What is Positive Education, and How Can We Apply It? (+PDF)

What is Positive Education?

All parents want the best for their children. They want their children to be happy and to flourish. However, finding the right education model for one’s children can be a challenge.

One option is positive education, which combines traditional education principles with research-backed ways of increasing happiness and well-being.

“The fundamental goal of positive education is to promote flourishing or positive mental health within the school community.” (Norrish et. al., 2013)

Continue exploring this article to learn more about the emerging field of positive education, and how it is transforming lives around the world.

What Is Positive Education?

Positive education is the combination of traditional education principles with the study of happiness and well-being, using Martin Seligman‘s PERMA model and the Values in Action (VIA) classification.

Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, has incorporated positive psychology into education models as a way to decrease depression in younger people and enhance well-being and happiness. His download as pdfPERMA model, which outlines five elements of well-being, can be utilized in schools to help the students increase their well-being and to flourish.

PERMA stands for:

  • Positive Emotions: Feeling positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, interest, and hope;
  • Engagement: Being fully absorbed in activities that use your skills but still challenge you;
  • Relationships: Having positive relationships;
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than yourself;
  • Accomplishment: Pursuing success, winning achievement and mastery.

Education has long focused on academics and fostering positive character strength development. However, before the publication of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Peterson and Seligman (2014), any efforts to endorse character strengths were derived from religious, cultural, or political bias (Linkins et al., 2015).

“The VIA classification, however provides a cross-cultural relevant framework for ‘educating the heart’” (Linkins et al., 2015, p. 65).

Positive education programs usually define positive character using the core character strengths that are represented in the VIA classification’s six categories of virtue, which are:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge;
  2. Courage;
  3. Humanity;
  4. Justice;
  5. Temperance;
  6. Transcendence.

These positive characters aren’t innate—they’re external constructs that need to be nurtured. The goal of positive education is to reveal a child’s combination of character strengths and to develop his or her ability to effectively engage those strengths (Linkins et al., 2015).


How To Apply Positive Education

Strength-based interventions in educational systems are powerful tools that are often surprisingly simple to introduce into schools.

“A school curriculum that incorporates wellbeing will ideally prevent depression, increase life satisfaction, encourage social responsibility, promote creativity, foster learning, and even enhance academic achievement” (Waters, 2014).

geelong grammar school positive education

The Geelong Grammar School (GGS) in Australia has often been cited as a model for positive education, since it was one of the first schools to apply positive psychology approaches schoolwide (Norrish et al., 2013).

At GGS, all teachers and support staff participate in training programs to learn about positive education and how to apply its teachings in both their work and personal lives (Norrish et al., 2013).

For students at the school, positive education is incorporated into every course. For example, in an art class, students might explore the concept of flourishing by creating a visual representation of the concept. The students also have regular lessons on positive psychology, just like they would with subjects like mathematics and geography (Norrish et al., 2013).

These strength-based interventions also focus on the relationship between teachers and students. When a teacher gives feedback, they are instructed to be specific about the strength the student demonstrated rather than giving vague feedback like “Good job!”

Changes to these small interactions are significant, and paying attention to the wording of positive reinforcement has been shown to make a difference (The Langley Group, 2014). A study of praise conducted by Elizabeth Hurlock found it a more effective classroom motivator than punishment regardless of age, gender, or ability.

The following video summarizes the innovative ways schools are incorporating positive education into their curriculum.

In Australia, one school focuses on well-being, under the belief that humans learn best when they are happy. The video above explains the application of positive psychology into the school system


Positive Education In Practice

The tenets of positive psychology have been used to create several teaching techniques proven to be effective in several ways. Here are just a sample of some ways to incorporate this model into any classroom or school system.


The Jigsaw Classroom

One of these is the jigsaw classroom, a technique in which students are split into groups based on shared skills and competencies. Each student is assigned a different topic and told to find students from other groups who were given the same topic. The result is that each group has a set of students with different strengths, collaborating to research the same topic.

