One of the great benefits of quitting full-time teacher and delving into the world of Wellbeing is the interesting conversations I am getting to have. Finding a tribe outside of education who have the same interests, same questions and are achieving totally cool things in completely different fields is a joy.
Working out of The Petridish I have met the very cool Dr Matt Jenkins from Mensana Movement who works in the field of exercise psychology and motivation. I also connected with the lovely Jo Tiszavari from Truce who is an ex-cop working in the space of restorative practice and conflict resolution.
We decided to combine forces to sit around a round table to discuss Wellbeing, change and the work we find most interesting; being human.
Stream or download us out at The Wise & Well.
Dr. Guy Winch's TED Talk Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid is one of my favourite resources for senior students. Often, I sneak it in as an example of public speaking. I have showed this to every senior class I have taught in the last 3 years and it always well received. Most notably by a Year 13 high achiever a taught in 2017 who came in the next day and said, "Miss- that was life changing."
Big words for a hardworking, intelligent, like-able future Olympian trialist.
If our best and brightest are having their lives improved by an emotional education- then I'd argue this might help everyone in the room. Especially the middle kids.
I like Guy Winch for a few reasons- he speaks well, he's a great male role model to use at a boys school and he shares his own personal experiences. As a psychologist, he doesn't hide behind a cloak of authority.
The human experiences is just that- applicable to all humans. Worth a watch!
p.s. Heads up- I've tried this with Year 9s and 10s- not quite accessible enough. Not enough fart jokes.
Today we spent MenFit looking at the evidence based strategies of savouring. We started the lesson as we always do by writing down our 3 Good Things and sharing one with the class for the roll. This is an almost effortless way to start the class off on a positive note and help the boys to practice the ability to "Hunt The Good". Very important for the adolescent (and any) brain that is prone to negativity.
Next we played hang man because what 14 Year Old doesn't want to outsmart their teacher? And they did eventually. They think they won, they learned a new word so I think I won. We all won!
R U M I N A T I O N
Together we defined this as: Overthinking the negative events. To chew over. And I told my (now hilarious) story about pulling out of the school gate in front of about 400 members of the school community and pulling on the the wrong (RIGHT!) side of the road. I explained how students brought it up with me for days after and how I could have died of embarrassment at the time but we all agreed still thinking about this silly, ancient mistake was pretty silly. Teenagers can see others so much more clearly than themselves ad immediately, I could see a few faces connection to their own ruminations.
Next we guess what we could replace rumination with and, of course, there were plenty of answers: sport, study, reading, music, social media. So then I asked, "So what's the opposite of rumination?"
I suggested savouring. Evidence based, sensory experience to slow down and enjoy the good experiences we have in front of us. And this was the tricky bit: holding back 21 teenage boys from chowing down on a tiny morsel of chocolate.
We agreed that usually it would take us less than 30 seconds to tear open and devour our favourite, Favourite. We also agreed to slow down and follow the instructions and use the graduation worksheet steps to explore each of the 5 senses. I set a timer.
We drew, we coloured, we sniffed, we stared at it and we even watched the marshmallow test video:
And after about 12 minutes we took the tiniest bites and wrote at least 5 describing words about the taste. Then we inhaled the rest...or so I thought.
Afterwards, we reflected and the linked this skill to other areas of life and planned to use this strategy everywhere from getting into the ocean on a hot day, to other meals to walking slowly between classes on a sunny day (sorry next lesson teachers...and I imagine I'll get getting a call from the principal about being everyone's excuse for being late).
And the, of course, there were one or to clever clogs who showed me their uneaten Favourites on the way out of the lesson. I have no doubt those boys will have excellent retirement savings one day.
I have been reading research and gleaning tips on how to live a better, happier, more meaningful life since the last century.
In 1999, I started my Honours in Psych the same year Dr Martin Seligman became the Head of the APA and even when I started in September of that year, he was already making his mark in change the the focus of the "deficit model" of the field.
Although the research I was reading then is about 15 years old now, lots of it has been replicated and proven and I think these basics are so relevant to education and parenting.
A few first things I learned that imprinted on me were:
Learn better. Teach better. Live better.
For the month of November, I offered an Introduction to Mental Fitness course at the Petridish on Stafford Street. The class ran for 1 hour, once a week both Thursday mornings and Monday nights.
The Thursday morning class was a great experience for me. In 3 weeks, I had 6 students. We covered brain health, neurotransmitters, mood research and completed a range of evidence based activities to boost personal wellbeing. My goal was to be a personal trainer or a gym class for the brain. 3 students have all started jobs in the last 3 week effectively destroying my class and, you know what? I'm thrilled. It might be a coincidence or it might be the proof in the pudding about valuing and learning about wellbeing.
