What does positive education look like in practice?

Positive education has evolved as a field. Not only about teaching wellbeing in schools, it seeks to bring wellbeing into the very fabric of education systems too.

What is positive education?

If positive psychology is the study of optimal functioning, positive education is the application of this in the school setting.

Explains teaching specialist for the Centre for Positive Psychology, Rachel Colla, it’s “the intersection of wellbeing science and learning science. The coming together of those different bodies of evidence to bring out the best in our young people and allow them to reach their potential.”

With an ongoing mental health crisis among young people across the globe, there is a significant call to address wellbeing in schools. But what distinguishes positive education is that it is proactive and preventative.

“Rather than simply trying to treat mental illness and reduce symptomology, one of the primary arguments for positive education was around how we build wellbeing capabilities as a primary prevention approach rather than just a treatment approach.”

It looks at building wellbeing capabilities among young people, so they have the skills and strategies for resilience and to cope with the challenges they face, but it also focuses on giving them the capacity to realise their potential. “It’s about saying, ‘How can we enable them to thrive even with struggles?”

The field has also evolved further than that, extending now to whole-of-school wellbeing,

Positive education in practice

So, what does it look like in practice? There are many ways it can be applied, and tailoring core principles to the context is key. But at a top level, there are both explicit and implicit ways: through teaching curriculum or policies and practices of the education system itself.

“In the classroom, teachers can teach wellbeing as a concept. But they can also design strategies to enable wellbeing through their pedagogy by creatively mapping key concepts, such as hope, character strengths and emotional agility, to the existing curriculum.”

The Personal and Social Capabilities curriculum, or the Creative and Critical Thinking curriculum, lend themselves easily to this. For example, an exercise that uses hope theory to design pathways to key student goals can address components of both capabilities and support student success. But people can also get creative with subjects, says Ms Colla.

“In English, a teacher might say, ‘okay, let's examine this text through the lens of examining virtuous behaviour or character strengths.’ So, what they're doing implicitly is teaching students to be able to seek out and find examples of character strengths or virtuousness through texts they have to learn.”

From a leadership perspective, it could be implemented implicitly by weaving it into the way staff are managed, such as shifting practices and policies that build a coaching culture that draws on positive organisational scholarship practices.

Or it could be implemented explicitly by designing teacher wellbeing programs enabling them to build their own wellbeing, which in turn has a ripple effect to impact on the students they interact with. Through to whole-of-school approaches that are strategically designed to develop wellbeing for all.

“It's really going from that macro level down to the micro,” says Ms Colla.

In terms of impact, the relatively new field needs time to build a strong evidence base, but research does show it is growing wellbeing capabilities among young people. Research points to an increase in resilience, positive emotion, engagement and meaning (Seligman and Adler, 2019).

And while many scholars argue for the value of wellbeing in and of itself, there is a lot of evidence showing its important for academic achievement too, particularly in developing future-focused capabilities.

“Understanding wellbeing and having the strategies to implement is really important for young people in order to function at their very best in today's world; a side benefit (or primary for some!) is that it can also facilitate academic achievement.”

The professional certificate

Based on the principles of positive psychology, the Professional Certificate in Education (Positive Education), equips participants to both translate the science and explicitly teach wellbeing strategies as well as facilitate wellbeing implicitly.

"In line with how the field has evolved, the program takes a highly integrated approach. We want to equip participants to enhance wellbeing and resilience among their students, but also create learning environments that are conducive to flourishing.”

“We want them to think about the impact they have as educators and how the context or system is important too, so they can enable wellbeing through their environments, through learning design and pedagogy, not just teach about it and hope that it's caught.”

Recognising the complexities and variances in education systems, the course addresses the need for positive education to be nuanced and specific to the particular environment in question too.

Highly practical and contextualised, participants are asked to draw on their own experience and knowledge to provoke thinking around the latest evidence in wellbeing science in a way that is relevant and applicable to their role. Assignments, for example, are about applying content to their specific learning context, reflecting on their implementation strategies.

As Ms Colla says, “different kids have different needs, different educators have different needs. We need to look at these things in all their complexities and take a contextual, tailored approach to bring wellbeing into the whole culture and DNA of the school.”

"We weave the principles into the way the program is taught so people get not only a theoretical understanding, but an experiential understanding.”

Whether you’re a new classroom teacher or a long-time one, a wellbeing officer, principal or youth worker, the program will equip you to take scientific theory into school settings and create stronger learning environments. Because as Ms Colla says, this is what the purpose of education is: to create well, thriving, contributing members of society.

Apply for the Professional Certificate in Education (Positive Education) now.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P., Adler, A. (2019). Positive Education. In J. F. Helliwell, R. Layard, & J. Sachs (Eds.), Global Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Report: 2019. (Pp. 52 - 71). Global Council for Wellbeing and Happiness.)