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CANCELLED: PhD Defence Jochem Goldberg | Positive education as a whole school approach: broadening the perspective on learning

Positive education as a whole school approach: broadening the perspective on learning

Jochem Goldberg is a PhD student in the research group Psychology, Health & Technology (PGT). His supervisors are prof.dr. E.T. Bohlmeijer and prof.dr. K.M.G. Schreurs from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS).

High levels of wellbeing and engagement are expected to create a context for optimal learning. When experiencing a high level of wellbeing, pupils feel at ease, feel emotionally safe and feel the freedom to be themselves. Engagement refers to the intensity of an activity, to concentration, to being focused, to exploring and to lose track of time. The principles of wellbeing and engagement align with positive psychology in education, or positive education. To date, positive education interventions are primarily implemented at the classroom level. However, programmes integrated across the entire school context could be more promising in attaining a sustainable effect on wellbeing and engagement. The overall aim of this dissertation is to advance research on the integration of positive education using a whole school approach in primary schools in the Netherlands. Central is the proposition that positive education should not just be implemented as ‘yet another specific positive psychology intervention in the classroom’ but rather as a whole school approach creating a foundation for the vision of the school. Whole school approaches that operate across school curriculum, throughout the school ethos and environment and in the partnerships with parents are expected to increase wellbeing and engagement, skill development and social-emotional learning.

Chapter two presented the results of a meta-analysis on the effects of whole school social-emotional learning interventions aimed at improving pupil wellbeing. Fifty studies were included in this meta-analysis. The results indicated a positive effect of whole school approaches on social emotional adjustment (d = 0.220), behavioural adjustment (d = 0.134) and reducing internalizing symptoms (d = 0.109). No significant effect was found on school performance. Only a few studies reported on academic achievement as an outcome. Higher effect sizes could be identified for studies with low quality, studies that included a community component and studies that were US-based. This was a core aim of the evaluation of PEP. This meta-analysis adds to the growing body of research suggesting that for optimal impact, social and emotional skill development needs to be embedded within a whole school, multi-modal approach. To gain more insight in the effective components of whole school approaches aimed at increasing wellbeing, more research on the implementation of such interventions is required. This was a core aim of the evaluation of PEP.

Chapter three presented the results of the process evaluation of the Dutch Positive Education Programme (PEP). PEP is a whole school approach to positive education and was piloted in two primary schools in the Netherlands. Key components of PEP are the daily enhancement of pupil’s wellbeing and engagement and the shared values of the team members. As part of the PEP programme, schools participated in two workshops and they received monthly training during PEP-talks. The programme is bottom-up, schools decide for themselves how to apply the principles of PEP to their educational programme. Results from the pilot study indicated that the teachers perceived PEP to be a valuable addition to their schools and that PEP had a positive impact on the students’ wellbeing. Additionally, the teachers valued the bottom up character of the programme and they believed that PEP led to a clearer vision for their school. Initial quantitative results confirmed the positive feelings of the teachers. The results indicated positive effects of the programme on wellbeing, student-teacher relationship, problem behaviour, school climate and bullying. Contextual factors including work-pressure and changes in staff were reported to have hindered the implementation of the programme.

Chapter four presented the results of the quasi experimental evaluation of PEP which sought to examine the impact of the programme on children’s wellbeing, engagement, social-emotional skills, student-teacher relationship and bullying. The evaluation was conducted with two intervention schools and two control schools, with comparable characteristics and all part of the same district-wide organization. In this research, a trend was found for the enhancement of engagement. A higher number of pupils showed sufficient levels of engagement at post measurement. The odds ratio’s showed that pupils in a PEP school were five times as likely to be engaged at post measurement. On the other outcome measurements, there were no significant effects to be found. Similar to results from the pilot study of PEP, the implementation of PEP was hindered by organizational and community characteristics, including leadership and politics. During the implementation of PEP, both intervention schools had to deal with changes on the principal level and one of the intervention schools received a negative review by the national school inspection. These factors potentially hindered the quality of implementation, and consequently limited the effectiveness of the intervention. The complex character of a whole school approach makes it complicated to implement the programme, especially when there are limited guidelines for implementation. Implementation quality and the level of prescription appear to influence the results on the short term.

Chapter five presented the results of a study evaluating the Wellbeing and Social Safeness Questionnaire (WSSQ). The Dutch government requires schools to keep track of the wellbeing and social safeness of their pupils. However, there is a lack of valid and reliable instruments measuring this wellbeing and social safeness. In this study, the WSSQ was developed and tested. The WSSQ consists of 20 questions aimed at hedonic and eudemonic wellbeing, experienced bullying and subjective social safety evaluations. In the analyses, a two-factor model was identified, being ‘school related social safeness and wellbeing’, and ‘generic wellbeing’. Social safeness might be an integral aspect of school-related wellbeing and therefore these two constructs cannot be seen as empirically different. The found psychometric properties are promising and using the WSSQ as a digital screening instrument to identify students at risk of low wellbeing is a useful application. 

Chapter six presented the results of the Best Possible Self writings of the pupils. To gain further insight into children’s wellbeing, pupils wrote about themselves one year in the future in the context of a positive psychology intervention. This intervention consisted of a variety of 34 wellbeing lessons. Writings were collected at the beginning and end of the intervention. Qualitative analyses of these writings identified positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment (as wellbeing factors), as well as factual descriptions, assets and frustrations. Students showed behavioural intentions for each wellbeing element, indicating that they imagine themselves conducting wellbeing related behaviour. Between pre and post intervention a significant higher percentage of the writings was aimed at wellbeing and a significant higher percentage of the writings showed behavioural intention. These increases in the future expectations can be linked to beneficial psychosocial outcomes, resilience and less risky behaviours. The results of this study should be interpreted with caution since there was no control group and only small effect sizes were found. However, the content of the writings can provide teachers with valuable information to build on to in their lessons.

In sum, four main lessons can be drawn from this dissertation. (1) Whole school approaches are promising, but short-term effects are not always to be expected. Implementation quality and the level of prescription appear to influence the results on the short term. However, the bottom-up approach does lead to increased ownership amongst the teams. (2) Having the observation-based monitoring of engagement at the heart of the whole school approach has been highly valued by teachers and has the potential to lead to a wide range of beneficial outcomes on the long term. With teachers having access to a database of engagement increasing interventions, the daily observations of engagement can be used as the starting point of education. A short-term effect on engagement is to be expected. (3) A valid and reliable instrument like the WSSQ is needed to gain a better insight in the school related wellbeing of pupils. To date, wellbeing instruments do not measure all aspects of wellbeing, making it difficult for researchers and teachers to adequately keep track of pupil wellbeing. The WSSQ has the potential, after further validation, to fulfil this need. (4) Analysing the future perceptions of pupils can add to teachers’ insight in the wellbeing of their pupils. Pupils not only write about the different components of wellbeing, they also formulate intentions for behaviour, related to their wellbeing. Teachers can respond to these writings by implementing lessons to further increase the wellbeing of their pupils.