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Words boost happiness in this early learning service

Values education
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Positive psychology, values education, character strengths: these terms are increasingly common in both schools and workplaces, but not yet mainstream in early learning settings. Victorian educator Lisa Baker talks about her research into character strengths and values in a Victorian early years service attached to a school. The program is, she says, boosting children’s wellbeing literacy. When children can clearly describe their feelings, educators can more effectively understand and support them. CELA writer Margaret Paton spoke to Lisa Baker for this story

Values in action

A master’s degree in children’s happiness? That may well be what Victorian educator Lisa Baker is working towards in her Masters of Applied Positive Psychology.

Her day-job is Head of Department, Centre for Early Education, which is part of Ballarat Grammar School in central Victoria. She teaches three and four year olds in ‘Reception’ (preschool), but has worked in the early learning sector as educator, manager and leader for more than 25 years.

“I’ve seen a huge amount of change in the sector and love how the voice and value of children has risen to the surface in that time,” says Baker.

Values education
Image credit: Ballarat Grammar

The six-year-old Centre for Early Education has 180 children across seven rooms and two levels. There are 32 staff.

“We operate somewhat independently from the school, but are also closely connected in other ways. It was the school’s focus on positive education that drew me to explore positive psychology and the links to early childhood education,” she says.

“As an early learning educator, you listen to these broad theories, philosophies and ideas and ask ‘where am I in this?’

“The idea of children’s wellbeing being a predictor for academic performance, and the ways we can promote that, resonated with me. I wanted to find out how to do this in early education.”

“We’ve all done the character strength survey and know how it looks for us as adults. We’re living it before we can teach it.”

Engineering your own research

Baker found there was little research applying positive education to early childhood, so she decided she’d ‘engineer’ it herself. Her private studies that led her to start a master’s degree which she’ll complete later this year.

She’s also been talking about the values-based framework, Values In Action (VIA), with colleagues (or co-workers) over the past two years, but using their centre’s philosophy to ‘hasten slowly’. Like Gallup Strengths and other assessment models, VIA is based on everyone holding the same kinds of positive personal attributes but presenting them in different degrees.

“We investigate slowly over time. It’s about critical reflection and collaboration,” she says.

“We’ve all done the character strength survey and know how it looks for us as adults. We’re living it before we can teach it.”

The 24 character strengths in the VIA model are, in alphabetical order:

  • appreciation of beauty and excellence

    Values Education
    Image credit: Ballarat Grammar
  • bravery
  • creativity
  • curiosity
  • fairness
  • forgiveness
  • gratitude
  • honesty
  • hope
  • humility
  • humour
  • judgment
  • kindness
  • leadership
  • love
  • love of learning
  • perseverance
  • perspective
  • prudence
  • self-regulation
  • spirituality
  • social intelligence
  • teamwork
  • zest

…in other words, knowing your strengths gives you a way to communicate about your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others

Values under the spotlight

The ‘Values in Action’ approach sits within the field of Positive Psychology. It holds that people can exhibit up to 24 different character strengths, which are universal across time, culture and humanity.

“You can see these strengths in young children. So much of what we want to do in early education is to promote strong values in children. I knew I didn’t need to test children, but thought how can I promote character strengths in the children and intentionally teach them so they can draw it out of themselves?” says Baker.

She says character strengths are a ‘pathway to wellbeing literacy’ – in other words, knowing your strengths gives you a way to communicate about your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. That’s the crux of the hypothesis she’s tackling.

What values in action looks like

Baker explains how the character strengths language of positive psychology can be powerful in an early learning setting.

Reading a storybook to a group of attentive three-year-olds, Baker said she thought she ‘was rocking it’.

“But, one boy was squirming around, so I looked at him and he said, ‘I have runned out of persistence’,” she recalls.

Persistence was a word the children had been taught, so Baker asked him if he wanted to leave the mat and he said ‘yes’.

“By intentionally giving him the language, he was able to communicate to me he couldn’t try any harder,” she says.

“Children communicate that in different ways – rolling on the floor, poking someone in the ear, getting up and walking away.

“But with our [character descriptions], we’re equipping children with powerful language that helps them to be autonomous and competent.”

Meanwhile, at bush kinder, a three-year-old wanted to get a big log out of the way.

Baker remembers that the girl yelled, “I want some teamwork here!”, rather than just cry out for help. Her plea was met with two other girls who came up to assist and add their ‘persistence’.

…we saturate children in that word – such as kindness – over the next couple of days

How to boost wellbeing literacy

Baker and her co-educators boost literacy by agreeing on a particular character strength the children are developing, showing or which could be extended. They intentionally use that word frequently, using images to spark children’s natural curiosity.

“Then we saturate children in that word – such as kindness – over the next couple of days: ‘oh, our room needs some kindness, let’s pack up’; ‘be kind to your body and eat this healthy lunch’,” says Baker.

“We start to hear them use it back and when they use the word with each other, we know we’ve reached them.”
The service doesn’t schedule words or particular numbers of them. It’s quite “organic” in each room also includes the babies’ room.

Celebrating academics and wellbeing

Baker says her action research in the service shows the language is authentic and empowering for children.

It offers a language bridge between home, preschool and peers. It helps children to explain their needs, self-regulate, master their environment and relationships and develop skills and competence around their own wellbeing.

“It’s exciting stuff,” she says, adding that she hopes to extend the research outcomes into practical programs.

Related articles

Read Baker’s paper here in the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology

What Mr Rogers might teach Australian children

Storytelling as education (don’t tell the children!)


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