The influence of positive psychology has even extended to classroom dynamics. In positive psychology-influenced curricula, more power is given to the students in choosing their own curriculum and students are given responsibility from a much younger age.  In these types of classroom settings, students are often treated differently when it comes to praise and discipline.


The Character Growth Card

In 2013, Canadian-American journalist Paul Tough wrote a book called How Children Succeed, in which he argued that possessing inborn intelligence and academic competency is not enough for students to succeed in school. Instead, he argued that grit, resilience, and other character traits should receive a greater emphasis in schools. Doing so leads to better near-term academic performance in students.

The acclaimed charter school network KIPP took many of these ideas and made them an official part of school protocol. Students at KIPP schools receive a Character Growth Card, which assigns evaluates students’ performance not just for academic subjects like math and history, but also regarding a series of seven character traits; these traits are culled from positive psychology research by Seligman and psychologist Chris Peterson

KIPP’s system enables the formal assessment of traits that fall outside the metrics used to assess students at most schools, and it teaches the importance of these character traits in a few ways. Teachers model positive behavior, call out positive examples of the character traits in action and discuss the traits openly and explicitly.

There are no formal lessons teaching character traits like zest or gratitude, but KIPP faculty believe that highlighting examples of these traits when they naturally occur is an effective way to encourage their development.

Not everyone seems believes that KIPP’s method is effective. In an article in the New Republic, education professor Jeffrey Snyder argues that we don’t actually know how to teach character strengths, so numerically measuring them can do more harm than good.

Even critics of KIPP agree that calling attention to character and positive psychology in schools is a step in the right direction.


The Bounce Back Program and Building Resilience

In 2003, researchers Toni Noble and Helen McGrath devised a practical, cost-effective and efficient classroom resiliency program called Bounce Back, the first positive education program in the world.

Noble and McGrath argue that teaching resilience to young children is most effective for lasting change, but that the most pressing need for increased resilience is during students’ transition into secondary school.

The Bounce Back program is targeted to upper primary and lower secondary students since adolescence is a critical period of change and stress for students. This concept is summarized by their video below:


Bounce Back addresses two key areas: the environmental factors that build up psychological capital and the personal coping skills that the students can learn, the importance of which has been highlighted by many researchers such as Seligman (2007), Reivich and Shatte (2003), and Barbara Fredrickson (2009).

What Noble and McGrath did was to provide a series of practical, day-to-day school activities that helped students feel connected to their peers, school, and the community. Their research showed how schools could create a more supportive environment, both within the school and in students’ families and communities.

To help students develop coping skills, the Bounce Back curriculum provides resources and suggestions for teachers and exercises for pupils. The exercises are designed to encourage pupils to develop optimism in the classroom and growing an accepting and light-hearted attitude.

Bounce Back provides practical tools such as a Responsibility Pie Chart, which guides children to realize that all negative situations are a combination of three factors: their own behavior, the behavior of others, and random events.

Using the Responsibility Pie Chart to understand a specific negative event helps pupils learn what they can change and what they can’t, developing their senses of initiative and responsibility.

These principles have proven useful for other client groups. Participants in Possibility Place, a program for boosting resilience and confidence in the long-term unemployed, found the responsibility pie chart very useful in preventing people from berating themselves for things that were not their fault and learning to understand what they could do to resolve the situation.

Bounce Back is a wonderful example of how positive psychology research can be transmuted into tools to help people flourish.


Restorative Practices

Positive education doesn’t just focus on the positive parts of education; it also improves upon the ways in which schools administer punishment.

In any given school year, approximately 100,000 students are expelled from U.S. public schools. Many of these students will be forced to leave their school for an entire academic year, while some others will be barred from ever attending a public school in their state.

Nearly 3 million U.S. students are suspended each year, meaning that many students miss as many as 10 days of school for disciplinary reasons.

