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How to Use Strengths & Positive Psychology in Teaching - Penny Nesbitt

Posted by Peter Barnes on September 12, 2018 at 7:27 AM

Should we concentrate our teaching on trying to improve where students are performing badly, or focus more attention on helping them build on their existing strengths?

Episode 85

It shouldn't be an either /or choice. But according to positive psychology expert, Penny Nesbitt, working on a student's natural strengths will be more rewarding for both the student and their teacher.

Penny spoke to The Learning Capacity Podcast about the movement to positive education and how the strengths approach is being used in classrooms around the world.  She also spoke about the power to two little words:  "NOT YET".

 Listen to the podcast: 

Topics covered

  1.  Positive psychology
  2.  Using strengths in teaching

People & organisations mentioned

  1.  Dr. Martin Seligman
  2.  Dr. Chris Peterson
  3.  Dr Carol Dweck
  4. Professor Lea Waters
  5.  American Psychological Association
  6.  Geelong Grammar School
  7.  Bounce Back Program

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1.  Values in Action (VIA)
  2.  The Strengths Profile
  3.  Culture 101 by Penny Nesbitt
  4.  The PERMA model
  5.  Online Strengths/Positive Education courses

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 85 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Strengths & Positive Psychology in Education - Penny Nesbitt

Peter Barnes:      My guest today is Penny Nesbitt.  Penny is an expert on applying positive psychology and a strengths approach to organisations and individuals. She's also a change management consultant, coach, speaker, and author.

In this talk she discusses how educators can use positive psychology to get better learning outcomes for all their students. She explains how positive psychology and positive education is gathering momentum in education systems around the world and towards the end of this episode you'll hear Penny explain the power of two little words... "NOT YET".

So, Penny, what's positive education all about?

Penny Nesbitt:   Positive education emerged from the whole positive psychology movement. Often when I talk about positive psychology, you do see a bit of eye rolling. People often get a little bit curious about what it means. Some people are a little bit skeptical.

I have heard people say, “Isn't positive psychology about sitting around smiling, not talking about anything bad?” Which, of course, isn't what it's about at all. Just to give some context, how positive psychology emerged was through the efforts of people like Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson. What happened, there'd certainly been some research in what's now called positive psychology, some research in that space for some years.

But in late 1990s, Marty Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association. And he and a number of other psychologists had been concerned for quite some time that psychology had started to very much go around down what might be called the medical model, and very much focused on working with people who were unwell; psychologically unwell and looking at how to make them better.

As he and his colleagues pointed out, the role of psychology has always been threefold. One has certainly been to work with people that are unwell, the other is to study genius and talent.

And the other, which certainly had dropped off the radar, was to look at what are the conditions in which human beings … which of course includes children, the conditions in which people flourish. That was basically where things started at that time, in terms of the whole positive psychology space. And out of that emerged positive education, because when we talk about human flourishing, where better to start than with kids at school?

Positive education involves more than just student and teacher

Peter:    Is anything happening, as far as positive education is concerned, now in education systems around the world, or is this just an idea that's emerging?

Penny:  No. It's definitely on the crest of a wave. There has been quite a lot of movement in the positive education space. When we talk about positive education, we need to think holistically, because typically, when we talk about education, people automatically simply think about the interactions between a teacher and a child in the classroom, and to a lesser extent their parents.

But when we talk about positive education, we're talking about the students, the teachers, the school, and the community, which of course includes their parents. What's actually happened, there's been a huge groundswell of interest in various aspects of positive education in those various areas.

So, working with teachers, so looking at positive leadership, the students, looking at things like strengths at school, looking at the whole school and the whole community, as well. One example that comes to mind is Geelong Grammar in Australia.

There is also a program, which also happened to originate in Australia, called the Bounce Back Program. There are programs throughout the United Kingdom and the USA. For example, if anyone was to Google positive education, they would find a number of hits on Google from programs that have been initiated in schools by primary school and high schools throughout the world.

Is positive education a program, a curriculum or something else?

Peter:     And so, if a school isn't engaged in positive education today, and they're interested in it, is it a program? Do you buy things off the shelf? Is it a curriculum? How do they get trained? Tell me about the practicalities for a school.

