Being in the midst of a pandemic means there has never been a better time to focus on the importance of relationships and connection in schools, as well as the wellbeing of students and teachers. But, it shouldn’t have to take a global health emergency for us to prioritise the things that research has been showing for a long time really benefit learning and life satisfaction. Thousands of empirical studies have been showing us what really contributes to human flourishing and it is time we put this knowledge into action.
Happiness leads to success
It is an often held belief that when we are successful, it will make us feel happier. Although this is certainly true (getting good grades or getting promoted may make us happier in the short term), it is not the route to lasting fulfilment. This is because we get stuck on what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’ where we adapt to each achievement, and we are always left wanting more and more, with lasting happiness continuing to evade us. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Harvard psychologist, Shawn Achor explains, “more than a decade of ground-breaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationships between success and happiness works the other way around… happiness and optimism actually fuel performance.”
Happier children learn better
We see this being played out in schools because the research is clear that children with higher levels of wellbeing, tend to do better academically. We also know that when schools put in place whole school programmes to develop children’s social and emotional skills, they improve attainment by an average of 11%. The fact that schools can have a major impact on children’s wellbeing at school is important because longitudinal data shows us that happiness in childhood is the strongest predictor of adult life satisfaction. In fact, it’s significantly more important than all the qualifications a person ever obtains. So, when schools invest in the wellbeing of students, not only do they foster better learners, they set them up for a more fulfilling life in the long term too.
Relationships make us healthier and happier
A key to improving physical and mental wellbeing is the strengthening of relationships. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that has been researching the health and happiness (and their causes) of Americans since 1938. The research unequivocally shows that close relationships, more than any other factor, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. They’re more important than genes, IQ and social class for predicting future happiness. And relationships are the bedrock of learning. Humans are a social species and we learn in relationship to one another. Research shows that a sense of belonging is fundamental to learning.
Three tips for developing wellbeing and relationships
With this knowledge in mind, why not try these three ideas for promoting wellbeing and relationships in your classrooms:
- Create a team flag – discuss with your class what values they think are important for a successful team. Ask them to choose a value and draw it in bold on a piece of paper and then fill their page with colour. Stick the individual pieces togethers to create an eye-catching team flag. Use the flag as a symbol of unity and to remind students that they belong and the success of their team relies on everyone playing their part.
- What went well – our brains have an innate negativity bias meaning they tend to hardwire negative experiences whereas positive ones tend to wash over us. But intentionally ‘taking in the good’ helps us rewire our brains to see things more realistically. At the end of each week, as students to write down three things that have gone well for them. Share and revel in the small positive successes of your class and repeat to rewire that bias.
- Use humour – laughter is contagious and helps build rapport between people. It also reduces stress and tension (particularly useful in a pandemic) and has even been shown to aid creativity and problem-solving. So, use appropriate humour in class, create a learning-focused but light-hearted classroom environment and don’t forget to smile now and then!
Adrian Bethune is a part-time teacher, the Education Policy Co-Lead at the Mindfulness Initiative and author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom – A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness.