychologist Martin Seligman believes developing an optimistic outlook can improve educational outcomes

Martin Seligman is not naturally a happy person. But, as a result of his work on resilience, pupils across the world are now being taught to challenge their negative thoughts and discover their inner optimism.

"I'm a depressive and a pessimist," Seligman tells TES. "So these are techniques I use on myself all the time. Before, it would have been very easy for me to go under."

As an example, he mentions the fact that he plays bridge competitively. "I'm not a great bridge player," he says. "I'm just a competent bridge player. When I make a bad error and think I'm hopeless at bridge, I have to dispute that immediately and get back on track."

Seligman will be visiting the UK at the end of this month, at the invitation of Lord O'Shaughnessy. It was the former adviser to prime minister David Cameron who originally pushed for Seligman's lessons in positive psychology - translated to become the much more British-sounding "character" - to be taught in England's schools.

And Seligman has long said that he believes that state schools should follow the lead taken by independent schools such as Wellington College, and offer happiness lessons to pupils.

His work on resilience began as a cognitive behavioural therapy anti-anxiety exercise for adults. Patients were taught to recognise catastrophic thoughts - "no one loves me" or "I'm a loser" - and to counteract them with reality: "Here is evidence showing that people do, in fact, love me."

Going under

"One of the consequences of not being resilient is going under and being depressed when bad events occur," he says.

But then it occurred to him that he could teach those same resilience skills preventatively. "Depression tends to start at puberty. So we thought it would be good to teach those skills before puberty."

He therefore started working with middle schools near the University of Pennsylvania, where he is professor of psychology. Children between the ages of 10 and 12 were taught resilience skills.

For example, Seligman says, a 12-year-old girl might walk into the school dining room and see all her friends sitting together at one table. She waits for them to invite her to join them but they do not. Someone who had not learnt to be resilient might think "I'm a loser" or "No one likes me".

With resilience training, however, the girl would know to counter those thoughts with something more rational: "They're all members of the volleyball team, so they must be having a team lunch. I'm not a member of the volleyball team, which is why they haven't invited me to join them."

And this, says Seligman, is at the heart of positive thinking: "For me, resilience boils down to trying to overcome catastrophic thoughts. When you dispute catastrophic thoughts, you try harder and you're more present."

When he compared the Pennsylvania children with a control group, he found that there was a decrease in their rates of depression.

But there are other benefits to resilience. Professor Seligman's positive-thinking programme has since been taught in schools around the world. Most recently, programmes have run with 8,000 children in Bhutan, 60,000 in Mexico and 700,000 in Peru.

"The kids [in all three countries] had higher wellbeing," he says. "But, most importantly, two years later they had higher standardised test scores. When you make kids happier, their science, maths and literature test scores go up. Those kids are more engaged in school. …

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