This is the third of three posts examining social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being and the extent to which they are important to learning. This is #15 in my series on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning: “Emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development.”

What’s more important, well-being or academic outcomes? The answer tends to be a no-brainer: almost everyone values happiness above academic ability. This leads, inexorably to a second question, should schools teach well-being as well academic subjects? Intuitively we might think the answer’s obvious, but maybe it isn’t. What if happiness can’t be taught? What if time spent on SEAL (Social & Emotional Aspects of Learning) turned out to be a waste of everyone’s time? Well, we don’t really have to wonder about that: most schools have shuffled, whistling nervously, away from this failed attempt to bolster students’ self-esteem. But did we just get it wrong? Are there programmes out there that genuinely make kids happier? And if so, shouldn’t we prioritise them because there would seem to be fairly clear correlations between happiness and success.

In Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan tells us that happiness isn’t just about feeling good, it’s also about having a sense of purpose. Buckling down to demanding tasks which seem important may be more important than fleeting feelings of enjoyment. He calls this the ‘pleasure-purpose principle’. It seems that many students miss this point and decide that if work isn’t pleasurable it’s pointless. If so, no wonder they’re unhappy.

Unfortunately, a lot of the research on this issue is marred by assumptions. Seligman et al (2009) introduce their paper thusly:

First, a quiz: In two words or less, what do you most want for your children? If you are like the hundreds of parents I’ve asked, you responded, ‘Happiness’, ‘Confidence’, ‘Contentment’, ‘Balance’, ‘Good Stuff’, ‘Kindness’, ‘Health’, ‘Satisfaction’, and the like. In short, you most want well-being for your children. In two words or less, what do schools teach? If you are like other parents, you responded, ‘Achievement’, ‘Thinking Skills’, ‘Success’, ‘Conformity’, ‘Literacy’, ‘Mathematics’, ‘Discipline’ and the like. In short schools teach the tools of accomplishment. Notice that there is almost no overlap between the two lists. The schooling of children has, for more than a century, been about accomplishment, the boulevard into the world of adult work. I am all for accomplishment, success, literacy, and discipline; but imagine if schools could, without compromising either, teach both the skills of well-being and the skills of achievement. Imagine Positive Education.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But what if they’ve got it back to front? What if accomplishment, success, literacy and discipline were what made people happier? Well, that’s clearly wrong because lots of people are depressed. They tell us that “By some estimates depression is about ten times more common now than it was 50 years ago”. Right. And that must be to do with schools because, “It is certainly not biological or genetic.” Really? That seems somewhat unlikely as pretty much every single human characteristic ever researched has been found to be heritable to some extent, and IQ, or the ‘g factor’ (which correlates strongly with most other character traits is between 50-80% heritable. To claim that well-being or happiness bucks this trend with no supporting evidence whatsoever is a bit suspicious. One might think certain inconvenient facts were being quietly brushed under the carpet.

Anyway, let’s be charitable and assume they’re right about a complete lack of genetic associations with happiness. Seligman and co. conclude “were it possible, well-being should be taught in school on three grounds: as an antidote to depression, as a vehicle for increasing life satisfaction, and as an aid to better learning and more creative thinking. Because most young people attend school, schools provide the opportunity to reach them and enhance their well-being on a wide scale.” Fair enough? Were it possible, these might be sufficient grounds for doing it. So can it?

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) seems to have an impressive durability in preventing depression (p.209-300) and the Positive Psychology Programme (PPP) seems to have a similarly impressive effect on cooperation, social skills and ‘learning strengths’. According to their teachers, that is. (p.302-303) There was no attempt to objectively measure these characteristics and so we’re left with the rather obvious conclusion that being happy ‘works’ but we’ve no real way of establishing how much it works. This is important because as Gregory Yates says, when laypeople appear to be aware that variables will relate to each other, it still takes research to expose the magnitude of relationships, or to map the complexities and interactions that exist. For example, although TV viewing is unhealthy in terms of child development indices, less than an hour a day viewing may not appear to produce negative effects. Such knowledge can come only from research into putatively obvious relationships.” (p.682)

