Wellbeing; a predictor of success. By Rob Stokeo PS17

An article based on Rob’s Positive Schools 2017 presentation


“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it”. Groucho Marx


As we face the challenges of rapid change and developing strategies for learning in the 21st century we must never lose sight of the fact that people matter. They can inform the future success of any school, their well being and engagement are essential if a school is to develop or improve its performance. The future requires that the well being of the whole staff is nurtured as an energizer for change.  As leaders we must focus upon change that will bring about positive outcomes, we have power to influence those around us, and in return, be influenced ourselves, we live with a purpose and in that context well being matters.  The concept of well-being comprises feeling good and functioning well. Feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement are characteristic of individuals who have a positive outlook on life. Equally important for well-being is our sense of purpose and place, our function in the world. Experiencing positive relationships, having some control over one’s life and having a sense of purpose are all important attributes of wellbeing.  However, well being is not an outcome; it is something which broadens our perspective, a predictor of future success.


We all want to be happy


The state of well being and satisfaction largely depends upon the thinking of an individual, yet the quest for well being, for happiness is universal, everyone wants to be happy. I think we would all agree that well being and happiness put us on the road to fulfillment accepting that happiness is a journey, not a destination.  We must acknowledge how complex it is as it is always influenced by traits such as optimism, gratitude, zest, curiosity, and love regardless of age or financial context.  All these traits can be nurtured and encouraged; there are many routes to happiness. The word happy is an emotionally positive word, it offers a positive message, opening dialogue and always a driver that helps us drive to make a better world. Yet we need to understand this, is happiness a trait, ‘I am a happy person’, or a state, ‘I am happy today’.  Happiness is complex, is it an emotion, a reflection of people lives. We all need to understand what makes us happy and our accounts of well being. Considering happiness gives us a momentum for change where knowledge and engagement become empowering tools, even discussing happiness is a win, win


Every school is unique and special and as leaders we must always be open and honest, paying attention to and being mindful of the well being of our community. Mindful leaders are self-aware, ethical, clear-sighted and relationally transparent. They are trusted and they are effective and they create the environment for great learning.  Professional development to support teacher wellbeing has become an emergent theme, one which supports better and more secure learning.  Positive, optimistic, happy people are mentally, physically, and emotionally healthier more able to access new learning.  They are more resilient, have better relationships, are more successful at work are satisfied with their lives and careers. Research suggests they even live longer! Being mindful will always have a positive impact upon well-being. (Hupert & Johnson 2010) Well being makes us feel good and if we feel good we can display happiness, contentment interest and affection. The positivity of well being encourages in each of us the ability to make choices and offers resilience in the face of challenges, enhances curiosity and creativity.


The positive impact of wellbeing


In recent years there has been a growing acceptance that the well being of a school community has a positive impact upon the formal outcomes of school activity, it directly informs student capacity for learning and achievement.  As leaders we must understand how we are perceived on a day to day basis and the impact we have on our educators. The very designation of Head teacher is an impediment, accepting that we must always demonstrate  awareness and be pro active in considering and bring a steady focus upon staff well being.  As leaders we need to have a progressive and empowering mindset in order that we foster positivity and understand the expectations of our talented staff.  The best thing for any school is an engaged, happy and motivated staff, who knows they are valued by their leaders.  As leaders we must aspire to create a context which allows, indeed encourages our staff to flourish. Flourishing creates a positive effect. According to Fredrickson and Losada (2005), to flourish means to live with an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, growth and resilience. Keyes (2002) argues that people can move from languishing to flourishing and function well if they develop positive emotional wellbeing, positive social wellbeing and positive psychological wellbeing.  We may be lucky enough to have teachers who display high levels of social and emotional competence; it is likely that we model and nurture these attributes, but do we need to create the opportunity to provide explicit training in the development of skills such as compassion, gratitude and empathy.  I would not under estimate either the value or the challenge of such development as developing social and emotional skills in adults is a complex process.  For our teachers, these skills are imperative not only for their personal well-being but to improve student learning.


