By Adrian Bethune.
I’m a primary school teacher and I feel it is my job to help foster and develop confident, happy pupils who know how to look after themselves, and each other, so they can lead successful lives. That’s why, for the last 5 years, I have taught my primary school classes happiness and wellbeing lessons. You see, happiness is a skill. Just like writing or playing a sport. There are certain things that happy people do that we can all do in order to become happier. We know this because positive psychologists, like Sonja Lyubomirsky, have proven that up to 40% of our happiness levels are determined by the choices we make and actions we take. The children respond really well to these lessons – they have so many questions about what makes people happy and what happens in our brains and bodies to make us happier. They are often the most engaging lessons I teach!
So, I have introduced several ideas into my classroom from the world of happiness and wellbeing. If you’re a parent or carer, you can try some of these with your children at home. In fact, you can try them in your own adult lives as they work for grown-ups too!
- What Went Well – You can ask children to write down 3 good things that went well for them, and why they were good things. They can share them with their friends and family to celebrate the positive week they’ve had. I do this with my class every Friday and it’s a real celebration of the week we’ve had as a class. The children love sharing their WWWs and it’s great for me to find out what really makes them happy. And it’s often the little things like “I had a tasty lunch today with my friends”. This teaches children to savour the small things that make their lives enjoyable.
- Mindfulness Meditation – Maybe you could start your day with a quick meditation with your children before breakfast. Every morning we begin with a 2 to 5 minute meditation in class. It’s a great way to start our day as we know that children’s brains work and think better when they are calm. There’s a growing body of evidence about the positive effects of mindfulness meditation with young people. As a Year 4 child once said to me “A calm mind is a happy mind, and a happy mind is a smart mind.”
- Thought for the Day – It’s good to foster an optimistic thinking style in children, given that all of our brains naturally have a negativity bias (it’s what kept us alive on the Savannah). In my class, using Action for Happiness’ pinterest page posters, I have a display with their bright, colourful posters with positive ‘thoughts for the day’ on it. Each morning before our meditation, a child will read one out and we discuss what the meaning might be behind it. This technique of Priming has proven that subliminal messages influence our behaviour. Priming is a technique where you set up an environment to affect subconscious behaviour. For example, having a citrus air freshener in a house makes it more likely that people will clean up after themselves. Advertisers also use it to get us to buy their products but it can be used to make us happier. So by bringing this technique into the classroom, I am making explicit the positive thoughts, behaviours and actions I’d like to encourage in my children.
- Daily fitness – It is so important that our children can be as active as possible. The way to do it is to make it fun, and for them to not even realise it is exercise. Tag or ‘it’ games are great, as are sports and kick-abouts in the park. You could set them a time challenge to see how long it can take to get around all of the equipment in your local park – then each time they try and beat their personal best. You can be creative and make up your own active games. Maybe simply take the dog for a walk or, if you don’t have a dog, just go for a walk! In my current school, we are about to introduce the ‘daily mile’ where the children will, you guessed it, run a mile every day. Sedentary behaviour is a killer and shortens life expectancy. However, physical activity boosts brain power, immune system functioning and self-esteem. We need to get our children moving more and sitting down less!
- Random Acts of Kindness – Kindness is a quality that is innate in all children but we must give children lots of opportunities to be kind and also model it for them. Knowing that bullying comes from a place of unhappiness, I re-branded anti-bullying week to It’s Cool to be Kind Week. The children were set a home-learning task of carrying out a random act of kindness in their local community. The following year we did class ‘acts of kindness’ where each class carried out kind acts in the local area – with the Year 5 classes greeting commuters at Brockley station with renditions of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’! The normally miserable-looking commuters stopped to listen, applaud and they had massive smiles on their faces. One commuter even wrote to our Head Teacher to say “I just wanted to drop you a note to say that I was moved to tears yesterday by the beautiful singing from your pupils – and staff! It was just so heartbreakingly amazing and I will feel the warmth in my heart for a very long time to come.” So why not get your children to bake cakes for a friend, do the shopping for an elderly neighbour, or donate clothes or toys to a charity shop? Kindness is contagious and the more opportunities we can give children to be kind, the more it becomes a happy habit of theirs.
So there are lots of practical things we can teach children and ourselves about happiness on a daily, weekly and annual basis. Try some ideas out for yourself and see what impact it has!