…when laypeople appear to be aware that variables will relate to each other, it still takes research to expose the magnitude of relationships, or to map the complexities and interactions that exist. For example, although TV viewing is unhealthy in terms of child development indices, less than an hour a day viewing may not appear to produce negative effects. Such knowledge can come only from research into putatively obvious relationships. (p.682)

I don’t doubt the researchers’ credibility, but their bias shines through this study – they really want ‘positive education’ to work, but I’m still sceptical about their methodologies.

Then there’s the RULER approach. This is all about developing students’ ’emotional literacy. Now, the question about whether in fact emotional literacy is a ‘thing’ is neatly sidestepped. As Stuart Ritchie says in his wonderful little book, Intelligence: All That Matters:

The question is, does EQ tell us any more than the measures psychologists already us, like IQ and personality tests? Several studies have shown that emotional intelligence is linked to better performance at work. Importantly though, it’s not as strong as strongly linked to that performance as IQ (Joseph and Newman, 2010). This may be because we’re simply better at measuring IQ. Some researchers argue that EQ is just a trendy, and less useful, re-description of what we already know.

No one’s saying EQ isn’t a thing, but what we do know is that it tells us far less about people than IQ. So, designing a study to increase EQ may be a house of cards.

Consider The RULER method (Recognising, Understanding, Labelling, Expressing and Regulating). This approach requires a significant commitment to teacher training, and the adoption of a proprietary ‘Feeling Words Curriculum’. Right away this makes me suspicious. Anyway, the claim is, the RULER approach improves not only emotional support but also instructional support and classroom organisation as measured on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). They provide some impressive looking tables in support of their claims, and if true, it would appear that this approach doesn’t just make kids happier, it makes them learn more and behave better.

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The paper concludes by says that it “provides evidence that a classroom’s social-emotional quality constitutes an effective primary target of change when comprehensive improvement in classroom quality is sought.” I want to believe, but does this depend on school replicating their methods? Do we have to implement a Feeling Words Curriculum? Or can we just be mindful of our students’ feelings and not treat them like gits? All the reports tells us is that the schools in the control group got a “non-RULER comparison”. Make of that what you will.

But maybe I’m being a churl. Basically, I’m more than happy to accept that, as the Top 20 report says, “Emotional well-being is integral to successful, everyday functioning in the classroom and influences academic performance and learning.” Of course it does. No one sensible is arguing that we shouldn’t aim to develop students’ sense of self-control, self-efficacy and empathy where we can. I’m just a bit dubious about claims that this should take priority over delivering an academic curriculum. School has to feel purposeful as well as pleasant.

So, what is the report suggesting we do? Unsurprisingly, we find the teacher is a powerful influence on students’ well-being. To help us get it right, the report makes the following suggestions:

  • Using emotional vocabulary—for example, facilitating student labeling of emotions (e.g., happy, sad, fearful, angry).
  • Modeling appropriate emotional expression and reactions.
  • Teaching emotion regulation strategies, such as “stop and think before acting” and deep breathing.
  • Promoting emotional understanding of others, such as empathy and compassion.
  • Monitoring their expectations to ensure they are equally encouraging to all students, regardless of past performance.

Nothing too controversial there, and no expensive proprietary curricula in sight. I’ve taught some classes in the past where just using ’emotional vocabulary’ wasn’t enough. I’ve actually had to draw an emoticon on the board to show them how I was feeling. Me being upset, looking upset and saying I was upset only made sense when I drew a sad face. Then when behaviour improved I would draw a happy face to signal that their behaviour was improving my mood. This seemed to work.

The second of the bullet points is, I think, of crucial importance. If children haven’t witnessed socially acceptable responses before, they’re unlikely to intuit them. This can be neatly summed up in the phrase, ‘being the adult’ in all classroom interactions.

References cited by the report