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Flourishing the Ridley Way

Ridley’s 130th birthday party

Maria Almiron
December 18,  2019

Mental health promotion is in the public health agenda of most industrialized societies. It is no longer headline news that the prevalence of mental distress amongst school-aged youth has been rising globally (Demyttenaere K. and Bruffaerts R., et al. 2004). Sociological theory and research approach the understanding of this phenomenon from a range of angles, including the effects of social media, the dissolution of the traditional family unit, social inclusion in an era of globalization, and even a marked improvement in diagnostic detection systems. As far as psychological theory and research, the turn of the century has marked a difference in the declassification and redirection of psychological knowledge with the focus being on wellbeing.

No more than three decades ago, knowledge pertaining to mental health was highly specialized and restricted to those dedicated to the study of the human mind and behavior. Lay people relied on intuitive and wisdom-based popular knowledge to form lasting relationships, to move on from grief, and to achieve meaningful goals. For those who never got to sit with a mental health professional, positive outcomes came as a benefit of sagacity.      

The psychology of the new millennium has shifted its interest from the detection, quantification, and alleviation of mental disorder to the study of optimal functioning, happiness perusal, and quality of life. The shift in contemporary psychology has also re-routed the administration and accessibility of psychological knowledge from it being the exclusive territory of mental health professionals to becoming accessible to ordinary individuals through their place of study, work, recreation, and healthcare. Never before has psychological knowledge been so generously shared, resulting in the empowerment of individuals to pursue their wellbeing independently through the application of evidence-based practices. These changes are, to a large extent, attributed to the raising of Positive Psychology, the framework that brought wellbeing into the mainstream.  

Ridley’s beautiful campus

In the academic year 2017-18, Ridley College, an international and independent boarding school in Ontario, Canada, entered a two-year fellowship with the University of Melbourne’s Visible Wellbeing Program. The school-wide training aimed to guide and enable a culturally transformative experience of self-actualization. As we entered this journey, our fundamental belief was that authentic wellbeing-aware cohorts would only emerge from a social environment that practiced wellbeing as a norm at a micro and macro level. The plan was to evolve into positive values as a community to an extent, whereas individuals, we would not get to freely dissociate from them while at work. The power of such a shared milestone would essentially make us all guardians of each other’s newly acquired positive capital, raising the bar of our collective wellbeing.

In a century that has taken wellbeing to heart, schools have become happening places for wellbeing promotion as a scenario key to mental health trajectories over the lifespan. Non-stop connectedness, relationships, affiliation, and academic achievement all feed off internal resources, causing emotion, cognition, and social competence to come under strain. Alongside the challenges for Generation Z, come the tools to navigate them and excel readily available at school. Boarding schools are unique environments to holistically engineer wellbeing planning as the input from the parents, educators, safety and social facilitators, and health caregivers all rest in a single ecosystem.

Very encouraging findings from research into positive psychology indicate that positive practices are successful buffers from the burden of mental disorder and that positive mental health predicts recovery from mental illness (Lasielloa, Van Agterena, Keyes & Cochraneb, 2019). The notion that the absence of mental disorder does not equate to wellbeing is now widely shared. As excited as I am about such research outcomes and as accurate as I find the last statement, I do not feel that these add significantly to a solution about the level of mental disorder that actively presents at schools, including Ridley College. They do, however, bring much weight to an independent discussion about promotive and preventive interventions with student populations and adds clarity to how these differ from responsive ones.

Regardless of mental health status, positive psychology-informed practices mitigate the impact of adversity in life, placing those who have such skills at an advantage for recovery over those who navigate it without a strategy.

A common misconception is that Positive Psychology enforces happiness, which out of context would amount to incongruence, if not pathological denial; but, this is not the case at all from a theory and/or practice stand. An increased presence of positive emotion is an important goal under the umbrella term of Positive Psychology. Just as important, however, is achieving a high level of functioning through psychological development and growth through virtue by cultivating a passion for the greater good.

Visible Wellbeing is Art

As a school counsellor, I am a frequent witness to young people’s suffering. While much of my role is about guidance, I know too well that the job does not happen in isolation. Counselors often cite the phrase “it takes a village,” which I think lends itself particularly well to boarding where life unfolds beyond class hours and weekdays. In a wellbeing-aware village, all inhabitants become fitter partners in the counselling process.

The Ridley village was invested in and equipped with a shared scope of knowledge and language that gave a framework to our strategy for mental health prevention and wellbeing promotion. Progressively, teachers and advisors relied on their skills to deliver positive practices, approaching conversations about student wellbeing. As a result, referrals to the counseling service became more specialized, releasing my availability for trauma-informed interventions beyond the preventive threshold.

Flourishing is a concept that has populated the Positive Psychology literature. The general consensus amongst researchers is that flourishing refers to a zone of optimal functioning underpinned by high levels of wellbeing in the psychological, emotional, and social domains. Flourishing has become the modern gold standard descriptor of lives well lived, and “Inspiring Flourishing Lives” has become Ridley College’s mission statement.