The aim of any teacher is to make ourselves redundant eventually and I've done just that!
“Optimal performance is tied to wellbeing, the higher the positive morale, the better the performance.”
Dr Martin Seligman, (former President of the American Psychological Association)
**Monday at 7pm will be the last community class at the Petridish this year.**
A few people asked if I could teach my high school Mental Fitness class to adults.
For the 4 weeks before the "silly season" properly begins, I am teaching a brief introduction to mental fitness and supporting brain health. Classes are drop in. $10 a session. We mix theory, discussion and hands on practical activities that either use a lot of oxygen or a selection of coloured pens.
EVERYONE could use a few more evidence based strategies to boost their welleing and combat the creeping stress at the end of year. Between exams, school holidays and visits with extended family- looking at wellbeing and how the brain works in a positive environment is a great choice. For the cost of a glass of wine, find some stress relief that lasts longer than an hour. And there's no hang over.
See you there?
100 Year 10 students
6 dozen tennis balls
2 mediation apps
and 1 very enthusiastic teacher
Teaching Mental Fitness this year has a been an absolute pleasure and, ultimately, a successful experiment. After nearly a full year of designing, teaching and reflecting on MenFit I am feeling pretty good about.
The AWE data is in. Boys who have completed the course are reporting higher levels of happiness and resilience than other year 10s. I have enjoyed the class, the student and parent feedback is positive but it's the data that matters today. The boys are learning to boost their wellbeing and has lasting effects and as we know:
“Optimal performance is tied to wellbeing, the higher the positive morale, the better the performance”
Flourish, Dr Martin Seligman
(former president of the APA)
So if nothing else, those boys are set up for their exams and hopefully to enjoy their lives more outside of the classroom as well.
So how did it all begin?
I'm an English teacher with an Honours Degree in Psychology. I'm one of those teachers that kids talk to and despite having a Psychology degree (or maybe because of it), I knew I could listen but I couldn't really help.
Term 3, 2016- Dr Lucy Hone's presentation on Wellbeing and Resilience in Education at the NZATE conference in Christchurch changed the course of my career as high school teacher. In her 1 hour presentation, a switch was flicked in my brain. Dr Hone had named all of the challenges adolescents are facing in the modern world that I have been witnessing in the classroom: depression, anxiety, low resilience, high suicide rates, screen addictions, fear of failure. Then she proposed evidence based preventative solutions!!! I was hooked.
Term 4, 2018- I was granted a $5000 scholarship from my school to investigate Wellbeing in Education.
Term 1, 2017- I visited Grant McKibbon the HOPE (Head of Positive Education) at King's College in Auckland to learn what this NZ trailblazer had been up to for the last 5 years. I attended the first Positive Education New Zealand Conference (PENZ). I felt like I had found my people! I was sold on the AWE measure (Dr Aaron Jardon's Assessment of Wellbeing in Education).
Term 2, 2017- We started using the AWE assessment at school to track our community's wellbeing.
Term 3, 2017- I flew to Byron Bay to kick of my accredited Diploma in Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. With recognition by the NZ Psychological, association, I knew the LGI diploma was a good place for me to start.
2018- I was given 2 hours a week of curriculum time to teach MenFit as an option. I created and developed the 20 hours program which focuses on practical, evidence based activities to boost wellbeing.
Term 1, 2018- I attended the PENZ conference in Christchurch and again I was invigorated and given my next steps on the positive education adventure.
Term 2 and 3- The MenFit classes are reporting higher resilience and happiness on the AWE than boys in the same year who have not taken the class. Also high than other year groups. Success!!
Term 4- I'm teaching a 4-week community class for individuals who want to improve their own wellbeing at The Petridish because I think we could all be learning a bit more about using and enjoying our brains. MenFit for adults includes slightly more theory and research discussion but only if students ask.
So far it's fun, so I might keep doing it... Wellbeing for all?
You must feel sad. Human emotion is not capable of being monochromatic; one must accept the full spectrum of brain chemical combos. You cannot feel happy without allowing yourself to feel sadness as well. Instead of sitting with feeling sad or angry or frustrated or overwhelmed- we distract our selves. We eat, check our phones, throw ourselves into work, turn on the tv, have a drink. Repeat.
Socially this is acceptable; encouraged even. Especially if we're checking our work email.
