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Enhancing learning through positive education, wellbeing and resilience

Written by: Keith Ellis  Liz Robson-Kelly
7 min read

Oakthorpe Primary School in Leicestershire has had a keen focus on improving children’s wellbeing and resilience for the last six years. This started in response to the needs of children and the community to develop a language for learning and to enhance learning opportunities. The school is situated in the old coalfields of the Midlands and was then inspected by OFSTED as Satisfactory. It was identified that children’s aspirations needed to be raised. Recently, through partnership with Worth-it and the setting up of the new Oval Learning Multi Academy Trust (MAT), we have begun to unpick how the work we have embedded in our everyday practice impacts upon the cognitive processes of learning. The school was aware of the lack of evidence in how to foster positive attitudes in children, so being a regional winner of the 2015 DfE Character Awards gave us the opportunity to further explore what it meant to develop children’s wellbeing. Since this work, there has been a greater emphasis from the DfE in focusing on mental health in schools.

Worth-it are a Leicestershire-based social enterprise utilising applied positive psychology and specialising in the development of whole-school wellbeing and resilience. Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and focuses on improving and promoting mental wellbeing rather than focusing on the causes and impacts of mental illness.

One of the most important applications for positive psychology is within the field of education (positive education) and incorporates other wellbeing sciences, such as coaching psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience (Green et al., 2012). Worth-it have then combined positive education with evidence informed UK guidelines and frameworks for whole school approaches for mental health (Public Health England, 2015) creating a robust evidenced-based and practical approach to developing whole school wellbeing.

The aim of positive education is to improve both achievement and wellbeing (Green et al., 2012); (Seligman et al., 2009). Positive education programmes can be embedded into the curriculum taught in the classroom (Seligman et al., 2009), and applied across the whole school to create an ethos of wellbeing (Waters, 2011). However, despite interest and evidence gaining momentum internationally (The State of Positive Education, 2017), the research around positive education in the UK has not yet been fully realised.

Oakthorpe is an example of a multi-component, multi-intervention approach (Waters et al., 2017) to positive education, which combines several positive psychology interventions, including: ideal selves, positive emotions and resilience which are applied in different ways, benefiting learning and wellbeing of the whole school community. Examples of these interventions are explained below.

Using data to understand internal resources of resilience

Developed from Positive Psychology resilience literature, Oakthorpe applies a multiple and integrated strategy that develops resilience (Ivtzan et al., 2016). Children are provided the opportunity to attend to internal resources of resilience building their capacity to deal with times when they need to draw on their resilience. To help children to identify and attend to these, the school has measured various aspects of resilience. These include children’s attitudes towards themselves as learners as well as identifying resources and capacities such as stickability, ability to face challenges, learning from mistakes and optimistic outlook. This information is then used to develop approaches and interventions within the school that grow various aspects of resilience. This evidence-informed approach gives the opportunity for staff and children to review strengths and areas for development to support children’s metacognition around resilience.

Impacts of using this approach are evident and over the last 5 years, the school has seen improvements in children’s reflections towards questions such as ‘I have stickability and I don’t give up’ and ‘I learn from my mistakes.’ In terms of its impact academically, it is difficult to pin down this approach having a direct result on raising standards, particularly as this is taken from a sample of two classes of children. What is evident is the distinct language for learning that the children use across all their learning including when they are at home.

Positive emotions

Developed from the work of Fredrickson (Fredrickson, 2001), the school uses positive emotions as a key focus for PSHE and assemblies across the school. Fredrickson identifies ten positive emotions that when cultivated improve learning, wellbeing and buffer against mental illness. This is known as the Broaden and Build Theory.  The ten positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, awe, inspiration, pride, love, interest, amusement and hope.

The school displays the positive emotions as part of our beliefs display in the school hall. All pupils were invited to write what they believe in and are grateful for as part of our RE themed week.

Oakthorpe made a proactive decision to distribute these positive emotions and the language of positive psychology across the entire curriculum, through implicit and explicit teaching and learning methods. This has included using the positive emotions as a stimulus for our recent Enterprise Week. The children used evidence from pupil questionnaires to create a range of positive-themed merchandise including stress balls and positive bookmarks. The benefits of developing positive emotions allow children to broaden and build their thought action repertoires (Fredrickson, 2001)helping them to cope with difficulties in learning.

The discussion of the positive emotions is valuable across all ages, emphasising what it really means to be positive. Through the provision of providing wellbeing workshops for parents, there is clear evidence of families’ engagement in developing positive emotions at home. For example, one parent has set up their own gratitude boxes and will tweet when something is placed inside. Children with parents who actively engage in positive emotions, appear to have shown increased engagement in learning and have demonstrated a more mature attitude to making mistakes.

Peer-to-peer support

Public Health England identified peer-to-peer support is an effective whole-school strategy for developing pupil wellbeing (Public Health England, 2015). The school’s Wellbeing Council (made up of children voted for in each class), regularly take learning walks looking for children that are showing good learning habits and are positively engaged with learning. As part of this emphasis on pupil voice, they take a role in organising our annual Mastering Me themed week. This year, children and parents were engaged in a week focusing on the use of positive emotions and gave the opportunity for children to be given the reason to use their positive emotions. It is important that these emotions are ‘lived’ and not just laminated on the wall in each classroom.

Ideal Selves

The school’s emphasis on ideal selves supports the children to focus on how they want to improve as an individual learner and aids discussion within the classroom to support wellbeing. The self-directed theory (Boyatzis and Akrivou, 2006) is a coaching model used to highlight how people can improve by outlining their ideal self and comparing this to their real self. Every child draws their ideal self which is displayed in the corridor. They surround this picture with vocabulary related to the person they want to be (for example, be more confident, show gratitude). It gives an opportunity for children to use the language of positive psychology. Each year, we look for ways in which to develop this across the school. Children and parents are interacting with the ideal selves much more this year through the use of them across the year in parents’ evenings where they can be edited by children and parents.


It is only when teachers and schools take the time to focus explicitly on wellbeing and resilience as part of whole school improvement, will staff, children and families understand the role this has in the cognitive learning process. There is still further research that needs to be done around the impact of positive psychology on improving learning outcomes. Into the future, the school is working closely with four other schools in the Oval Learning Trust with children’s wellbeing at the heart of its strategic aims. Without a clear focus from schools on developing children’s wellbeing and a positive mindset, children’s ability to focus on the higher-order thinking skills required to tackle the challenges of life is likely to be impaired.



Boyatzis R and Akrivou K (2006) The ideal self as the driver of intentional change . Journal of Management Development 25(7): 624–642.
Fredrickson B (2001) The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist 56: 218–226.
Green L, Oades L and Robinson P (2012) Positive Education: Integrating coaching and positive psychology in schools. In: van Nieuwerburgh C (ed.) Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents. London: Karnac, pp. 115–132.
Ivtzan I, Lomas T, Hefferon K, et al. (2016) Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge.
Public Health England (2015) Promoting children and young people’s emotional health and wellbeing: a whole school and college approach. Public Health England .
Seligman M, Ernst R, Gillham J, et al. (2009) Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education 35(3): 293–311.
The State of Positive Education (2017) Prepared by IPEN .
Waters L (2011) A review of school-based positive psychology interventions. Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist 28(2): 75–90.
Waters L, Sun J, Rusk R, et al. (2017) Positive Education: Visible wellbeing and the five domains of positive functioning. In: Slade M, Oades L, and Jarden A (eds) Wellbeing, recovery and mental health. Cambridge University Press, pp. 245–264.
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