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The Link Between Wellbeing and Character:

Improving character Improves Wellbeing

By Dr Charles Margerison & Brad Hutchins

Introduction

Increasingly in schools, teachers are asked to help students with regard to character development and wellbeing, in addition to regular curriculum subjects. In discussions with teachers, we have repeatedly heard that there is a need for more resources to support the link between character education and wellbeing. Our work focuses on the ways and means of doing that.

Over the last decade, considerable research has been conducted on what is called, positive psychology. In regards to fostering wellbeing through character development, Seligman (2012) wrote:

“We have discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty and perseverance. Much of the task of prevention will be to create a science of human strength, whose mission will be to foster these virtues in young people.”

In this school of thought, our approach is based upon the premise that if people can develop their character, they will in turn find their wellbeing enhanced. This is particularly evident in terms of their ability to make sound judgements in difficult situations. Additionally, it will help students with creative thinking and being able to use their time more effectively.

We base these views upon the study of over 500 Amazing People who used their time well in the fields of; science, mathematics, literature, engineering, music, humanities, visual arts and more. As an example, Marie Curie overcame challenging circumstances in order to complete research which enabled her to become the first woman to win a Nobel prize. Harriet Tubman was a slave for 29 years, and managed to escape and become a leader of the women’s movement for equal rights. Helen Keller, who suffered major disabilities, worked tirelessly to help others who were deaf, dumb and blind.

We have looked at the lives of people like Abraham Lincoln, who was born in poor circumstances but through his determination led the fight for the union of the United States and the abolition of slavery. We have helped students learn from the life studies of people like Mozart who was only on earth for 35 years, but left us with the gift of incredible music.

These inspirational achievers show the link between character education and wellbeing. By developing their own character they aided and enhanced not only their own wellbeing but the lives of others both directly and indirectly.

Applications in Terms of Resources

The Amazing People Schools program provides a suite of web-based resources, focused on the achievements of influential people from history. Once students have immersed themselves in the story-based lessons about the achievements of these exemplars, they are encouraged to discuss which characteristics were drawn upon in each instance.

As a pivotal exercise in self-awareness and self-development, students are then encouraged to reflect on abilities, strengths and weaknesses that they possess. By essentially running an analysis on their own person, students are presented with the rare opportunity for introspection. This is an activity that is rarely addressed in the school curriculum, but offers profound repercussions for character development.

Example of Amazing People Schools resource screens are shown below:

(Amazing People Schools, 2018)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

With regard to the needs that we have and how they are fulfilled, an outstanding example of both theory and application is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow identified 5 major levels of self-development. Clearly it is important to have food and drink in order to have the energy to work every day. These he called the physiological needs. In addition he pointed out the need to be safe and secure. However, above those he pointed out that character and wellbeing depend upon a feeling of belonging, that in turns helps in developing our self-esteem and ability to contribute socially and economically. The expectant result of such development is a citizen with the ability to  become both independent and inter-dependent as a productive member of society. 

(McLeod, 2020).

In our experience, the original model developed by Maslow can be used to link both character education and wellbeing. For the purpose of explanation we’ve adapted the original terms into the five major applications.

Physical:

We recognise that the physical needs, in the main, are those which parents need to focus upon in terms of the food, shelter and care they give their children. This can then be related to school activities as many children need to be supported with their physical needs in the educational environment. This may include provision of school meals along with physical education and sports.

Security:

This is a key area, both for parents and school teachers. In an age when safeguarding is paramount, teachers’ responsibilities are increasingly spelt out not only by the law but by the local and departmental requirements with regard to duty of care (protecting students from foreseeable dangers and accidents). Cyber safety is an increasing issue, and Amazing People Schools aims to provide a safe learning domain that teachers can comfortably direct students to for support.

Relationships:

All activities in school are centred around relationships, which are essential to character education. Students learn how to work effectively with others and collaborate in team environments on projects. At the same time, they learn how to express themselves both at a student level and when talking with adults. There is increasingly considerable attention being focused on oracy skills and the ability to form an argument and articulate / communicate ones points of view, while at the same time appreciating that of others. Character strengths like empathy, fairness

Respect:

Respect is an integral part of character education. It involves the recognition of other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Too often, students pick on the weaknesses of others. A major part of character education is to help each student respect that other people are different and to help them rather than demean them. Likewise part of character education is learning how to respect people from different cultures and treat people on merit rather than via stereotypes. The teacher has the ability to act as a role-model in this domain, setting an example for how students can interact with each other, and adults.

