Positive education workshop educates Princeton parents on positive psychology

On December 1, the district’s Positive Education Coordinator and Consultant Katie Curran hosted a workshop for parents on the Positive Education Initiative at John Witherspoon Middle School. Curran is the founder of Proof Positive, a positive education consulting firm, and has trained all over the world in corporate and educational fields to teach the skills associated with positive psychology.

At the workshop, Curran introduced the concept of positive psychology, a scientific study with a decade of research on strengths including creativity, happiness, and other forms of positive thinking that enable people to develop their own aptitudes. Many parents at the workshop hoped their children would learn these skills, after an exercise by Curran was conducted, these parents found that they didn’t expect their kids to be taught such capabilities at school.

Positive education seeks to bridge this discrepancy by teaching a necessary skillset for well-being called PERMA- which stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. These skills aim to help kids flourish emotionally, socially, and academically so they are able to lead more fulfilling lives. At the workshop, Curran taught parents strategies for cultivating a more positive environment for their children.

“I hope that [the parents will] take away [from the workshop] that well-being is a teachable, learnable set of skills, not something they’re lucky if their kid has, and they’re out of luck if they don’t, but that they have skills and strategies to take care of their own well-being and their kids,” Curran said. “They can influence their kid’s well-being [and] prevent … things that many parents are scared of, like depression and anxiety.”

The initiative for Positive Education started in 2015, when professional development to train the staff occurred, and is being implemented this year. According to Curran, teachers’ well-being was measured last year with an online test. All of the ninth graders took the EPOCH, a measure of adolescent well-being, as a pretest for future comparison.

As the district looks toward expanding the positive education initiative throughout schools, parent involvement in the initiative is also increasing. Over 30 parents of students in the district elementary, middle, and high schools attended the workshop, and parents are being encouraged to take up an active role.

“The district’s working on their new website, which includes a learning management system that will enable us to create a classroom that will be accessible to the entire community, including parents,” Curran said. “There’ll be resources, skills, presentations, worksheets, [and] all sorts of tips for families so that they can really utilize what they’re learning.”

Teachers are also becoming more involved, and Curran believes that they serve as the best model for kids to learn these strategies.

“You have to have teachers that are passionate about these skills for them to have an impact, so we’re not handing out a curriculum to all 700 teachers and hoping for the best,” Curran said. “We are working with the 50 teachers this year that said, ‘We’re passionate, we want to do it.’ The goal would be that next year, once the rest of the district has heard success stories, there’ll be another 50 teachers, and another 50 teachers.”

Teachers are motivated to become a part of this initiative, as they believe they will be able to help improve their students’ well-being.

“[The initiative] appealed to me … in terms of what I saw in my athletes … in terms of resilience,” said history teacher and rowing coach Christopher DeYoung. “I’ve noticed a lot of students have difficulty in that aspect, so they’ll just give up and say ‘I can’t do this’ … so I was interested in bringing [positive education] into the classroom, just in a general sense, knowing that there are a lot of challenges to students. I can’t fix all those challenges, but perhaps I can help them navigate through [them].”

“I try to bring these skills [I’ve learned] into my classroom, even if i don’t make them explicit to my students,” said biology teacher Jennifer Smolyn. “We talk about things like the importance of not obsessing over your grades and how to move forward if you get a bad grade …  and the importance of being able to bounce back from any setbacks you might encounter.”

So far implementation of the positive education initiative has not only helped students, but also other members of the school community.

“There’s also a dashboard that’s good for us to take … [that] measures [each aspect of PERMA]. It’s a good way of self-reflection,” said biology and special education teacher Àngel Fuentes-Pesquera. “Sometimes we live so fast that we don’t have time to reflect on ourselves, life goals, even careers.”

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