Penny:    I guess it depends on how much … to what extent people are able to invest. There's a lot of pressures on school budgets, which we all know. And every year, leadership teams need to make decisions about what those budgets get spent on. So I completely understand the sort of challenges, as we all do, of the budget and profit and loss.

Some schools decide to go down the track of a wholesale program. Wholesale as in meaning across the entire school, and may look to sending people along to a very formal and often quite expensive training program. A small school that I've started to work with, wanted to start on a smaller scale, a primary school, and often a place that people start, certainly, the teachers that I'm talking to and the schools I'm talking to seem to have a level of awareness.

Australia certainly has been quite ahead of the pace, in terms of promoting positive education. So, many of the teachers in the schools here are quite keen to start up a program. And often, what I recommend is starting with something that is easy and also gets quick wins with both the teachers, the students, as well as with parents. And that's with something as simple as looking at strengths at school.

Strengths at school is something that has emerged again from the work of professor Martin Seligman, and the tool that he and Chris Peterson and a big bunch of researchers developed is known as  Values In Action. It's probably the most commonly used tool in the school system, and it looks at what they call character strengths.

The way that the tool was created was actually a bunch of social psychologists and researchers who went around the world, and looked at different … across time so that they looked back through … researched back through time. They looked at different religions, different philosophies, different psychologies, and were quite astounded to find that what emerged was a list of 24, what I call characters, strengths or virtues that cross all of those boundaries. That is is the tool that's now known as the VIA, and-

Character strengths

Peter:    So, a character strength, then give me an example of a character strength.

Penny:   Okay. A character strength at you'll find on the Values In Action tool, one, for example, is bravery. Another is persistence, another one is kindness. So, for example,  the VIA is only valid when children are from the age of 11. Below that age, in the hands of people who are educated in how to start strength-spotting, and that includes teachers as well as parents, what people start to notice, for example, a child of five or six who has kindness as a character strength, will often be the children who are comforting others without any prompting.

It's something that tends to come to the kids naturally. They do it without prompting, and it's something that they seem to enjoy doing.

Peter:   Okay, that's interesting. Just by the way, I've noticed my grandson, when he was younger, he still exhibits this kindness thing I think you're talking about. When he was younger and playing soccer and some kid in his soccer team fell over, he'd go across and comfort this kid and the ball would be running down beside him and he would take no notice of the ball, he'd be too busy with the injured kid.

Penny:   That's a great example. That's a great example. With something like bravery, quite often, we see kids ; very young kids and people marvel at a child doing something. I heard a story recently of two young kids who received awards for valor. They were both … I think they would have been early 10s, 11, 12.

And one of the young lass's father suffered a horrific injury. His arm was actually ripped off by a tractor, severed by a tractor, and these two young girls had to care for him and have presence of mind to tourniquet his mind and to tourniquet his arm, et cetera, until such a farmer's help came along. And I think, “Wow, that's an extraordinary example in children so young, of bravery in the face of a very difficult circumstance.”

Kids with resilience, they're often the kids that you'll see despite difficulties, despite perhaps setbacks, so the kids are just … seem to go and go and go until they get something right or until they achieve something they want to achieve.

Again, of the things comes to mind is stories of kids who from a very early age, you hear stories of moms and dads taking kids, getting up at five o'clock to take them to their swimming. And their kids … that's a very early time for anyone to get up, but these kids are on a mission.

And they persist, and they push through to achieve what it is that they want to achieve. Something that other people who don't necessarily have that as one of their top character strengths may not find so easy.

Peter:   I can see how a strength like that would be very helpful for a learner, to be able to persist. But are all strengths positive things?

Penny:    With the VIA, there are no weaknesses. The Values In Action talks about character strengths or virtues, and what you'll find when you look at the research in the VIA. What it talks about is that we all will have these particular character virtues to a greater or lesser degree.

And some of them, certainly we can learn, we can learn to tap into them. But you'll tend to find that there are … our top character strengths and virtues are the ones that we will tend to draw on more often and feel more energized when we're operating on them. The VIA is somewhat different to another strengths profile that I use in my work with adults, simply called the Strengths Profile.