Teacher wellbeing is relevant


The best thing for students is a happy, motivated staff. Teacher wellbeing is relevant for whole school wellbeing, informing a stable, secure social and learning environment for students. Murray-Harvey (2010) found that both academic outcomes and social and emotional wellbeing in school were ‘unambiguously influenced’ by the quality of relationships between teachers and students. By putting the motivation and engagement of staff alongside the students, you are doing the best you can do for the students. Yes we put the needs of the students but they are far from our sole responsibility, if we do not pay attention to our educators and support staff we are doing our learners a disservice.  When teachers are at ease with their responsibilities, when they have a sense of professional autonomy they project that same sense of wellbeing into their learning environments making learning an enjoyable act, a goal to which all of us are dedicated. We must access the creativity and potential within our teaching teams supporting and encouraging our talented teachers to both inform and thrive in positive, collaborative environments.  The outcomes include positive effects for children’s knowledge and attainment and also teachers’ professional commitment, knowledge and satisfaction.  (Goddard et al, 2004).


The report goes on to outline seven pathways to wellbeing in a school:

  • Building a respectful and supportive school community.
  • Developing pro-social values.
  • Providing a safe learning environment.
  • Enhancing social-emotional learning.
  • Using strengths based approaches.
  • Fostering a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Encouraging a healthy lifestyle.




We all know people who are really good listeners. No matter what the context they always know what to say, how and when to say it. They offer a high level of care and consideration, they are active listeners able to put aside their own viewpoint trying to see things from another’s’ perspective.  Not only do they listen with their ears, they listen with their eyes and their heart as they considers not only what is being said, but what the other person feels.  Active listening bring the focus of attention to the speaker and what they have to say, a way of listening and responding to another person that promotes mutual understanding.  Leaders who have a high degree of emotional intelligence are effective listeners; they are capable of offering positive solutions without causing offence or upset.  They are caring, considerate and others usually leave feeling valued, motivated, and optimistic.  This mindful listening is deeply powerful, it involves listening with integrity and honesty and responding with compassion and understanding. Mindful listening offers kindness and insight to both colleagues and students in times of need and is critical to mutually supportive relationships.


A smile is a charity

A smile is a universal means of communicating, it’s also one of the most basic expressions of all, smiles are cross-cultural and have the same meaning in different societies. More than 30% of us smile more than twenty times a day and for some, less than 14% of us smile less than five times a day. In fact one of the reasons schools are such great places to work is that children smile as many as four hundred times daily, great for us as educators as our natural reflex is to return a smile, its contagious and happiness is activated when we smile.  The brain, in seeing a smile, has already considered the reward attained. More often we need to access the power of authentic smiles, according to Gutman (2011) it has the ability to connect us with others, you will be happier and healthier. “Too often, we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo F. Buscaglia


Recognition, acknowledgement and unexpected kindness

Recognition is hugely important, just two hours a week in acts of unexpected kindness will inform an emotionally literate school.  A school where leaders find teachers doing great things, have the time to listen to, to prompt, encourage and demonstrate care for their teachers and give positive feedback for their efforts will inform great learning for students. Therefore you must seek out colleagues, catch them doing great things and tell them why and how well they are doing. We all like praise. I know I need to tell people more often how much I appreciate them, but I keep trying, I can never do enough.


Something special is happening here

We all feel good when someone thanks us.  Our purpose should always focus upon the special things that happen in our schools.  Recognising that “Something special is happening here”, is highly rewarding and motivating for all concerned.  We need to build the happy gene!  Key to effective leadership is to maintain and develop positivity and high morale; we need to be systematic and fair in recognising, celebrating and sharing the accomplishments of our students and teachers. Recognition supports motivation across any school, fuelling high performance and reinforcing desired behaviours, building a culture of high performance and high levels of motivation.  As leaders we need to utilise and value recognition, acknowledging that whether recognition works for us is not the point, it works for others!  Simply recognizing the effort staff commit to their work will raise levels of motivation and morale.  My point here is that recognition is a leadership tool; the work of Robert Cialdani, (2006) identifies recognition as an effective device that can be used to lead and motivate people other than you.  You never know, someone may just come along and acknowledge you someday.  Ultimately, you have to admit that it is good for you, it is good for your school, and it is the right thing to do.  Our parents were right all along, it’s just polite to say “thank you” and is a great way to build relationship capital, or to create a reciprocity pool.


In saying recognition is the right thing to do it must be deserved and our response to excellence must be authentic, not automatic; you have to mean it.  When we apply recognition, we have a positive impact upon areas such as engagement, attendance, collaboration, retention and most importantly learning and teaching.  We need to make time to get into our classrooms, catch people doing exemplary work, sharing great experiences.  We then need to thank them and tell them how they are doing such a great job.  Our professional colleagues merit constructive feedback and positive affirmation or simply saying, “thank you” for a job well done. Recognising the great things happening around you in your school will make it a happier place to be, for everyone, put simply; it feels great to work in an organisation where morale is high!