Considering how many days of school and learning are lost to expulsions and suspensions, some school administrators are starting to rethink those methods. Expulsions and suspensions can sometimes be necessary if a student’s behavior is compromising the safety or learning environment of his or her fellow students.

Many educators now think these disciplinary measures are unlikely to help children learn from their mistakes or prevent repeat behavior once the offending students are back in school. Some argue that these punishments further alienate these children physically and emotionally from their peers, only making them more likely to repeat harmful behavior.

Venn diagram of three parties in restorative justice meetings.
Restorative Justice Venn Diagram. Retrieved by URL. Property of Creative Commons 2.0.

An alternative method, called restorative practices, is championed by some as an improvement upon the expulsion and suspension model. Restorative practice isn’t a completely new concept—it’s based on the restorative justice model that has been championed by criminal justice reform advocates for years.

In this model, a meeting is held between the person who “offended” someone, the person directly affected by the offender, and the community that was entangled in this domino effect of actions. The Venn Diagram offers a visual as to how these parties intersect.

If a school disciplines a student, it’s usually because the student’s behavior had a specific effect on his or her environment. The idea behind restorative practices is to focus on that effect when pursuing disciplinary action.

Let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say a student named Maria was talking too loudly during class, disrupting her peers’ ability to focus. In a traditional disciplinary setting, the teacher might ask Maria to stop talking or give her a time-out.

In restorative practice, the teacher would ask Maria why she was speaking out of turn, what effect she’s having on the students around her, and whether she thinks it’s fair for the other students to be on the receiving end of that behavior.

In a more extreme case, like a student provoking and participating in a fight, the restorative practice would be more formal. The child would participate in a meeting with other students and adult leaders in the school. Together, they would discuss what spurred the student to start the fight, how it affected the others involved, and what the student might do instead if he or she was in a similar situation in the future.

The student might also be assigned activities or programs that would help prevent further fights. As discussed in this profile on restorative practice in Edweek, a California middle-schooler named Danny went through a similar process. In Danny’s case, his disciplinary requirements included “writing letters of apology, undergoing tutoring, and joining a school sports team.”

The data on restorative practices show promising results. According to one school district, “89% of those who go through restorative practices do not re-offend.”


Further Positive Education Research

“A central question of youth development is how to get adolescents’ fires lit, how to have them develop the complex of dispositions and skills needed to take charge of their lives.” (Larson, 2000)

Lots of studies have been done on positive education and its potential impacts. Here are some summaries of research findings on positive education.


Promotes Human Development

Sheila M. Clonan and colleagues (2004) found that that the incorporation of positive psychology in learning environments helped foster individual strengths. It promoted the development of positive institutions, and it made students more successful.

Researchers established that positive education interventions had a more lasting impact on changing student behavior than other methods.


Teaches Students How to Make Themselves Happy

In another study, researchers followed students aged 14-15 who completed a 40-minute timetabled lesson on the skills of wellbeing every two weeks for two years (Green, 2015).

The results showed that the students were able to gain a full understanding of what factors helped them thrive and flourish.


Decreases Depression

Positive psychology interventions that are used in positive education include identifying and developing strengths, cultivating gratitude, and visualizing best possible selves (Seligman et al., 2005; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). A meta-analysis conducted by Sin and Lyubomirksy (2009) with 4,266 participants found that positive psychology interventions do increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms significantly.


Makes High-Achieving Students

Compared to unhappy students, happier students pay better attention, are more creative, and have greater levels of community involvement (Fisher, 2015). The emphasis on positive psychology interventions in education increases engagement, creates more curious students, and helps develop an overall love of learning (Fisher, 2015).


Offers Easier Systems for Teachers

Positive education benefits teachers, too. It makes it easier for teachers to engage with students and persist in the work they need to do master their academic material (Fisher, 2015).

It creates a school culture that is caring and trusting, and it prevents problem behavior.