The difference there is that that particular assessment is actually looking at strengths that we use in the workplace, and that does look at areas of weakness, but it focuses on … It's looking at something different to what the VIA is. And something that's much more applicable as people are perhaps in their later years of school when they're looking to start making decisions around careers, and certainly at work. So the VIA is certainly very applicable from an early age for kids at school.

How would a teacher get started applying a strengths approach?

Peter:   If a teacher wanted to deep their toe into the water of their strengths area, what would they do? Two questions, I guess. What are their first steps? What do they need to do? And secondly, what sort of results, what sort of changes to the outcomes for their students in their class could they expect and over what sort of time if they apply some of the principles that you work with?

Penny:    Look, there's many things, many simple things that teachers can do to start to introduce the idea of strengths at school. I'd recommend if anybody is interested, the VIA is free, so people can go on to the link. If they just Google “Values In Action” they'll find the link. It's free to anyone to do.

And that's by virtue of very wonderful people who provided a grant to enable the University of Pennsylvania to provide that free of charge. Once people have done the VIA and got their own report and started to do a little bit of research, there are some very, very simple things. I would be starting very, very small, and there are a number of tools that I often recommend to people.

If you're working with very young kids, so kindergarten to sixth grade, sixth class, I'd be looking at simple things like starting to introduce kids to the words associated with character strengths. Getting them to create some posters around those character strengths. Getting them to talk about some of the strengths that they see in each other, and starting to focus on the positive.

In terms of results, the results are excellent. This is staggering, I have to say, and the research that's been conducted has been repeated time and again. Professor Lea Waters, who's an Australian researcher, has done a lot of work in the strength space as well.

Effect on mental health, bullying, school attendance, academic results

And one of the things, certainly that drives me, as to why positive education is important, is many people are aware there has been an alarming increase in suicides, particularly in teenage kids, in depression and major depressive illness. And the figures are quite alarming. People like Professor Lea Waters, Martin Seligman, et cetera, have been looking at ways that can have a positive impact on that number, and ways that's not just fluff, things that actually work.

Some of the results that people start to see over time, is when people introduce the strengths approach at school, people started to see things like a lot more engagement amongst the kids, because kids start to feel they're in an environment that gets them, be it the teachers, as well as their fellow pupils.

People start to see a decrease in bullying. They start to see better academic results, better attendance for kids that perhaps have not had a good attendance rate. They see there a lot more cooperation amongst kids, and a lot less depression, et cetera, et cetera.

So, as I said, these are not just numbers or words around the plaque down of the year. The results have been repeated, and quite profound. If we're taking on board something that, to me, is relatively simple and can start in a fairly inexpensive way, the results really are quite profound.

Peter:   Is an element of this, the benefits you've just described there, and things like potentially reducing suicide attempts and all that, that sort of very, very distressing, negative behavior, has it boiled down to the fact that when children are exposed to their inner strengths, they become more positive about themselves? Is that an element of this?

Penny:   Absolutely, and not just children. I work with adults, and I'm doing work, as you know, within the education sector as well. The bottom line is that … How can I say this? Often, certainly from a very early age, people often, sometimes with the best of intentions, are often steered away from what … their natural strengths.

And the implications, and the impact of that, certainly into adulthood, is quite profound and can have a very negative effect, much of what I see in my coaching practice.

So whether you're working with a young child, or you're working with an adult in their 40s, 50s or 60s, when we start to actually share with people, we go through an assessment process or use a tool like the VIA, or a tool like the StrengthsFinder, where people actually connect with and understand, and are affirmed in terms of what their strengths are, I've got to say, when I work with adults, it's one of the most affirming and positive exercises that I've … I've used many, many assessment tools and to me, this is one of the most profounding, positive, and affirming assessment tools I've ever used. That's the kind of feedback I get from adults. 

If we think about it logically, when someone actually starts to hone in on, and help us see in ourselves our natural gifts and talents, and helps us to highlight and use those in a way that will benefit us and will benefit those around us, it stands to reason that people are going to feel better about themselves.