Being mindful is an inherent human capacity. But it doesn’t always come naturally, it requires discipline and practice to focus on the ‘here and now’ and not get side-tracked by past mistakes or future results. (Bell, J. 2012) Mindful leaders are able to achieve this; they are less concerned about individual success and self-esteem issues, and are better able to form deeper meaningful connections and relationships with those they lead.  We are all mindful to one degree or another, moment by moment. Effective leaders are attentive, aware of and value the opinions of colleagues and their experiences, engaging in conversations that cross the boundaries of function and hierarchy, this way they gain new perspectives from as well as trust and deeper engagement from staff. Promoting positive wellbeing amongst colleagues makes a huge difference. When staff feel appreciated and empowered, they are willing to share their practice and demonstrate greater empathy for the learners in their care.  This enhances the capacity of any school to nurture and developing students’ potential. Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing, on average, have higher levels of academic achievement.


Student Wellbeing


As leaders we must acknowledge the difference we can make by embracing the notion of student well being within and beyond the academic context. We need to foster wellbeing because there is a link between wellbeing, academic and personal success.  Implicit modeling of wellbeing may already be the source of positive engagement with our students but we have to consider whether or not we can be deliberate, explicit in our approach and target the wellbeing domains following the example of Geelong Grammar School who have actively implemented a Positive education program in recent years.  In a school wide context they target six wellbeing domains, including positive emotions, positive engagement, positive accomplishment, positive purpose, positive relationships, and positive health, underpinned by a focus on character strengths. (Norish et al 2013) Positive Education is essentially traditional education focused on academic skill development complemented by approaches that nurture wellbeing and promote good mental health (Seligman 2011). The program aims to increase mental fitness and resilience for every student who in the best of circumstances has a personal tutor who identifies strengths and sets and overseas academic and personal goals. Students are also introduces to activities which are scientifically proven to increase levels of wellbeing and performance. Positive Education could more completely be described as bringing together the science of Positive Psychology with best-practice teaching to encourage students to flourish.  Students flourishing is simply viewed as both ‘feeling good’ and ‘doing good’ (Huppert & So, 2013). Feeling good reflects a wide range of emotions and experiences such as happiness with the present and hopeful for the future. Doing good strives to equip students with capability to help them to face both the challenges and opportunities which life offers. A focus on wellbeing within education is beneficial and supports students achievement. Howell (2009) found that students who were flourishing reported superior grades, higher self-control and positive attendance rates.


Creating a culture of well being will develop a positive approach where members of the school community see great purpose in their life, their work and the goals of the school as well as greater self awareness. It will engender more meaningful and satisfying learning and personal relationships enhancing both student and teacher capability, resilience and their potential to cope with the demands of school life.  Positive interventions from leaders increase wellbeing, enhancing engagement and a perception of value from the school, its purpose and its vision. It will also encourage positive relations with others, personal growth and role purpose.  Bottom of Form


Being positive will inform success.


According to Fredrickson (2001) positive emotions broaden our thoughts and actions; we pay more attention, are more creative, flexible and are open to relationships. Positive emotions build psychological resources: resilience, coping, physical abilities, emotional intelligence, social skills and self mastery. Taking this into consideration these attributes will inform positive outcomes and it’s reasonable to say that the only true disability in life is a negative attitude, life may not appear to be fair at times but it has a habit of responding to a positive attitude. Life is your attitude, and we should have attitude with gratitude. Consider the great things you have, the great things within you and the unlimited potential of your future as well as the positive impact you can have on those around you. A final consideration, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” (Aristotle)




Fredrickson B. L. (2001) The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist. 2001;56:218–226

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. London: Crown Publishers.

Goddard, R.D., Hoy, W.K. & Woolfolk, H.A. (2004).Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3–13.

Gutman, R. (2011) Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act: TED books

Howell, A. J. (2009). Flourishing: Achievement-related correlates of students’ well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 1-13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760802043459

Huppert, F. A., & So, T. T. (2013). Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, 110(3), 837-861

Murray-Harvey, R. (2010). Relationship influences on students’ academic achievement, psychological health and well-being at school. Educational andChild Psychology, 27(1), 104–113.

Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., & Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for positive education. International Journal of Wellbeing, 3(2), 147-161.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing


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