Positive Psychology Hits the Classroom

At the August APA meeting, Seligman reported results from the Positive Psychology Program (PPP) and Penn Resiliency Program based on more than 2000 8 to 15 year old school students.

The positive psychology program taught students how to "identify their signature character strengths (e.g., kindness, courage, wisdom and perseverance)." For example, one exercise in the positive psychology asked students to list 3 good things that happened to them each day for a week - then the follow-up questions asked what the event meant to them and what can increase the likelihood of this happening again (kind of connecting the dots for the students). The resiliency program taught students to " think more realistically and flexibly about the problems they encounter. PRP also teaches assertiveness, creative brainstorming, decision-making, relaxation and other coping and problem-solving skills."

The net result: positive thinking and resiliency training improved students' school outlook and engagement, improved classroom behavior and cooperation, resulted in more self-control, and more empathy. Not bad!

Carol Dweck has a slightly different take on the importance of psychological outlook on student achievement. She has argued for Mindset teaching, In her work (at right), she found that students who believed that intelligence was a fixed entity were more likely to show no improvement in their math achievement from 7th to 8th grade, more likely to withdraw or cheat, and less likely to demonstrate mastery-reactions to setbacks. Not surprisingly, the students who believed intelligence could be 'grown' - were more likely to persevere, show resiliency behaviors to setbacks, and improve performance.

Dweck's conclusions:

"Our analyses showed that the divergence in math grades was mediated by several key variables. First, students with the growth mindset, compared to those with the fixed mindset, were significantly more oriented toward learning goals. Although they cared about their grades, they cared even more about learning. Second, students with the growth mindset showed a far stronger belief in the power of effort. They believed that effort promoted ability and that was effective regardless of your current level of ability. In contrast, those with the fixed mindset believed that effort was necessary only for those who lacked ability and was, to boot, likely to be ineffective for them. Finally, those with the growth mindset showed more mastery-oriented reactions to setbacks, being less likely than those with the fixed mindset to denigrate their ability and more likely to employ positive strategies, such as greater effort and new strategies, rather than negative strategies, such as effort withdrawal and cheating.

Thus, students’ beliefs about their intelligence played a key role in how they fared in math across this challenging school transition. When students believe that their intelligence can increase they orient toward doing just that, displaying an emphasis on learning, effort, and persistence in the face of obstacles."

Dweck also mentions that the importance of setbacks does not emerge until students face real academic setbacks. An important point to keep in mind for students who are struggling. Many psychologists also emphasize the importance of realistic positive thinking rather than unrealistic positive thinking.Presumably realistic thinking involves recognizing the need for effort, perseverance, and external help if needed.

All three approaches - Seligman's approach to positive thinking (e.g. view setbacks as external, temporary, and specific), resiliency training (including problem solving, identifying sources of problems, etc.), and mindset instruction would seem to be valuable for many students.

The relationship between optimism and learning has not really been studied in detail by fMRI, but optimism activates both the amygdala (emotions, not surprising) and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. an area important for motivation and reward, and error detection. So there may also be direct connections between brain areas important for an optimistic outlook and thinking efficiency.

Mindsets and Math / Science Achievement
Penn Resiliency Lessons pdf
Optimism fMRI
Children with positive outlooks are better learners


  1. Thanks Drs. Eide.

    fyi, in case you and your readers are interested, Dr. Dweck's curriculum that you mentioned to help students develop a growth mindset was developed further into an online program and it is now available for schools and homes at www.brainology.us (I help run the program). You might want to check it out.

    Thanks for your continued focus on this important area!

    Best wishes,

  2. Just wanna let you know that yoour Blog is really great!! Thanks a lot for sharing!!

  3. I really appreciate and agree with the views. Thanks for sharing and keep up the spirit.