One of the things, by the way, I must hasten to add, one of the things that sometimes teachers, as well as parents fear, is that focusing on strengths is going to be at the cost of academic achievement or achieving their net plans forward, et cetera, et cetera. And I need to disabuse people of that notion straightaway, that that's not the case at all.

What happens with strengths, and this applies whether you're a child or whether you're an adult, is that you'll tend to find that what happens is when people understand their strengths, and when those strengths are amplified and appreciated, when people have to do the tough stuff, the not-so-sexy stuff, the things that they don't like or they find more challenging, when they understand their strengths, they'll find a way to join their strengths to get through or to do what it is that needs to be done in order to achieve an outcome that's required.

For example, for me, persistence is not one of my top VIA character strengths, but when I need to get through something, when I need to achieve something, or meet an outcome, or a goal, or a deadline, I certainly dig deeper and draw out my persistence.

It's about understanding, at a logical level, what it is that you need to do, and what you need to draw on. When you think about it, when you're tapping into something that comes naturally to you, to achieve something that perhaps doesn't come so naturally, it's going to make that latter part that much more easier when you're drawing to a strength.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

Peter:   How about, often teachers will hear a child say … a nine-year-old girl in primary school saying, “I can't do maths. I'm crap at maths,” or some other student expressing that they don't have any talent for a particular subject. What would you say to a teacher? Is there some way they could use strengths to help turn that situation around?

Penny:   I'm probably now getting into a bit around what's … an area that's referred to as fixed versus growth mindsets.

Peter:     Carol Dweck?

Penny:    Yeah, Carol Dweck. One of my favorite people. And often there's a bit of … There's certainly crossover, but just to, I guess clarify, with a fixed mindset, and this often happens with young kids, there's some quite good research and certainly some wonderful YouTube and TEDx talks around the fixed versus the growth mindset.

What tends to happen is, if we have what's called a fixed mindset, what we're looking for is validation. Whether you're an adult or a child, we're constantly trying to prove ourselves, and very sensitive to being wrong or making a mistake in that particular context. So, failure, for example, will bring you doubt. Means that you're no good, your confidence is destroyed.

So as a result, people with fixed mindsets often feel quite anxious or vulnerable to setbacks or criticisms in that particular space. I, myself, interestingly, was one of those people that said, “I'm no good at maths,” and much to my surprise, in my adult years when I went through psychological assessments, I kept coming up in the 95th percentile for maths.

It certainly was a time for reflection and starting to realize that I had developed quite a fixed mindset around my maths ability. The growth mindset on the other hand is about mastering competence, and this is where people believe that we can actually learn, develop, and cultivate certain abilities.

Okay, so in comparison to the fixed mindset, the growth mindset is about mastery and about competence.

The difference here is when people who have growth mindset get some corrective feedback when they fail at something, they basically have the view that okay, this is a challenge to be overcome. This is just feedback. They also have the view that they can learn, develop, or cultivate new. Let's see their IQ, or for example, their maths ability as being something that is fixed. It's something that I can develop, I can overcome, I can cultivate.

When they fail, these people see it as a setback, not just feedback about their performance. It's certainly not judgment about their personality or their value. People with growth mindsets, they're the kind of people, the term that comes to mind is PB, and we seem to associate PBs, or personal bests, typically with sports people. That's a great example of a growth mindset.

It's about, well, I'm not really interested to a great degree, but other people, I want to better myself. It's that constantly checking with where I am. I want to boost my own performance, and I want to explore, I want to stretch, I want to experiment, et cetera, et cetera.

With children, the fixed versus growth mindset, you'll often see that manifest in school, with exactly the kind of thing that you said, "I'm not good at maths," et cetera, et cetera. Part of developing a growth mindset, and it teaches you once that you start to tune into the whole fixed versus growth mindset.

We'll start to pick up on that language amongst children, and part of it is actually starting to ask kids if you were good at, for example, "If you were good at maths, what would that be like? What might you need to do to get better at maths? How can we make maths, how can we make maths more interesting for you?" There are ways of actually starting to fix, to shift, rather, a fixed to a growth mindset.


