From Pilot to Longitudinal Study: Positive Psychology’s Synergistic Influence on Social and Emotional Development in School Districts

by Christopher Nagy

 Nagy
Christopher Nagy, superintendent of the Northern Valley Regional High School District in Demarest, New Jersey
The science of positive psychology influences and shapes the climate for learning, leading and co-creating opportunities for social and emotional development while providing a sense of wellbeing, balance, creativity and self-worth.

Program Study Description:
In an article entitled: Whatever Happened to Western Civilization: The Cultural Crisis 20 Years Later, futurist and author, Richard Eckersley, highlighted the cultural shift that has taken place in the West that has impacted our young people (Eckersley, 2012). Frenetic, competitive, fast and focused on immediate gratification, our young generation personifies a two-pronged focus on materialism and individualism. Our teenage generation now suffers as a result; many are unhappy, and in a majority of cases, are pessimistic. If not enough, young people are competing for admission to the best schools in the country and with one caveat. They are not only competing against other peers in the States, but with other students from around the world. This is generation Y and the 21st Century conundrum. These same young adults carry the feeling of being stressed out and are full of angst about the future. Many ask if they will get a job after college? Others opine, will my parents be able to afford to help me or will I have to move in with my parents after college? Business is finding the same situation as Harvard has found and is looking at how to enhance the workplace to provide a more inviting and happy work environment (Achor; Fox; Gilbert, 2012). Can we make a comparison to education?

The answer is “yes.” Unlike twenty years ago, teenagers today do not get enough sleep, many experience depression, are connected to the web and social networks incessantly, lack grit, experience high levels of stress, anxiety and hold limited sustainable face-to-face conversations. There is an addiction to technology, personalized devices that define our value by the sound of a ringtone or vibration and is cause for concern. And yes, they can even shop online without leaving the house. If prolonged, this dynamic can produce depersonalization when it should be the opposite among our youth, a position taken by inspirational speaker and author, Simon Sinek, in a recent visit to his high school Alma Mater and nuanced in his book (2009).

An Organic Effort for Change
Administrators, staff and the Board of the Northern Valley Regional High School District were and are concerned about the students, their wellbeing and academic preparation. Though among the best schools in the State, the question that was asked of me when hired focused on what can be done for our young people to assist them to navigate this labyrinth of unhealthy stressors? With the assistance of positive psychologists, a dedicated staff and an organizational belief in the value of the science of positive psychology, we introduced both students and staff to skill sets that address the science of success, wellbeing and happiness networks. It is here where the social-emotional leadership lab series was and is designed to engage linchpins and influencers exposure to the essential premises of the science of positive psychology. That is what we are doing for the students and staff in the Northern Valley Regional High School District schools. It is not only working, but our social-emotional focus is now found to be at the center of healthy school district organizations and is considered as a combatant to such outbreaks as that at Sandy Hook, Connecticut. If students feel safe and secure, have people who believe in them, they are less likely to feel a disconnect between who they are and where they are.

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The Value of a Pilot
Last year, a pilot was established for the staff and selected students who were introduced to a positive psychologist and alumnus of the District, Louis Alloro, a Social Emotional leader and lecturer. He provided opportunities for staff and students to learn, discuss and apply the tenets of the science of success, wellbeing and happiness. In response, volunteer staff and students were recruited to participate in wellbeing learning labs as part of a district-wide initiative to address character education, ethical literacy, balance and wellbeing. A year later, and after very favorable responses, we established a partnership with other graduate positive psychologists from our school system and Dr. Todd Kashdan and George Mason University’s Center for Consciousness and Transformation to embark upon a longitudinal study of freshman and staff to measure well-being. In a survey for adults and adapted for young adults, questions were asked of participants initially and again after learning labs. Changes in measured results after six learning labs were recorded and subsequently monitored throughout the year. The six learning labs addressed the following topics:

  • Understanding of scientific research on flourishing, success and wellbeing
  • Resilience as learned optimism
  • Identification of personal strengths and leveraging them to overcome challenges
  • What it means to live ones calling: intrinsic and extrinsic motivators
  • Self-awareness, self-care and mindfulness strategies
  • Building high quality and healthy relationships

