The World Health Organization has defined child and adolescent mental health as the “capacity to achieve and maintain optimal psychological functioning and well-being.”
. It is important to understand that child and adolescent mental health encompasses more than simply the absence of mild to severe mental health issues (e.g., anxiety, depression, conduct problems) – Mental health also involves the presence of subjective well-being or, generally speaking, happiness (i.e., an overall high degree of life satisfaction and daily experiencing more positive than negative emotions). In 2012, researchers in the United Kingdom reported the results from a study in which they examined relationships among four dimensions of child and adolescent well-being – emotional (e.g., mood, anxiety), behavioral (e.g., attention problems, activity problems, troublesome behavior), social (e.g., positive friendships, victimization), and school (e.g., whether school is stimulating and enjoyable) – and educational outcomes (e.g., school engagement, achievement). Two of their key research findings were: (1) on average, youths with higher levels of emotional, behavioral, social, and school well-being had higher levels of academic achievement and were more engaged in school; and, (2) as youths progressed through their school-age years, their emotional and behavioral well-being became more important in explaining school engagement, while demographic and other characteristics diminished in importance (e.g., gender, special educational needs status, family socioeconomic situation, and parents’ educational levels).
Positive psychology, which is both a scientific and applied approach to understanding and influencing human behavior, is devoted to the study of positive emotions, positive character traits, and positive enabling institutions (e.g., Pre-K–12 schools). The principles of positive psychology seek to challenge the historical approach of intervening with young people’s pathology and presenting symptoms and minimizing or ignoring youths’ competencies and strengths. As a positive psychology-promoting entity, the Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota (http://www.search-institute.org/) has been instrumental in the research-based identification of 40 internal and external building blocks of development (referred to as “developmental assets”), and the creation of associated products (e.g., books, research reports) and services (e.g., training programs) to assist communities and schools to assess, increase, and strengthen these “developmental assets.” Internal developmental assets among youths are categorized as commitment to learning (e.g., is actively engaged in learning and motivated to do well in school), positive values (e.g., places high value on helping people, has integrity, demonstrates honesty, and accepts personal responsibility), social competencies (e.g., knows how to plan ahead and make choices, has empathy/interpersonal sensitivity and friendship skills, can resists negative peer pressure and avoid risky situations), and positive identity (e.g. feels he/she has control over things that happen to them, has high self-esteem and a sense of optimism/purpose). External developmental assets among children and adolescents include the categories of support (e.g., from school personnel, family members, other adults), empowerment (e.g., feels valued by the community, is given useful roles in the community, feels safe), boundaries and expectations (e.g., the family and school provide clear rules and consequences, the youth has positive peer influences and adult role models), and constructive use of time (e.g., the youth spends time engaged in creative activities and school/community/religious activities).
Several years ago, toward the end of helping parents (and educators) to foster optimism and resilience in children and adolescents from a positive psychology perspective, Dr. Karen Reivich partnered with Pepperidge Farm (the Goldfish cracker people) and launched the “Fishful Thinking” initiative that targeted five key life skills for youths (https://tinyurl.com/mujyxfo): (1) Optimism (i.e. the skill of focusing on the positive without denying the negative); (2) Resilience (i.e., the ability to bounce back from setbacks, learn from failure, and be motivated by challenges); (3) Goal Setting/Hope (i.e., being able to set positive goals, initiate action, engage in problem-solving, and take reasonable and constructive risks); (4) Empowerment (self-efficacy; i.e., the belief in one’s ability to be effective in the world, know one’s capacities and limitations, and acquire competence/mastery); and (5) Emotional Awareness (i.e., being able to recognize and express feelings in healthy ways, and have empathy for what others are feeling).
With respect to the promotion of mental health in schools, an understanding of positive psychology can assist with: avoiding a deficit view of students, and, instead, emphasizing their personal strengths, assets, resilience, and protective factors; developing a supportive, nurturing, and caring climate in classrooms and schoolwide; enhancing student self-regulation; and promoting social and emotional learning.
For more information regarding positive psychology, please visit the website of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Gary W. Mauk, a nationally certified school psychologist is an associate professor and allied professional in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.