Probably the two words that I love most of all, and I talk about these in my book, Culture 101, because fixed mindsets affect all of us in certain contexts of our lives, is when if a child came to me and said, "I'm no good at maths. I'm rubbish at this, I'll never be good at maths," all you need to say back to a child is, "NOT YET".

The brilliant thing is whenever you say that to a child or to an adult, the brain as we know is a wonderful organ, and it immediately responds by going on, oh, we're not there yet? Okay, I need to find an answer. We're kind of sending the brain on a search for an answer.

So have you got all of that?

Peter:      Yep, that's good.

Penny:     NOT YET

Peter:        Not yet, not yet, so not yet.

Penny:       NOT YET

Peter:        What great powerful words.

Penny:       I love it, and that's all you say when someone says, "I'm no good at that?" Well you go, "Not yet."

Peter:        It sounds like positive psychology using strengths is something that teachers can introduce at very little cost.

Penny:       Absolutely.

Peter:        And quite easily and quickly.

Penny:       Absolutely. I often have ideas going off in my head about how to get ... Many of the teachers I meet are extraordinarily creative and are constantly looking for ways to engage the kids, constantly looking at different ways to introduce learning and simple things like just talking to the kids about strengths, getting them to go, and depending on their age, going to interview their parents and say, "What's something that you, Mum and Dad ... what's something or Dad and Dad, Mum and Mum, whoever, what's something that you really love doing that you're good at and you really want to do a lot of and it really gets you all fired up?"

Get them to start talking about strengths with their parents and get them to create posters of different strengths, have them around the room and then one day of the week, is "Today we're gonna talk about the strengths of the appreciation of beauty and excellence." So get them to talk about what that might mean, read them stories that demonstrate different strengths.

One of my favorite stories is Mem Fox's book, I can't remember the name of it. Not "Possum Magic," it's her second book which is about a young boy who lived next door to a nursing home. It was called "William McDonald Partridge," some name like that.

Things like looking at books and movies that demonstrate different strengths and that get the kids to talk about those. Get them to interview each other, and you could ... people will start to say, "Simply talking about what we're doing is the focus of strengths" is rather than looking at what's wrong with people, unfortunately there's a huge body of research that shows that human beings do have a negativity bias.

We needed it to survive. "I need food and I need to make sure that I don't get eaten" was our predominant drivers for a very, very long time. And so it was important for us to have a negativity bias, to look at what was wrong. That doesn't work so well now, and so looking at ... and it certainly doesn't work well in developing the brain and in terms of developing strengths.

When we look at strengths, we're not ignoring or downplaying things that we are not so good at. What we are doing is giving equal or strong voice to what we do well, you know, the kind of things that we do well, what we're naturally good at.

So you can start to imagine that when you start to focus, when the kids start to focus on each others' strengths, you can perhaps start to see how this will start to have an impact on bullying, for example.

And I'm happy to say that in the work I do with adults, the same thing happens. When you introduce a strengths approach with adults, the same things happen. People start to see significant shifts in the way that the adults treat each other as well. So it ... I'm all about things that are simple, easy to implement, are science-backed, and you don't need an MBA, you don't need ... Some of them you don't even need a budget.

A lot of the things that I talk about, when people are wanting to implement a positive educational, a positive psychology approach, require no input of money at all. It's just about making a decision to take a slightly different approach. So for me, that works.

Peter:     It sounds like the strengths approach, positive psychology approach would be good for the whole of society, 

Penny:     If I could wave my magic wand, that's what I ... that's my wish. That's what I'm very, very passionate about.

Peter:       If you look at how the news is now ... I don't know if it's always been this way, but there's so much of it now. It's so negative-focused.

Penny:      It is.

Peter:        Someone was saying to me the other day, "Cable network news, CNN, really should be called crisis network news with their continually negative news." And that must feed into our psychology in a detrimental way.

Penny:       Yes.

Peter:         So what you're talking about, besides sounding like being wonderful for education, it sounds like it could be great for everybody.

Penny:       Well, it is. You and I both know, neurologically, what the impact on the brain is of constant over-exposure to negativity and to stressful events, traumatic events. We start to get into the constant, the [inaudible 00:05:26] constantly sending off messages to the body to link at some of the less-than-desirable neuro transmitters and hormones, namely cortisol and adrenal.

