Mindfulness and Character Strengths in Schools
Teaching students the key pathways to flourishing.
Posted Apr 08, 2016
Special Guest Author: Trina Cummins – Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education, Wilderness School, Adelaide Australia
By applying science-based approaches to well-being across the Wilderness School, I focus on teaching students the necessary skills to flourish and live a life of promise, purpose and fulfillment.
As part of our positive education curriculum, students learn how to combine mindfulness and character strengths techniques. The integration of mindfulness and character strengths offers a number of distinct benefits for student well-being. Ryan Niemiec (2014) hypothesizes that the integration of these two areas is a recipe for flourishing – for greater engagement in work, better problem-management, higher sense of meaning and purpose, greater well-being, and improved relationships.
This approach is closely aligned with what we do at the Wilderness School in Adelaide, South Australia, which is a nondenominational school for girls (750 students) from Early Learning to Year 12. The school leadership team has adopted a strategic, whole school approach to well-being. The well-being of each student is central to the School’s mission: “To enable each girl to be the best that she can be throughout her life.” The School’s values are shown below and are the foundation for our well-being approach.
This model, which builds a culture where positive behaviour and developing a true self is taught, is embedded across the whole school because schools are now seen as institutions where their role extends beyond academic competence to further preparing the ‘whole child’ (Huitt, 2010).
To enable our students to grow, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP) was implemented as a pilot program to teach these unique well-being skills to Year 10 students. The goal was for each girl to develop, integrate, and apply these mindfulness and character strengths strategies when dealing with school/life pressures.
In Years 7-9, students study and develop their character strengths and practice mindfulness as part of the positive education curriculum in a weekly Character & Wellbeing (CWB) class. Year 10 was chosen to teach the MBSP program, enabling girls to continually develop their well-being skills in the Senior School through this targeted group programme intervention. Due to the increase in academic work and associated pressures, Year 10 seemed an advantageous year level to bridge teaching these skills between the Middle and Senior School. Furthermore, building on students prior knowledge from learning well-being concepts in the Middle School CWB classes, it was beneficial to extend their understanding and application of these concepts.
This positive education curriculum was written based on concepts from Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), a manualized program outlined in Niemiec’s book Mindfulness & Character Strengths (2014). Classes were taught during home room time, including pre-post testing of students’ self-report on the Hope Scale (Schonert-Reichl, Oberle, Lawlor, Abbott, & Thomson, 2015).
Overview/structure for the adapted MBSP program
- Define & identify mindfulness / evaluate autopilot
- Signature strengths / video / individual rating
- Obstacles are opportunities
- Strengthening mindfulness
- Mindfulness and the golden mean
- Authenticity & best possible self
- Engagement & academic success
Eighty-four students participated in this program with girls completing the VIA Youth Survey and receiving their free character strengths profile during the course. Girls reported that they felt more relaxed and focused when doing their school work after learning and practicing the MBSP techniques. Another benefit related to how they were using this practice in other areas outside the classroom. For example, students became mindful of how they used their character strengths when playing on a sports team and in their relationships with peers. They learned to express their strengths in a balanced way, according to "the golden mean of character strengths," which refers to expressing the right combination of character strengths, to the right degree, in the right situation (Niemiec, 2014).
The girls were also asked what character strengths they would use to describe their home room group with discussions about how they overuse and underuse their strengths as a group. Interesting discussions unfolded regarding how girls could use their character strengths to support each other more in their friendships. One of the noted benefits from teaching the course was seeing students become more mindful about when they overuse and underuse their character strengths, especially applying this understanding into their school work and what the core is for each strength in Finding the Strengths Zone. Several students commented that Love of Learning is one of their top character strengths and how they now have a deeper understanding and self-awareness of when they are overusing it (acting like a know-it-all) and underusing it (being complacent about learning). Students also grew in their understanding of how other people perceive them when they overuse and underuse a strength.
• When you start to feel overwhelmed by school-work, catch yourself and say: “Stop! Aware! Go to your signature strengths!”.
• Be aware of how you overuse and underuse your strengths when you're tackling school work.
• Be mindful of having a growth mindset which means to see challenges and difficulties as opportunities to use your character strengths.
• Practice mindfulness every day to help increase your attention and energy levels.
• Find ways to incorporate your signature strengths into classroom interactions.
• Do a new activity once a week to tap into your signature strengths.
“In the MBSP course we had time to evaluate things in life that I wouldn’t usually think
about like my strengths and areas to grow. It was valuable because it helped me to
apply my strengths in school work. For example, being mindful of my character
strengths and how I used them in class to concentrate and be more engaged in my
work.” (Laura Montague, Year 11 student).
“Learning about the golden mean and how to not overuse or underuse my strengths in
a mindful way helped me when working on a team, especially in sports. In volleyball
when playing I am more mindful of when I overuse my humour strength and when I
need to be my best possible self in being fully engaged.” (Emily Yull, Year 11 student).
Due to the success of teaching the MBSP program we are looking to implement it again with the possibility of training staff so they can teach, reinforce and embed these concepts into academic classes.
Huitt, W. (2010). A holistic view of education and schooling: Guiding students to develop capacities, acquire virtues, and provide service. Paper presented at the 12th Annual International Conference sponsored by the Athens Institute for Education and
Research (ATINER), May 24-27, Athens, Greece.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M.S., Abbott, D., & Thomson, K.
(2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A
randomized control trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.
Trina Cummins is the Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education at Wilderness School, Adelaide where she is a member of the Senior Leadership team and oversees Positive Education across the school (ELC - Year 12). She has extensive experience in managing the day to day planning and operations of programs across different school
sectors (government and independent) in America and Australia. To learn more about the positive education and well-being programs being implemented, including how girls are taught flourishing skills, visit the Wilderness School website.