A pioneer of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, claims: “Psychology should be just as concerned with building strength as with repairing damage.”

Seligman’s words ring true for educational professionals. A warm, strengths-based approach, promoting high expectations in the classroom, is the antidote to negative thinking about student outcomes. A primary focus on classroom challenges can quickly lead to teacher overwhelm, whack-a-mole efforts at damage control, and symptoms of burnout.

The good news is that Seligman’s 2011 book Flourish outlines the five key components of his well-being theory. These five research-based elements have direct relevance to classroom communities and provide a foundation for enlivening and re-invigorating teachers in their professional practice—and ultimately empowering students. The acronym PERMA points to the five factors that support greater happiness and well-being.

Positive Emotions (P):

Do students in your classroom feel safe, at ease, and basically happy when they walk in your door?

  • Welcome them in the hall by shaking their hands or giving them a high five.
  • Acknowledge students by name on a regular basis.
  • Leverage Barbara Frederickson’s  positivity ratio of 3 positive comments to every negative comment in your daily interactions.

Engagement (E):

Do students have voice, choice, and agency in your classroom?

  • Empower students as active participants in meaningful and relevant project-based learning opportunities.
  • Prompt students to propose and create learning experiences that build on unit objectives and learning targets.

Positive Relationships (R):

Do you foster healthy, supportive relationships in your classroom?

  • Invest significant and sufficient time in community building activities at the start of the year.
  • Jointly negotiate classroom norms/agreements and revisit them regularly.
  • Provide students with opportunities to engage in meaningful cooperative learning activities that are thoughtfully structured for positive interdependence and face-to-face interaction.

Meaning (M):

Do students believe that the work they do in your class is worthwhile and important?

  • Focus on students’ perceptions of the value behind your lessons and units.
  • Discuss the real-world relevance (every day) of the projects, learning activities, and learning targets you share.
  • Engage in service learning projects so your students can play a direct role in their community. Ask your students how they would like to contribute to improving local schools, parks, and neighborhoods.

Accomplishment (A):

Do students feel successful in your class?

  • Create ways to celebrate students’ successes.
  • Provide sufficient time for reflection on student learning.
  • Use formative assessments and metacognitive tools that focus on Dweck’s “growth” mindset—rather than a “fixed” mindset.
  • Support students and scaffold their learning activities so that they can set and meet personal learning goals.

There is incredible power in focusing on community well-being and leveraging individuals’ strengths. Translated here for educational purposes, Seligman’s five-factor PERMA model provides a basic map for positively influencing meaningful engagement in the classroom. Think about this five-pronged approach as you are building your classroom community, selecting lesson content, and structuring learning experiences. It isn’t explicitly described as a “motivational” theory, but as a tool, it has great potential for motivating you and your students in your work together.

About Amy L Eva

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