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Some Thoughts on the Pursuit of Happiness

24 October 2014

Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman asked thousands of parents two simple questions: What is it that you most want for your children? What do you want schools to teach your children?

  • Music students at the British International School Shanghai, Puxi

Of the first question you may not be surprised to hear parents answered happiness, contentment, confidence, fulfilment, balance, health, satisfaction, love and being civilised, as the key priorities. However, to the second question there was a disconnect and they answered that they expected schools to teach achievement, thinking skills, success, conformity, achievement, literacy, numeracy and test taking abilities. It is fairly obvious that the two sets of answers do not necessarily match.

As teachers and parents in the secondary school we are dealing with teenagers and the multiple issues they face growing up in the modern world. We all wish to be happy but how can we encourage it and how can we deal with young people when they are not?

An important and useful reference point for adults and students is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Social Needs theory. The pyramid has at its base the needs of everyday existence.  While wellbeing is ranked highly in Seligman’s parental hopes for their children, they do not then believe that school is the place for it to be instilled.

Indeed a normal parenting role is to put pressure on a child to educationally achieve, which can impact on how a young person is feeling about life. Adults can often overlook what makes a young person feel by looking at their child through their experiences of childhood. Your children are in a successful international school, in Shanghai with a relatively high standard of living, for many adults this is progress and should help lead to happiness. Lifestyle does not take away the ever present pressures of family life and parental relationships, losing grandparents and loved ones due to death or separation, dealing with sexuality, body image or friendship issues inside or outside of school.

We cannot teach a child simply to be happy because of our expectations, but in school time we can and do try to help with having the right mind-set. Our education for character philosophy leans heavily on modern (cognitive behavioural) psychology where we teach children that some events you cannot change, but you can change how people (of all ages) can interpret them. This is reflected by positive reinforcement of anything good that happens in school to re-assure students of their self-worth.

Our education for character philosophy uses tutor time and lesson time to reflect on good things that have happened in individuals’ learning and outside of school, to find positives in attempts at learning that have not (yet) been successful and, when something has been done well, to recognise how and why it happened so that they can continue to achieve, feel good about themselves and progress. Seligman calls these signature strengths. It is also important to realise that is OK not to be happy all of the time and to be realistic and acknowledge sadness as an emotion, so that we as adults and parents can offer support and offer solutions.

BISS Puxi does not take lightly our approach to building character but it does not necessarily mean parents can solely rely on the school to teach what happiness is. Teachers are pedagogic specialists, not trained in advanced psychology and counselling, and yet neither are parents. In reality the partnership between parents and school is key and we are constantly extolling the virtues of communication when you have concerns or praise. There are natural arguments for parents to have a clear interest in their child’s development. Being confident that your child is being cared for during the school day is not the same as expecting your child to get all their values from a teacher or a school. Parents and school work together to ensure the most basic of Maslow’s needs are being met, the first of which is children being  fed and watered and getting enough sleep.

BISS Puxi aims to provide a safe and fear free environment, but is your child feeling loved and supported at home or pressured and looked after? A child might have all the safety and benefits of modern technology at their disposal but are they feeling loved? Once they have this, they can progress to having self-esteem and feeling valued. All these things need to happen before what Maslow calls ‘self-actualisation’ occurs. Simply put, an individual has the desire to fulfil their potential, a motivation to succeed.

As a parent, take a look again and see - are all the steps in place in home and at school. We check on the fact that students eat  lunch and ensure that teachers don’t rule a classroom with fear, but are you checking they are eating their breakfast and are you ensuring they have a chance to discuss their feelings and emotions (no matter what they are) and yet continue to feel love and support?

In Eastern traditions, teaching was the centre of a life philosophy where you had a guru, master or teacher who leads on all aspects of life. However, a Chinese proverb is more apt to our British school mix of the best approaches:

‘Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. ‘

Academic progress is not something that should be seen as being separate from a child’s emotional wellbeing. Talk to your child, be interested and continue to gently push them and support them in their education and in what is happening beyond school life. Take a look at Maslow, it helps remind us all, as teachers and parents, that the delicate progression of all individuals in life is dependent on some simple principles that we sometimes take for granted but are always worth reflecting upon. The school and home partnership is key to ensuring a successful future whatever that may be and whatever the world throws at us and our children.

- Chris Share, Head of Secondary

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