Increases Motivation among Students

Research has shown that goals associated positively with optimism resulted in a highly motivated student (Fadlelmula, 2010). This study showed that motivation may be consistent and long-term if it is always paired with positive psychology interventions.


Boosts Resiliency

The Penn Resiliency Program was developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Results from 19 controlled studies of the Penn Resiliency Program found that students in the program were more optimistic, resilient, and hopeful. Their scores on standardized tests increased by 11% and they had less anxiety approaching exams.


Limitations in Research

Many of the studies on positive education have been conducted on adults, such as college students. The issue with this is that the research is not generalizable to the youth community. Currently, there are aren’t enough studies being done to claim with complete confidence that positive education is the best approach to education.

More research on adolescent populations is still required to get a full picture of the impact and efficacy of positive education.

Overall, the research findings have been promising so far and time will tell what the future holds for positive education, and interest in applying positive psychology interventions in schools is growing rapidly.


Where Are We Now?

In the time since Seligman established the basic tenets of positive psychology, they have been implemented worldwide in many ways. While the objective of giving students the tools to build meaningful relationships, feel good, become well-rounded, and bring positivity to everything that they do is common among all positive education institutions, each has its own approach to doing so.

For example, Perth College (an Anglican school for girls in Western Australia) trains its staff in positive psychology and coaching and have full units on ethical issues and social justice.

Other schools utilize what is known as the Montessori method, which emphasizes student-led, project-based curriculum in order to enhance creativity and hands-on learning.

With the success of many of these approaches and no single dominant method, many organizations are starting to grow in an attempt to consolidate and organize the efforts among different schools.

The International Positive Education Network is one of several institutions attempting to figure out what is working and spread it through means such as conferences and even policy reform.

Research conducted over the last two decades has suggested that these sorts of initiatives lead to students growing up with higher levels of creativity, leadership skills, and emotional intelligence. Furthermore, they even lead to improved academic performance and significantly better mental health.

With the unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression in the world today, proactively raising children to effectively handle these problems may be the best antidote we can provide.


Positive Education Videos

If you want to learn more about positive education, try watching these videos on the subject. We would also love to hear any additional ideas in our comments section.


What is Positive Education?

This video gives a very brief introduction to positive education and the role it can have on a student’s well-being. It also delves into what specific techniques from positive psychology are used in positive education.


Positive Education: Overcoming Disadvantage

How do positive education instructors teach and observe students differently from traditional teachers?

The video shows teachers reflecting on the program and discuss the benefits of “talking back,” focusing on what’s right with children and teenagers, and rebuilding a school’s culture.


Positive Education; Teaching Wellbeing

Geelong Grammar School, as described above, is taking an innovating approach in their students’ well-being.

This video explains how the school helps them cope with the stressors of life and gives a glimpse of what goes on in a positive education classroom. What makes this video remarkable is it shows how self-aware the students are.


Positive Education at Perth College, Anglican School for Girls

At Perth College, skills of well-being are taught to girls as a core part of their educational program. “It’s really important to start at a really young age,” the school director explains.

This video focuses on a school that has wholly implemented Positive Education into their school program. It outlines how educators incorporate Positive Education for every age group, how they help their students flourish, and the results it has had on the staff, too.


More Information About Positive Education

If you’re interested in learning more about Positive Education, be sure to visit:


The Geelong Grammar School (GGS)

As described above, the faculty at Geelong Grammar School believes that well-being should be at the heart of education. As such, they have implemented a whole-school approach to positive education.


International Positive Education Network (IPEN)

Positive education in schools videosIPEN is a network that aims to bring teachers, parents, academics, student, schools, colleges, universities, charities, companies, and governments together to promote positive education.


Positive Education Schools Association (PESA)

PESA is a school association working to embed positive psychology into school programs and aiming to improve student wellbeing and academic performance. This association helps schools and individual teachers gain access to resources and the latest research.

What do you think about positive education? Would you consider sending your child to a school that incorporates positive education methods?

Please feel free to add your thoughts to our comments section.