Self-development:

At the heart of all character education is the ability to learn ways of managing one’s self. Self-development involves action learning, where one reflects upon experience and makes judgements on how to improve one’s responses to difficult situations which are not always in their control. In our work on Amazing People, we have found that those who succeeded were effective in their own personal self-development. They did not allow other people to dictate who they could be. They decided (as in the case of Mozart) to be the best musician they could be. Likewise, Marie Curie was not defeated by the authorities in Poland who stopped her going to university. Amazing People created their own pathways for self-development. This is what we aim to encourage amongst all students. By giving them the confidence to turn their talents into achievements, they can forge their own path to success and self-actualization.

Amazing People Examples Framed by Maslow’s Hierarchy

Helen Keller is a person who had major physical problems after suffering an accident that left her both blind and deaf. Despite this, her mind was still working. She decided she would develop herself through education. As a result, she became a leader for those who suffered disabilities and an advocate for women’s rights. She lead the way in helping other, less fortunate people receive an education. Despite her physical problems, she put respect for others, positive relationships and self-development high on her agenda and helped thousands of people by giving them hope and inspiration.

Harriet Tubman was a slave for 29 years before she resolved to escape. Having succeeded, she could have just taken life easily. Instead, she boldly returned to the fields of slavery and lead other slaves to freedom. She is an example of someone who put the physical and safety issues behind her and focused on developing relationships to free people who were downtrodden. This is a great example for students, when it comes to understanding character development and respect for others.

Action Learning to Support Character Development

We’ve provided a methodology through Amazing People Schools, so students can be inspired and develop themselves. The activities within this resource use the action learning approach of putting theory into practice, by encouraging students to take part in self-reflection, discussion and tasks related to positive character strengths. By fostering these character strengths, we hope to improve students’ self-awareness, self-confidence and ability to help themselves achieve success. By giving students examples of Amazing People and their achievements, we also hope to inspire students to realise that they too can achieve great things with their time. In turn, this may result in them helping others to achieve similar success. 

Amazing People Schools does not aim to provide all of the answers when it comes to character development. This is a subjective and unique experience for each person. Instead, the program is designed to provide inspiring examples and introspective activities, which can hopefully act as a catalyst for self-reflection and aspiration.  

Reflective activities, discussions, team exercises and other character-building activities are all designed to support self-development, respect and relationships in the classroom. By providing teachers with the Amazing People Schools resources, it is our hope that these developmental activities can be easily facilitated so that teachers, students and the school environment can flourish. Of course, self-directed learning alone will not give allow students to reach their full potential. We acknowledge the pivotal role that teachers play in facilitating character education and discuss this in detail below.

Supporting Wellbeing in the Classroom

The teacher is a facilitator, who helps students explore character and wellbeing issues. From the Amazing People Schools suite, there are many inspiring life stories that provide students with exemplars for character development and wellbeing. Therefore, the approach is applicable to all curriculum subject areas, with teachers able to share the achievements of musicians, mathematicians, writers, scientists, artists, humanitarians and more.

Each day, teachers support the wellbeing of students. By providing a nurturing classroom where young minds can learn in safety, teachers are fostering conducive environments for learning and personal development. By implementing effective behaviour management plans, and encouraging students to strive, teachers can also provide much of the foundation required to fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As a major role-model to students, teachers have the opportunity to demonstrate good character throughout the school schedule, on a daily basis by:

  • Presenting arguments for fairness, empathy and collaboration with others
  • Demonstrating enthusiasm, kindness and humility towards others
  • Creating and setting collaborative tasks that require tolerance and adaptability
  • Encouraging curiosity, good sense and creativity during learning, and;
  • Applying systems for self-discipline, gratitude and initiative

These are just a few examples of the ways in which teachers can influence students through their own behaviour. These powerful and re-iterative displays of positive character will provide students with an admirable role-model to emulate and / or learn from.

Furthermore, designed and ongoing classroom systems such as; behaviour charts, job charts, gratitude journals, thank-you letters and homework also help to establish routines and good practices, which further bolster the aforementioned character strengths. 

By establishing these elements in the classroom and using resources like Amazing People Schools, teachers will be able to provide students with the best chance to develop their character. Not only will these character strengths help students to know themselves better, it will help them to interact with others on a more considerate and productive level, fostering better relationships.

The flow on effect of these positive relationships has wonderful repercussions for society. It is often said that happiness is contagious, indeed this has even been proven by researchers investigating the  contagiousness of smiling (Wild, Erb, Eyb, Bartels & Grodd, 2003). With more positive interactions occurring, more people are likely to feel happy, mentally healthy, supported and uplifted by those around them. This creates a cyclical effect that can be spread to others and then throughout the community.

