Turning Tables with Positive Schools, by Dr Helen Street

Ps 15 smPositive Schools is an ongoing conversation about youth wellbeing. Examination of the history of this conversation enables us to engage in an increasingly informed future direction.

At the end of 2008, anticipation was mounting as the first Positive Schools website announced the inaugural 2009 Positive Schools conference. Now seven years later, it is interesting, and very revealing to reflect back on the changing content of the events. For it is the forever turning tables of contents that have led to the establishment of these events as conversations that are consistently innovative and informed. Simply put we have seen a considerable shift from a mental health platform to the positive education conferences we embrace today.

There are many evolving themes that have caught our attentions along with the favoured phrases that come with any new trend. We have seen presenters move from a focus on ‘depression and anxiety treatment’, to ‘positive behaviours’ and then on to ‘resiliency’. And more recently we have seen a surge of programs move from ‘enhancing self-esteem’ to ‘ teaching mindfulness’ and ‘self-respect’. This gradual shift from one trend to another has resulted in an overall shift from ‘treating and preventing mental illness’ to ‘enhancing and supporting wellbeing’. As such we have moved from being ‘a conference about mental health in schools’ to ‘an evolving discussion about positive education’.

This transition does not minimalize the importance of addressing serious mental health concerns, but rather allows for a broader view of wellbeing. A view that encompasses all young people, rather than specifically the distressed minority. Research and anecdotal experience have shown us that increased focus on creating solutions, rather than reducing problems, is the best way to help all young people to flourish, no matter where they are currently situated.

In support of this table turning, recent research suggests that a focus on positive distractions can be far more beneficial than an in-depth exploration of underlying causes in the treatment of depression. Simply put, a good time with friends may often do far more for our wellbeing than a long time with a therapist. At least when our problems are manageable.

The past forty years of clinical psychology has been led by a growing desire to acknowledge the power of words, over and above behavioural therapies or medication. This has resulted in an almost total submergence of psychology in ‘talking therapies’ and ‘talking programs’. Moreover, this has occurred to the point where we are often led to believe that a person is ‘closed off’ or ‘mentally immature’ if they are reluctant to discuss their problems and insecurities with others. In reality, the ‘old fashioned’ coping strategies of older generations may be far more effective than recently considered. Sometimes, silencing discussion of a problem, in favour of embracing a more positive present experience, can be a great answer to wellbeing. This is certainly not to suggest that we should hide problems and issues occurring in ourselves or in our students. Rather it is to suggest that once an issue has been identified, the solution may lie more in a strategy to embrace a positive future, than in one to admonish psychological demons.

Current trends to embrace mindfulness and emotional safety in the classroom go hand in hand with a pressing need to support opportunities for greater creativity and empowerment for students. As such, our understanding of the power of embracing a positive alternative is now leading us to see ourselves as a cheer squad for our students’ journeys rather than leaders pulling them along ‘Happy Street’. We appreciate that we do not need to necessarily ‘teach’ young people what to say or think to help them embrace wellbeing. Rather we need to provide opportunities for them to find their own wellbeing within an emotionally safe environment.

To me the age old, and incredibly real problem of bullying and aggression is a great example of these changing tides to better health. We have moved from recognition of the problem of bullying to programs that encourage students to stand up to the ‘bullies’. We then increased a focus on talking about things and improving communication. Most recently we have begun to encourage positive distraction and, in our technology driven age, are learning to be cybersavvy rather than purely being cybersafe.

So where to next?

It seems to me, that in addition to acknowledging the power of ‘getting on with things’ in a positive way; we need to examine other historical ways of supporting wellbeing. Not only did many older generations understand the power of positive communication, be it with humour, kindness or gratitude; they also understood the importance of seeing ‘the whole person’.

It could be said that our need to establish our feelings and thoughts as essential components of our wellbeing, has resulted in our forgetting that our minds are dependent on the functioning of our physical selves. We are more than just our minds, as much as we are more than just our bodies.

With these ponderings in mind, I am excited to know that Positive Schools 2015 embraces physical health in our ongoing conversation about wellbeing. We may have once trivialized depression and anxiety as merely signs of fatigue or hunger in our children. However, in today’s psychological world, we are in danger of trivializing fatigue and poor physical health solely as consequences of ‘emotional stress’. Surely our next step in our quest for better living needs to be an improved understanding of wellbeing as a whole body experience. There is certainly a growing body of evidence that suggests we need to revisit kids’ lifestyle choices as much as we need to cheer for mental peace and happy thoughts.

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