Longitudinal Focus
We are targeting throughout this school year a minimum of 25% of the freshman class as volunteer participants in the learning labs. Exposure to these learning labs provide participants exposure to skills that reflect positive psychology and wellness to navigate an understanding of the following topics:

  • The value of positive change, motivation and curiosity
  • Becoming a change agent
  • Understanding the value of resilience
  • Identifying individual strengths and building upon them
  • Understanding the value of hope and clarity around self-determination
  • Exploring mindfulness techniques
  • Contributing to flow and harvesting knowledge, vision and celebration
  • Seeing choice as an opportunity

As noted above, under the assistance and guidance of Dr. Todd Kashdan and his George Mason University staff, the survey’s development and implementation is anticipated to account for baseline data and subsequent analysis. Students who have not yet been exposed to the learning labs will have opportunities to participate in any of the semesters prior to graduating from high school. It is intended that at the end of the each semester, growth will be measured by the completion of the same survey and compared to the rest of the freshman population that did not participate in the labs. The same process will be done for the remainder of the class until the completion of the senior year where all students will have been exposed to the learning labs.

Who are the principal participants and beneficiaries in the program?
This focus is organic and is designed to embrace the entire school community. Having a focus on happiness and wellbeing, students and particularly current ninth graders, staff, administration, parents and community members’ benefit. Whether in a learning lab, an evening parent forum, student assembly or professional learning community exchange, the assistance of alumni and positive psychologists, George Mason University staff and alumni such as Simon Sinek challenge assumptions, promote reflective practice, encourage interactive exchanges and inspire calls to action for application to habits of mind. This shift or change of thinking is reflected in the very research and professional practice promoted by authors sited above and professional staff.

What makes this an exceptional and innovative program?
This innovative program is timely, immediate, scientifically and research-based and supports Board of Education goals to promote wellbeing and balance in the district. Furthermore, the program has multiple impact points such as stress, organizational skills, understanding of social relationships, emotional balance, optimism, flexibility, enhancement of leadership capacity, support of character education development and last, exposure to ethical literacy.

The program is a reflection of some of the work that is now taking place in business across the world – happiness in the workforce and positive self-adjustment at the college or university level. Our program is high school-based and is an incubator for innovation, creativity and wellbeing. As noted in the works of Sinek (2009), Kashdan (2009), Zhao (2012), Tough (2012) and Melnick (2013), staff, students, parents and community members have never been in the midst of a confluence of generations to find meaning in what they believe, do, say and create as part of something much bigger than themselves. At the center is education as a catalyst to challenge the assumptions held in the 21st Century about the value of social and emotional development. By seeing from the modeling of their teachers what it is to teach, support and encourage leading and learning among our young adults, high school students are positioned to develop confidence in the establishment of new role models who personify the characteristics of positivity, wellbeing, self-awareness, strength, generosity, creativity, curiosity and understanding of grit.

Preliminary Study Results: Impact on Student Learning
The impact of the learning labs is not limited to just students, but staff and parent participants as well. Participants have demonstrated a propensity to think positively, interpret situations as opportunities, value respect, embrace encouragement, promote success, changing thinking processes, understand flow and participate in a movement that encourages flourishing and generosity with an appreciation for grit (Tough, 2012). As a science, positive psychology engages a person in such activities mentioned above. As a result, blood flow to the brain is increased which in turn maximizes creativity, connection, entrepreneurialism and intellectual output. Furthermore, such activity extends learning, allows students to work at higher levels of output, create better products, and last, ultimately position students to do better on overall achievement.