Binge watching Netflix is a usual weekend, having the newest iphone is a status symbol, my supermarket sells more type of ice cream than fruit, beer is a international symbol for bros being men together and wine has literally been nicknamed "mummy juice". When when you finish the bag of chips, turn off the tv and put down the glass- the feelings are still there...Repeat.
And we've teaching our kids the same trick. Crying? Have something to eat. Bored? Watch tv. Lonely? Check your phone. Disappointed with the results? You should have worked harder. Sad? Let's go for an ice cream cone. When do we let our kids feel before trying to "fix" it.
Youth is idealised in our culture but also we say it’s wasted on the young. We put a huge amount of pressure on our kids, teenagers and students to do better than we did at the same age...while also teaching them our unhelpful emotional habits. How unfair is that?
I think we need to cut our kids, teenagers and ourselves some slack.
Some things are good things in youth: Being fit, having a range of possibilities in the future, parents footing the bill– easy, exhilarating and relaxing.
Some things aren’t: The alarming feeling of having no ideas what life is about or how it’s going to unfold– nauseating, exhilarating and terrifying.
In a culture that is obsessed with ‘Happiness’ (note the capital ‘H’), we often forget to allow ourselves to mourn or be bummed out or know that our feelings are fleeting. They come, they go. And I think we are forgetting to teach our children, teenagers and students these skills of resilience, too. For one, we rarely role model it. As parents, we think we have to be strong. As teachers, we think we have to be intellectual. So where are kids and teenagers learning about the highs and lows of being human?
A friend’s 21-year-old step-daughter called her from Australia in tears because she wasn’t feeling happy all the time and thought she’s made a mistake in following her career and moving away. She was living the dream but it didn’t feel like a dream.
My lovely, sparkly, sensible friend replied, “Oh, honey. In real life, you are not supposed to feel happy all the time.”
A simple statement but genius.
Happy all the time? Ridiculous. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling other things? I blame TV, social media and the embedded commercial advertising. What kind of expectations are we putting on our kids and ourselves?
If we’re not happy, we can certainly spend enough money to become happy, right? Buy the clothes, the wine, the beer, the ice cream. We're buying pride, relaxation, bro buddies and a child's idea of happiness. Do we really think think we can buy positive feelings?
Beyond Happiness, there is a full spectrum of things I want my children and students to feel: satisfaction, ambition, curiosity, pride, adventure, adoration, gratitude. I want them to be moral creatures and good humans which involves feeling a range of not-so-sought-after emotions like disgust, outrage, betrayal, empathy and a little bit of fear or guilt are not a bad thing either. Everyone emotion serves a psychological purpose. What is with the happiness obsession?
So how do we build the ability to feel all the feels?
Adjust your expectations
Some days are easier than others. Fact. I remind my students of that all the time. A bad day, doesn’t mean a bad life. More poignantly, a bad hour doesn’t have to mean a bad day. We choose how long we dwell and ruminate on the negative. Someday days are easier than others makes for a great mantra. A clear minute of repetition is enough to break even the most stubborn rumination. The idea that tomorrow might be better can de-escalate teenage panic immensely (or prepubescent panic or post-menopausal panic).
Allow yourself and your kid to feel sad
If it’s a bad moment, say it. Have a cry. Acknowledge how you feel to yourself and to someone else, just for good measure. Give yourself an appropriate amount of wallowing time and then seek some antidotes in the second half of said time. For general ‘bummedness’, I think an hour for wallowing, a cry, complaining, or sulking followed by some serious intentional moodboosters
Cure for a glass half empty day? Good music, a trip to the gym, a hot shower, reading a book that doesn’t suck and a quick reminder of three things you’re grateful for. Then go get some fresh air. Note the wallowing and solving def are not quite equal parts. Spend more time of the intentional mood-boosters.
The grass is greener where you water it.
Remember nothing is forever
Thirdly, know that this too shall pass and pass that message on to your kids and students. My daughter gets angry, or has a cry and then tells me about it. I could rush around trying to solve it (though often, it has to do with something I did – like say no) or I can listen and validate her feelings and then talk about these feelings as a fleeting part of the human experience.
Sometime she just needs to be told, “You won’t feel like this forever.”
One of the most alarming things ever to come out of my stepson’s mouth was, “It’ll never be right again.”
As an educator in a country with one of the high suicide rates for teenage males in the world, I cannot express how much that phrase broke my heart. Of course things can be right again, maybe not the same, but things can feel right again and we need to remind ourselves and our young people of that too.