By demonstrating and teaching good character, teachers can encourage the character development and wellbeing of their students, who in turn can support the wellbeing of other students around the class and school environments.

Examples from the Classroom: Case Studies with Primary School Students

For each lesson below, a quick walkthrough and familiarisation with the Amazing People Schools site was provided to students. After discussing certain people of interest and exploring some of their achievements, the conversation was directed toward their character strengths. It was agreed that each of these Amazing People had demonstrated particular strengths in particular areas to overcome challenges and strive for success.

Students were then shown the Character Strengths Matrix, and each characteristic was defined and discussed.

Character Strengths Matrix

(www.amazingpeopleschools.com, 2018)

We then identified certain strengths that Amazing People had demonstrated. This lead into a reflective exercise, where students were asked to consider the Character Strengths Matrix and suggest:

  1. a) Which characteristics they possessed or were strongest in, and;
  2. b) Which characteristics they would like to focus on to develop further

Case 1: Year 5 – Primary

In a class of year 5 students, we explored the life of Charles Darwin, and agreed that he had demonstrated motivation, curiosity and perseverance to compile his seminal body of work.

As the teacher, I then turned the question towards the class, asking them what characteristics they would like to focus on for their own development. The characteristic Paul said he wanted to improve on was ‘good sense’. He said this would help him to stop talking at inappropriate times during class, which would in turn stop him from getting in trouble and give him more time to focus and do good work.

When asked “why we would discuss characteristics and aim to strengthen them?” Paul answered “to be a better person.” And, when subsequently asked “why is being a better person something to aspire to? Paul replied, “it helps us to make better decisions. We are nicer to everyone around us. And they end up being happier as a result.” 

Other class members added their comments and agreements, but Paul was the most vocal and participatory. As a class we all agreed that the exercise boiled down to happiness and making sure we and those around us were happy. The consensus indicated that by improving our character we could improve our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us.

Case 2: Year 3 – Primary

As a class, we explored the life, challenges and achievements of Sir Isaac Newton. Using the Character Strengths Matrix, the students collaborated to list his top three characteristics: curiosity, enthusiasm and self-discipline.

When asked what character strengths students could identify in themselves, they jumped at the opportunity. Each of them wrote down three and share them with the class. When asked which characteristics they would like to improve, students were initially hesitant but quickly found the ability to identify a few.

I then asked the students if these characteristics were positive things to develop. They all agreed,  and added that there wasn’t a bad element among these characteristics. When I asked them why we would want to develop these characteristics further, one girl replied “it makes us a better person.” I asked her why she wanted to be a better person, and she said “I’ll make people around me happier, and they will be kinder to me”.

I then asked students if this discussion about character made them think about their wellbeing lessons. They nodded in agreement and replied that there were similarities. We acknowledged that our lesson on character was working toward making them better people with happier, more positive interactions and relationships.

Conclusion

Considerable research is now being conducted on character and wellbeing issues amongst students and adults. We have acknowledged the work undertaken by Seligman and his colleagues in the area of positive psychology, in identifying key characteristics that can support wellbeing. Furthermore, we have used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to illustrate how developing character can support wellbeing and personal development to produce productive members of society.

The psychology of self-understanding is an ongoing process. A foundational exercise that has been demonstrated by the Amazing People Schools methodology is to perceive what others overcome and achieved and the character strengths they focused upon to get there. By using these exemplars, we aim to inspire students to reflect on developing their own character and striving toward success.

Acknowledging the teacher as the pivotal facilitator and role-model for developing students’ character strengths, we have aimed to provide teachers with a tool that can help encourage story-based learning paired with reflective classroom exercises. Backed by a number of case studies, we have shown that students have the ability to self-reflect quite effectively, which generally seems to raise their aspirations.

Considering happiness is contagious, it seems logical to share the methodology we have developed for enhancing character strengths and supporting wellbeing. The Amazing People Schools resource has combined the required elements to support students and the community as they strive to overcome challenges and seek success on their own amazing journey.

References

Wild, B & Erb, M & Eyb, M & Bartels, M & Grodd, W. (2003). Why are smiles contagious? An fMRI study of the interaction between perception of facial affect and facial movements. Psychiatry research. 123. 17-36. 10.1016/S0925-4927(03)00006-4.

Amazing People Schools. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.amazingpeopleschools.com/#/

McLeod , S. (March 20, 2020). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

1M Seligman – Authentic Happiness – Free Press 2002

1M Seligman – Flourish – Free Press 2012

Or

https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/positive-psychology/book251465 – Book?

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