Preliminary data collection based on surveys, discussions and group debriefing, suggests that the six positive psychology learning labs:

For Students

1. Provide perspective as to how students see themselves

2. Increase opportunities to strengthen student/teacher relationships

3. Share a common language by which all participants embrace

4. Play a role in the reduction of stress based on learned coping skills

5. Encourage student leadership and shared commitment to each other’s success

6. Enables self-expression, processing and self-actualization evident in student work products, projects and personal writing

7. Reinforce reality of choice and personal control over situations

8. Develops a keen sense of focus eliminating surrounding daily noise

9. Create a forum to bring students together to make connections that otherwise would not take place due to the high school they attend, lack of common classes taken together or incompatible interests

10. Help students to reframe and shift thinking

11. Increase in energy level based on blood flow to frontal cortex of brain as a result of redirecting negativity and self-deprecation due to lack of self-confidence

12. Develop a keen awareness of skills such as resiliency, strengths and values

13. Reinforcement of social emotional schema as a life skill and foundation for the planting of seeds for future growth

For Staff

1. Create a better atmosphere for learning that is respectful, thought provoking and action oriented

2. Offer an opportunity to experience an uplift in self-awareness and worth

3. Increase in energy level based on blood flow to frontal cortex of brain as a result of redirecting negativity and self-deprecation due to lack of self-confidence

4. Connection to colleagues and ability to listen and interact with colleagues from different buildings, departments or interests

5. Deliver opportunities for staff development and professional learning communities that focus on supporting topics based on shared reading

6. Provides time to reflect, refocus and create

7. Offers a chance to be connected to something bigger to which one’s belief system is aligned

Sense of refined purpose, connection, support, reflection and realization that shared personal experiences and learned skills make participants better people, teachers and parents

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Additional Information relevant to this exceptional and innovative program:
An important factor that enters into a sustainable change such as this is that this program focused on wellbeing and positive self-adjustment is established within the organization and not imposed from the top. I am proud that the Northern Valley Regional High School District has two graduates who have emerged from the University of Pennsylvania as positive psychologists under the direction of the Father of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman. These two alumni, Louis Alloro and Gloria Park expressed to me the desire to give something back to their Alma Mater, as they felt compelled to do so given the need for social and emotional leadership needs within society today. Furthermore, I am grateful to yet another alumnus, author and creator of the TED Talk “Why”, Simon Sinek, whose work on inspiration parallels the work we are doing and has caught his eye as we embrace this shift in culture and awareness within the district to that of wellbeing and happiness. Simon dedicated a day to the administration, staff and students recently to assist all to find their “Why” and belief in what inspires each person to do what he or she does day after day. If not enough, if what we find in our learning labs is true throughout the organization, the focus is such that it could be scalable and replicable among other high schools across the country. We are excited about the infinite possibilities this program focus will have on our school community, educational innovation and positive social adjustment.

Further Implications
A sense of purpose, meaningful connections to living, learning and leading a balanced life among competing interests and stressors in the lives of our young people are among key findings that provide an optimistic and forward thinking disposition reflected in 21st Century skill development to combat isolationism and unadjusted and awkward social development, that left unchecked and challenged, may lead to such travesties as Columbine or Sandy Hook. If organic in nature, the transformation cannot only change a person, a community, but also the world.

References

Achor, S. (2012, January-February). Positive intelligence. Harvard Business Review, (1)100-102.

Eckersley, R. (2012, November-December). Whatever happened to western civilization: The cultural crisis 20 years later. The Futurist, 46,(6)16-22.

Fox. J. (2012, January-February). The economics of well-being. Harvard Business Review, (1) 78-83.

Gilbert, D. (2012, January-February). The science behind the smile. Harvard Business Review, (1) 85-90.

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Melnick, S. (2013). Success under Stress. New York: Amacon.

Seligman, Martin E.P. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with Why. New York: Penguin Group.

Sterns, P. N. (2012, January-February). The history of happiness. Harvard Business Review, (1) 104-109.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Zhao, Y. (2012). World Class Learners. California: Corwin Press.

Christopher Nagy (cjn2005@comcast.net) is the superintendent of the Northern Valley Regional High School District in Demarest, New Jersey.  Nagy is an assistant professor at Rider University and is an author of a book and articles on topics on educational leadership and alternate routes to education. He is also a contributor to this journal.