Positive Education Books

Adams, M. (2013). Teaching that changes lives: 12 mindset tools for igniting the love of learning. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Bruehl, M. (2011). Playful learning: Develop your child’s sense of joy and wonder. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Buller, J. (2013). Positive academic leadership: How to stop putting out fires and start making a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Canter, L. (2009). Lee Canter’s assertive discipline: Positive behavior management for today’s classroom (4th ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Crimmins, D., Farrel, A., Smith, P., & Bailey, A. (2007). Positive strategies for students with behavior problems. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Crone, D., Hawken, L. S., & Horner, R. (2015). Building Positive Behavior Support Systems in Schools, Second Edition: Functional Behavioral Assessment (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

David, D., & Sheth, S. (2009). Mindful teaching & teaching mindfulness: A guide for anyone who teaches anything. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Froh, J. J., & Parks, A. C. (2012). Activities for teaching positive psychology: A guide for instructors. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Ginsburg, K., & Jablow, M. (2014). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings (3rd ed.). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Joseph, S. (2015). Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Morrison, M. (2007). Using humor to maximize learning the links between positive emotions and education. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Nelson, J., Lott, L., & Glenn, S. (2000). Positive discipline in the classroom: Developing mutual respect, cooperation, and responsibility in your classroom. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Nelson, J., Escobar, L., Ortolano, K., Duffy, R., & Owen-Sohocki, D. (2001). Positive discipline: A teacher’s A-Z guide, revised 2nd edition: Hundreds of solutions for every possible classroom behavior problem (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Chute, E. (2014). Can positive student-teacher relationships improve math scores? Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2014/12/29/Can-positive-student-teacher-relations-improve-math-scores/stories/201412230167

Clonan, S. M., Chafouleas, S. M., McDougal, J. L., & Riley-Tillman, T. C. (2004). Positive psychology goes to school: Are we there yet? Psychology in The Schools. doi:10.1002/pits.10142

Fadlelmula, F. K. (2010). Educational motivation and students’ achievement goal orientations. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.03.116

Fisher, S. (2014). Positive Education | Positive Education Tutoring, Coaching & Consultant | Sherri Fisher, MAPP, M.Ed. Retrieved from http://sherrifisher.com/positive-education/

Green, S. (2011). Australian Psychological Society: Positive education: Creating flourishing students, staff and schools. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/2011/april/green/

The Langley Group (2014). Student spotlight: Bringing positive education to schools. Retrieved from http://langleygroupinstitute.com/bringing-positive-education-to-schools-to-promote-whole-school-wellbeing/

Linkins, M., Niemiec, R. M., Gillham, J., & Mayerson, D. (2015). Through the lens of strength: A framework for educating the heart. The Journal Of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 64-68. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.888581

Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., & Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for positive education. International Journal of Wellbeing, 3(2).

Oades, L. G., Robinson, P., Green, S., & Spence, G. B. (2011). Towards a positive university. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(6), 432-439.

Seligman, M. E., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. doi:10.1080/03054980902934563

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82. doi:10.1080/17439760500510676

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: a practice-friendly meta-analysis.Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487. doi:10.1002/jclp.20593

White, M. A., & Murray, A. S. (Eds.). (2015). Evidence-based approaches in positive education: Implementing a strategic framework for well-being in schools. New York, NY: Springer.


About the Author

Mariana Pascha, Psychologist, BSc. is a Knowledge Analyst at Spencer Stuart. She hopes to use positive psychology as a way of improving lives, starting at the fundamental developmental years of life.


  1. Kaspar

    Can`t find the reference “Fisher ( 2015)”. Could you help me out pls?

  2. Erin

    How does one get involved with this? I’d love to help implement this in Michigan!

    • Tamara Lechner

      Hi- I’m in North America and I work with the Geelong Grammar team as an International consultant. I’d be happy to speak with you about it. My name is Tamara tlechner@ggs.vic.edu.au

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