Like being a child or a teenager, parenting and teaching has some pretty sweet highs and some fairly tragic lows. For everyone. So enjoy the whole ride.
Celebrate the peaks, find solace in the troughs and know you won’t feel like this forever. Take it one minute at a time but keep an eye on the next.
Well-Being is a bit of a buzz word at the moment and it’s something I take quite seriously as a teacher and a parent.
Even our best and brightest kids (especially our high achieving, good souls) get tripped up by things like social pressure or anxiety. This is an epidemic across New Zealand and the world. So I have been looking an research informed strategies to train the brain for optimal performance in the classroom, on the field, court, stage or in an exam… and, more importantly, for life.
At first I was doing in Professional Learning for my professional: my students, my school and my community but as I delve down the rabbit hole of research, I can't help but be affected personally.
I graduated with an Honours Degree in Psychology in 2003 but the world has learned more about the human brain since the 1990s than all time combined before!! So I’ve have to update my knowledge. I’ve been doing the research and readings (so you don’t have to) and I’ve just finished a Diploma of Psychology and Well-Being which focused on the research looking at humans who flourish; the psychology of people who are truly successful and fulfilled in the truest sense of the term.
My biggest takeaway?
Bottom line: We are most productive and effective when we are not miserable.
Funny that! Optimal brain function involves a lot of good neurotransmitters and positive emotions (and not I’m talking about positive thinking or the ever elusive “happiness”). So with that in mind, I am going to write this blog using research and evidence based practices to improve well-being and brain function and in turn teaching our students and children. Skills for life!
Three Good Things
Good Things is a relatively simple and short evidence based exercise to rewire the brain. Negative Bias (our and our teenagers’ stunning ability to focus on the worst of a situation) has very useful evolutionary roots. Our brains try to predict the worse possible outcomes in order to avoid them. Very helpful when trying to avoid being eaten by predator; a little bit counter-productive if over used in the comfort of our own homes and classrooms.
I once read that “Anxiety is the shadow of intelligence” and to that I say- we need to learn where to stand in the sun to reduce the size of the shadow we cast and that's what this intervention is about.
Three Good Things is just that. Name 3 good things about the moment or day:
This is an excellent activity to do with yourself in trying to rewire or create new habits in the brain. Start with the little things (“Jack was hilarious at lunch today” or “Rugby practice”). After a few days, 3 things will easily flow into 6. At the end of each day, this is a nice way to review the earth’s rotation before sleeping. Better than the loop of, “Man, I really should have told that guy where to go...”
When I teach this is my Mental Fitness class at school (yeah, people- I get to teach this for a living!), some students can barely get to 2. By the end of my 10 weeks with the class, the teenagers can do it without even paying attention. So simple and yet, such a effect pathway to be building in our teenagers' brain. Perhaps even though the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, life is still worth showing up for!?!?
Parents of all ages, this is an easy way to engage your kids in a conversations about school. Role model this first. Warn your kid! Teenagers can be very suspicious.
With my kids, we talk about of difficult thing and 3 good things (to uphold Fredrickson's Positivity Ratio). I generally aim for one social good thing (“Having lunch with people I like at work”), something about personal progress (“I learned a new poem today”) and something a bit more mundane (“I’m wearing my pink flamingo socks that nobody saw but I like”). At first, my daughter and stepson coat-tailed on my ideas but that’s not a problem- it’s a starting point. And I learend so much about what is happening in the secret lives of children.
So just ask!
At first, be prepared for “I don’t know” and “Lunch”- but don’t lose your cool. Both are expected. The second one is a very acceptable answer. Cheerlead or ask follow ups (“What was the best part of lunch?”). Many boys and girls will struggle with this at first. But like any habit, it will get easier with practice. I liken it to burpees. Burpees might never feel natural but after doing 3 every day for a week, you can suddenly do more.
Shining a light on what's good in our lives is a mood-booster. The grass is greener where you water it.
Three good things: simple, quick and evidence based. So on that note, what are your 3 good things today? I'd love to hear them and also I'd love to hear if you've tried this with yourself, your family or in your classroom.
Extra for Experts: Next level (like in all subjects) is to start examining 'the why'. A clever Psychiatrist friend of mine explained that this is particularly effective because ultimately the answers lead back to our choices or relationships and therefore lift our own self-regard.
Also finding one good thing embedded in the difficult challenge grows hope and creates meaning (for example, when I couldn't find the answer, I was brave enough to ask for help and I got it).
Adrienne Buckingham has been teaching teenagers for 15 years, parenting for 8 and is on a quest to do it all better using evidence based strategies.