Both wonderfully fine if you need to fight or if you need to flee, but not great to have sitting in your body if you're a child sitting in the classroom or if you're an adult sitting at work.

And a lot of the ... fundamentally, what positive psychology is about is essentially about increasing well-being. Marty Seligman's model, his PERMA model, many teachers will have heard of. PERMA stands for ... it's the first letters of the five elements that he describes in terms of what we need in the environment, whether we're at school or whether at work.

And it stands for positive emotion, engagement-engagement in what it is that I'm doing, engagement with the work in general, relationships, so I need ... in order for me to have a sense of well-being, I need to feel that I'm developing relationships at school and/or at work. There needs to be some kind of sense of meaning or purpose. And I need to accomplish things as well.

So you think about those elements. They apply, whether we're a child at school or whether we're at work. And when those sorts of things start to apply, what we start to see is there starts to be a shift in the neuro chemistry of the brain as well. There's a lot more serotonin, endorphins.

As kids start to engage with each other and share with each other, oxytocin gets released. Oxytocin is that wonderful tend-and-befriend hormone that helps us with team-building and helps build relationships.

When people are happy and have some light-hearted times, we start to get dopamine happening. So there's a lot of ... this is not just about, as it's often said of people, it's not about sitting around in beanbags, wearing your happy pants.

This is about actively doing things that science now tells us will help shape the neuro chemistry of our brains, whether you're a child or an adult, and help raise our general sense of well-being. Now, I think for anyone it's a great thing. Certainly for kids. When you start to think back to those horrific figures around serious episodes of depressive illness and certainly attempted and actual suicides, anything we can do to lift a child's sense of well-being has got to be a mighty fine thing.

Online professional courses on strengths and positive psychology in education

Peter:       Sure, sure is. Absolutely. Now I understand that you're building a series of online professional development courses around positive psychology and strengths in education.

Penny:      Yes.

Peter:        Are you able to just give us a quick preview of what's happening there?

Penny:       Yup, yeah. Look, this is in response to a number of people kind of asking the questions that you've asked, people worrying about "Is this gonna cost a lot of money? Where do I start?" It'd be great if everybody was in an environment where everyone from the top down, be it the boss or the principal, were totally on board with this, but that's not always the case.

And so I'm all, there is nothing bad about this and I'm all for people being ... and I mean this with love in my heart ... I'm all for people being the silent rebel and the disruptors in the nicest possible way.

And the things that we're gonna be talking about in the online program are just starting to introduce people to some of the background so they can start to educate themselves, some of the background to positive psychology. You and I both know that when we start to talk about positive psychology and neuro science, it's kind of cue the eye rolling.

And I personally have always found it very helpful and very reassuring that when I get questioned by the nay-sayers or the bean counters, that I've got plenty of science and very long-standing evidence-based research to fall back onto.

So in the programs, we'll be just touching ... there'll be about 30-35 minute modules. We'll be touching on some of the key aspects of positive education, so starting with a little bit of background on positive psychology, looking at what strengths mean at school, how to start spotting strengths.

We'll cover things in more depth like fixed and growth mind sets and look at how to introduce the whole concept of what's called "whole of school" or social and emotional learning at school. So I like to make things accessible. I'm very, very ... as I've said, I'm very for things that are highly accessible, easy to implement, yet are evidence-backed. And that's what we're gonna be doing with this online program.

Peter:        Wonderful, Penny, we'll look forward to those. In the meantime, how can someone get in touch with you if they want to talk some more about this?

Penny:       Sure. So if you want to get in touch with me, they can certainly email me. It's very easy. It's pennynesbitt.com.au.  Or happy for them to call me on my mobile phone, which is 0404799730. So I would love to talk to anybody who'd like to know a bit more about positive education and positive psychology in general.

As you probably picked up, I'm pretty passionate about this stuff.

Peter:        Excellent, Penny. Look, thank you very much for your time today and we'll schedule some more time to dig deeper into this subject over the next few weeks and months. So, until next time, thank you very much.

Penny:             Wonderful.

Strengths in Education Online Courses

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