The systemic shift we embarked on at Ridley targeted processes, attitudes, and rituals, reloading these with flourishing potential in mind. A line of action where I was personally involved in my role as a school counselor was the student support system, which was redesigned to be strength-based across all of the processes that it encompasses. From special need-education and IEPs to the re-entry plans following a disciplinary leave of absence, we committed to starting conversations by honoring the strengths that all parties brought to the table. As far as positive attitudes, our gratitude campaigns encountered amazing adherence. We could see it visible throughout the school offices with “Thank You” cards covering our billboards paying tribute to the many acts of kindness.  In Chapel, resiliency infused prefect homilies began to uncover personal journeys of purpose and grit. Coming from peers in their senior year, hard to promote strengths such as grit resonated well amongst the student body opening windows of opportunity in dialogue. 

The kind of optimal functioning that sediments flourishing is determined to a large extent by the experience of learning, the social, emotional, and psychological connections that mediate our relationship with this process and those who facilitate it. Rooted in positive psychology comes positive education, a learning model fully active at Ridley College, where all learners join armed with personal strengths that will be put to work towards the outcome.

An office full of gratitude!

In the context of positive education, flourishing involves 1- feeling good about learning, which happens by injecting the process with positive emotion, 2- doing well in it, by achieving a measure of success, 3- functioning effectively in the process, by adapting resiliently to its highs and lows and 4- contributing meaningfully to the learning of others as a form of self-actualizing. Park and Peterson (2008) highlight that schools have traditionally prioritized student’s skills to do well and that similar efforts should be put into developing their will to use their strengths, knowledge, and privileges for the greater good.

The prioritization of achievement and its narrow focus on academic performance is at the expense of other aspects of optimal functioning, is, without a doubt, a challenge. The fact that gold standards of success continue, to a large extent, to speak in numeric languages of percentages, percentiles, and ranks cannot be left out of the argument. As a highly academically demanding and university-preparatory school, Ridley College is no stranger to the dilemmas faced by our high achieving population when it comes to making wellbeing choices against the clock. Supporting student wellbeing and maintain positive functioning at times of high academic stress is a work in progress. One of the challenges is their perception that time spent on positive practices eats away from study. As our students grow in their repertoire and skill to benefit from positive practices, we plan for our pre-exam interventions to become a resource where their time investment translates into the quality of returns.   

An example of how knowledge is put to service of others at Ridley College came along with a senior- lead initiative where those who excel in certain academic areas ran a weekly tutorial for other students in need of support. Given the social rank dynamics involved in peer learning, outcomes of this kind of project can change according to group members. The level of success we had as far as the number involved could be classed as discreet. However, the impact of those who benefited from it was far from discreet.

The positive education model of learning builds on the idea that students do not learn from teachers they do not like. It advocates that learning is a relationship-based process where the richer the quality of the relationship, the more learning, of the kind that is not forgotten, actually happens because such learning is attached to meaning. Out of all the wellbeing domains in the Positive Psychology literature, perhaps the most intuitive is supportive relationships. Popular knowledge of their driving power existed well before it was endorsed by research. Its scientific validation, however, has upgraded the status relationships play in formal contexts such as learning, working, or recovering from illness as a predictor of success.

With the benefit of wellbeing-aware leadership, Ridley College designed a schedule rich in opportunity for all learners to grow their relationship capital. Such visionary approach to positive relationships also applies to employees with time for staff social being scheduled on hours previously dedicated to school business. A compelling indicator of how the proactive approach to wellbeing impacted on the health of the Ridley workforce came through the provider of the school group benefits plan. A significant change in the trend of service usage was recorded during year 2 of our commitment to the visible wellbeing program. The new trend reflects a 37.5% increase in claims relating to paramedical interventions such as massage therapy, which places us 22-24% above the marketplace norm. In the same period, drug claims for the group decreased to below marketplace norm by 60-64%. Such usage trend speaks volumes of a population that proactively approaches health and wellbeing.

Reclaimed from popular knowledge, it is now scientifically confirmed that a FIESTA is in the genuine pursuit of wellbeing.  In a convivial spirit of celebration, Ridley College brought the Visible Wellbeing Program to a high point in June 2019 with international speakers, performances, workshops, yoga, and flow filling its beautiful campus on the Niagara Summer solstice. A Positive Education conference that lived up to the range of wellbeing experiences and resulted in my recollection being one of attending a festival.      

Demyttenaere K. and Bruffaerts R., et al; (2004). Prevalence, severity, and unmet need for treatment of mental disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Survey. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291 (21),2581-2590. 

Lasielloa,B., Van Agterena,J., Keyes,C.,Cochraneb, E. (2019). Positive mental health as a predictor of recovery from mental illness. Journal of Affective Disorders, 251 (2019) 227–230.

Park, N. & Peterson,C. (2008). Positive psychology and character strengths: Application to strength-based school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), 85-92. 

Maria is a UK registered Clinical and Forensic Psychologist currently employed as an Upper School Counselor at Ridley College, Canada. With the benefit of a prior career in close contact with young offenders, Maria brings into the world of international education, a bird’s eye view of young people’s social, emotional, and psychological trajectories. Her contribution to the greater good involves resonating with students in the here and now whilst keeping their adult version in mind and engaging them in conversations to take on the global responsibilities that come with the privilege of international education.

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