Happiness lessons for all pupils

Happiness lessons for all pupils

From The Times

September 4, 2007

Happiness lessons for all pupils

Alexandra Frean, Education Editor

Feeling down today? OK, let’s talk about how you feel and start again.

With this touchy-feely approach, the Government is hoping to bring about a revolution in the classroom.

Today Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, will announce that lessons in happiness, wellbeing and good manners are to be introduced in all state secondary schools.

The initiative follows an extensive pilot of a programme called Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) in primary schools, which has been found to boost both academic performance and discipline by helping children to better understand their emotions.

The adoption of “wellbeing” classes by state schools suggests that emotional intelligence – a term coined in 1995 by psychologists in Britain – has now become entrenched firmly in the educational mainstream.

Ministers are convinced that teaching children to express their feelings, manage their anger and empathise with other people makes for a calmer school and boosts concentration and motivation.

It is not just the pupils that benefit. Research published today by the Institute of Education (IoE) into the effect of Seal in primary schools indicates that it is equally beneficial for teachers, reducing their stress levels and boosting their enthusiasm for study.

The approach includes wellbeing assemblies and one-to-one sessions in which pupils may, for example, be told a story about a personal conflict that they are then encouraged to discuss.

The wellbeing ethos will be incorporated into all lessons and even into playtime through the use of positive phrases and ideas, such as “OK, let’s start again” and “people like me succeed”.

Susan Hallam, author of the IoE research, suggested that the Seal programme was the perfect antidote to the intense pressure imposed on schools by the testing regime and exam league tables.

“Most of the effort in recent years has been on academic work. Seal gives teachers and pupils permission to think about things that are not academic. It allows them to take time to consider how they think about themselves and others,” she said.

Professor Hallam evaluated the impact of the Seal in a sample of primary schools from 25 local authorities that used the programme between 2003 and 2005.

The programme had seven themes including, “good to be me”, “getting on and falling out” and “relationships”.

Finding that the programme helped them to understand their pupils, teachers noticed that they were shouting less and resolving conflicts more easily. Queues of naughty children outside the head teachers” offices diminished or disappeared entirely.

Because the children were more relaxed, their learning, motivation, willing to interact with those from different backgrounds and cultures,” Professor Hallam said.

Children’s behaviour at home also changed: they tidied up without being asked and had fewer confrontations with their siblings.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, who has pioneered wellbeing classes in the independent school sector, said the approach was based on hard evidence.

“We know much more about how to teach children to be emotionally resilient and self-reliant and to be able to manage their emotions than we did. Even ten years ago there was no empirical evidence to support this approach, but now there is,” he said.

Oli Marjot, 16, who took wellbeing lessons at Wellington last year, said: “The wellbeing lessons were a pool of calm. They don”t teach you to be happy all the time. They teach you about how to deal with things when you are not happy.”

But Seal does have its critics. Frank Furedi, Professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Therapy Culture, has cautioned that children are more likely to develop emotional problems if they are encouraged to become obsessed with their emotions.

How to develop self-awareness

– Ensure all pupils can achieve and experience success

– Help pupils to identify their own learning style (eg visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)

– Use a range of methods and approaches to ensure that all learning styles are catered for

– Give careful and sensitive feedback to pupils about what is going well and how to improve areas of weakness

– Ensure every pupil feels known, valued, consulted and listened to, and is not just part of a group

– Value the experience pupils bring from home and from their own culture

– Help pupils to make sense of their life story (especially important for those whose lives have been fragmented and chaotic), for example through work in language, citizenship and history