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Nurturing Hearts & Noggins

Promoting academic, social, and emotional learning for lifelong success

Happiness + Positive School Climate = Learning

For the past few decades, researchers in the field of Social and Emotional Learning have stressed that SEL is foundational to students' success in school, work, and life. Who would've thought that key factor in this "success" is happiness?

Several years ago, when I worked as a social worker in Michigan, I recall walking into a middle school and thinking, "this has to be the least happy place on earth." There weren't any posters or colors on the walls, they appeared cold and gray–and the overall feeling was quite drab. There was nothing to suggest that it was a place filled with teachers teaching and children learning. I remarked to the school's principal how I didn't notice any smiling children or smiling teachers and the mood in the school exuded depression. "Where's the happy?" I stated. He in turn looked at me and stated very matter-of-fact, "Uh, we can't even get our young men to tuck their shirts in their pants or turn in homework on time, 'happy' is the least of our concerns."

But what research now evidences and what the middle school principal didn't know or failed to acknowledge is that, when happiness is influenced in children and they are in a safe, supportive teaching environment, learning happens. According to Dr. Christine Carter, the author of Raising Happiness, "happiness isn't' just a nice-to-have, it is a MUST-HAVE for academic success." Dr. Carter, one of the leading researchers in this area of social and emotional health, indicates that 'happiness precedes success, and happiness can be taught.' Happiness is not about giving children whatever they want and never allowing them to experience sadness. It is about allowing them to fail and experience every emotion in supportive, positive environments. It is about showing them that you care about them, and not just about enforcing rules and discipline. It is about students feeling like they are a valued part of the learning community. To teach happiness to children, educators and parents must engage in one key skill: The art of fostering the compassionate imagination. We may foster the imagination in young people by:

  • Teaching empathy and emotional literacy; allowing children to visualize and demonstrate compassion towards others
  • Modeling kindness and generosity of spirit; intentionally showcasing to children how caring looks and feels
  • Fostering creativity and allowing time for play and freedom of expression
  • Adding color, art, posters, and photographs within learning environments to inspire vision and spark thinking
  • Allowing children to be exactly who they are, and validating it.

When we successfully do these things, we will see children who are motivated, engaged in learning, and genuinely happy to be at school–even if their shirts are not tucked in.

To learn more about teaching happiness to children, visit:

Source: Carter, C. (2010). Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. Random House Publishing Group.

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