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Can You Create An Atmosphere Of Happiness, Wellbeing, Positivity And Aspitation In Schools?

Why are some schools joyful, whereas others have an 'atmosphere', and what can we learn from them?

  • Can You Create An Atmosphere Of Happiness, Wellbeing, Positivity And Aspitation In Schools?

Broadly speaking there are two types of school leavers: those who leave reluctantly because school life enriched them, and those who walk out of the school gates for the last time cheering because, for them, school was a chore. I was one of the latter.

School and I did not get on. I clowned around and was seen as an underachiever. I left with a report that read, ‘Stephanie is always the class joker and does well when she has centre stage, though she needs to learn that joking and clowning around is not a career option’. Given those sentiments, it was with a sense of destiny that I eventually drifted into stand-up comedy.

Today, the smoky, male-dominated comedy club circuit is behind me and I run my own business, helping others to be happy and achieve more. Laughter and humour are the key to getting by in life. They help people gain perspective and become more resilient, confident and happy. This was something I was passionate about taking back into schools – I wanted to ensure the experience was positive for everyone, so began delivering workshops for children and teachers. At the time, the idea of concentrating on happiness and wellbeing in schools was ahead of the curve. Eyebrows were raised. Today we are experiencing a happiness enlightenment. Governments across the world are taking happiness seriously and realising that wellbeing should be at the core of public policy, because individuals and organisations are better, healthier and more productive when they are happy.

The psychology of happiness

In the UK there is a crisis in education. Government policy is preoccupied with exam results and tick-box measurements. The result is an epidemic of anxiety and disaffection in teaching staff, stressed and alienated pupils and a rise in mental health problems. Using my own studies into the psychology of happiness, I pioneered the Happy-Centred Schools programme. It teaches happiness as a life skill and addresses some of the factors that lead to pupil disenfranchisement, such as self-belief, confidence and resilience. I wanted to understand how happiness can be embedded in schools as part of a curriculum and why some schools are good at delivering happiness and wellbeing and others aren’t.

Critics may argue that it is not a school’s place to teach happiness. In my opinion that is short sighted. Happy people thrive in adversity. Happy pupils are more engaged. Studies prove that humour and happiness help people learn. The pilot Happy-Centred Schools programme ran in a challenging school in an underprivileged area. After the first year, SATs results had improved by 20%. The headteacher acknowledged that the programme was one of the major factors in this improvement.

Realistic solutions

Culture is a large part of what dictates happiness in a school and is essentially driven by the leadership team. I have had the privilege of working in thousands of schools and as soon as you walk into one you get a feel for the culture; the greeting from the reception staff, the environment, the interactions the leadership team have with each other, the language heard in the staffroom.

For me, when I talk about ‘happiness’ I mean ‘realistic happiness’. This is the idea that you cannot be happy all the time and that happiness isn’t about quick wins and staff perks. While free coffee, dress-down Friday and staff days out are all very nice, they don’t increase overall happiness scores or outcomes. Realistic happiness is a much more concrete, sustainable, grown-up concept.

Last year we launched the National Happiness Awards to celebrate what schools do right and help others to understand how they can deliver ‘realistic happiness’. The schools using positive psychology to best effect are the ones which face the most challenges. Necessity really does drive invention. Many of the most pioneering schemes we saw were introduced in response to issues such as deprivation, social exclusion and poverty. Commendably, these schools have taken the lead and created cultures of aspiration and positivity that expand beyond the classroom and into the community.

Each of the finalists understood the importance of positive relationships, personal development, confidence, coping skills, resilience and support. Once such school is Silverdale Primary Academy in St Leonards-on-Sea, which has built a whole-school ethos around the foundation of happiness. Measures introduced include:

  • Opening the school up to children during playtime, allowing them autonomy and trust to enjoy the environment
  • Creating a ‘childhood curriculum’ which sits alongside the national curriculum and encourages important childhood experiences
  • Support for staff development

One of the common themes which ran through all finalist entries was a sense of togetherness. Each school developed initiatives in which staff and leaders had equal input. Children have also been encouraged to develop ideas. It has become increasingly clear that staff wellbeing needs to be on the agenda. This is not just a workshop or inset day, although that is a great way to introduce and address some positive strategies. You don’t need a big budget or a great deal of time to introduce happiness and wellbeing ideas, just creativity, an open mind and a commitment to culture change. In doing so you’ll attract brilliant staff, create resilient pupils who can flourish and ultimately improve outcomes on every level.


How to create a happy school

  • Develop a culture of happiness from the ground up, with strategies for wellbeing, support and team development that are embedded as part of your school development plan
  • Encourage confidence, resilience, positive relationships, support and development through interventions such as coaching, mentoring, team days, individual learning plans and training sessions
  • Include parents, staff and pupils in decisions about the school, its goals and vision
  • Promote positive communication between pupils, teachers and parents with assemblies, communication boards and newsletters, as well as an open door policy
  • Show trust and allow pupils and staff to feel ownership of the school
  • Give everyone a voice. Have pupil, parent and teacher voice boards. Remember to think about how to include even the quieter ones
  • Create a positive environment, both physically and emotionally; think about what the environment feels like to be in
  • Encourage ideas and deliver on some
  • Inspire and develop aspiration
  • Introduce mindfulness lessons for teachers and children and have mindfulness champions
  • Develop themes of respect for all
  • Give praise in a growth mindset way
  • Be creative and have fun. Laughter is very good for you, make time for it and encourage it

Stephanie Davies (@laughology) is the founder of Laughology and author of Laughology: Improve Your Life with the Science of Laughter. Nominate your school, staff or pupils for a National Happiness Award at laughology.co.uk before 20 October.

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