George Lucas Educational Foundation
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In my last post I suggested that equitable schools are those that contribute to happiness in children. Now I'd like to offer some suggestions for actions that school leaders and teachers can take in order to cultivate happier schools.

1. Slow Down

When we slow down, we notice more, we appreciate more, we take stock of relationships, learning, and goals. Everyone can benefit from slowing down: students, teachers, and administrators. There's a direct correlation between our levels of contentment and the pace at which we live our lives. In the classroom, this might look like spending more time in a morning meeting with students, or lingering over a read aloud, or taking an extra 10 minutes to engage kids in a game outside after recess.

2. Get Outside

Being outside, even for just a few minutes a day, can heighten our state of well-being. We breathe fresh air, feel the elements on our skin -- the warmth of the sun, the sting of wind, the moisture of rain -- which connects us to the natural world. Even when it's cold out, or when it's warm and glorious, we can take our students outside for a quick (5 minute) walk, or we can do silent reading outside and our feelings of happiness might increase.

Furthermore, when the weather is comfortable, why can't we have some of the many meetings we all have to sit in outside? Last year I took my instructional coaches to the forest for one of our professional development days. In addition to hiking, we read, talked, learned, and wrote -- all of the activities we usually do in our office.


3. Move Your Body

We all know this already, but I'm going to remind you anyway: Moving our bodies increases our happiness. Even if you can't take your kids outside, you can incorporate stretching breaks into their days, play quick games that get their hearts pumping and their energy out, or put on music and dance. During the rainy winter months when my son was in preschool, his teacher regularly played "I like to move it," (from the movie, Madagascar) and the kids danced and wiggled all over their tiny classroom. In any meeting that I facilitate, if we're together for more than two hours, I schedule ten-minute "Walk and Talks" for participants. Moments of movement are great and our brains start producing the endorphins that make us happy right away.

4. Blast Good Music

Music in a fast tempo and in a major key can make us feel happy and it has a measurable positive impact on our bodies -- it can even boost our immune system, decrease blood pressure, and lower anxiety. Playing music as your students enter the classroom can be welcoming and can create a positive atmosphere. Those of us who facilitate learning for adults can also do this. Imagine coming into an early morning staff meeting to the sounds of salsa or to Johnny Nash singing, "I Can See Clearly Now." You probably feel happier just thinking about this.

5. Sing

Now sing along with those tunes, or sing in your car or in the shower -- and see how you feel. Singing requires us to breathe deeply, which makes us happier. Singing along to some of our favorite music makes our brain release endorphins. If you teach elementary school, then it's easy to get your kids singing every day. Teach them a simple song and start the day with it. Use singing during transitions or to signal the end of an activity. Find songs that connect with the content you're teaching -- they'll remember it better -- and they'll feel happier. And if you teach middle or high school, then I challenge you to get your kids singing.

6. Smile

Even if you're not a smiley person, try smiling more often -- aim for authentic, genuine smiles, but if you can't produce one, go ahead and fake it. Yes, even fake smiles can move you along towards a more content state of being. And more than that, they can have an affect on those looking at you. So teachers, administrators, just see what happens if you smile more often at the people you interact with on a daily basis.

7. Incorporate Quiet Time

My new email pen pal in Bhutan, a teacher in a school for boys aged 6-18, describes how all students in Bhutan practice meditation. Of course, this makes sense given that this is a Buddhist nation. He describes this as a primary way in which his country works to build a happy populace. There's an abundance of evidence about how meditation causes changes in our brain chemistry that produces feelings of calm and wellbeing. In our country, some schools are incorporating mindfulness meditation, but I also think we could work towards similar ends by simply incorporating more quiet time into our daily routines.

There's so much more to say and do on this subject, but I hoped to start with some simple and actionable ideas. What ideas do you have about integrate activities that cultivate happiness in schools?

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Ahmed Hany's picture

I distinguish between "sustaining" happiness and sustainable happiness. Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, and/or global wellbeing without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations. So yes, we an ask if education is contributing to, or detracting from, sustainable happiness. The answer is both but it could do much better with greater attention to integrating positive psychology with sustainability and other worthwhile perspectives such as health promoting schools, social and emotional learning, etc. We could be enhancing wellbeing for our students (and teachers) AND contributing to more sustainable societies.

Danielle Jones's picture
Danielle Jones
Credential Student

Hi Elena. I love your post! I am a first year credential student and I am currently working towards my Elementary Education/Multiple Subjects Credential. I found this post to be very helpful. I am an emotionally driven person and care so much about the well being of children. Making sure children are happy and feel safe while in school is so important for the learning process. In fact, when I reflect on my past school experiences, the grades I remember enjoying and learning the most from teachers that executed at least one or two of the ways listed above. Whether it was doing a project outside, music being played while we did class work, or even just remembering if the teacher smiled made me feel differently about my experiences in school. I will in fact keep this post in mind when I become a full time teacher. Thank you for sharing!

Jill Brown's picture

I have developed a program that enables your staff to create a positive climate in your school! The Generation Text Online Positive School Climate program consists of several simple activities that require no supplies and no preparation.
1. To create an atmosphere (for educators and students) within the school that:
** Allows for academic & social growth
** Enables people to feel trust and respect
** Allows for achievement motivation
** Is fair
** has order and discipline
** has positive student interpersonal relationships
** has positive student-teacher relationships
** has high morale
** allows for the opportunity for input
** Allows for cohesiveness
** Is caring

2. The opportunity to learn specifics about the person, not just a "number" or "student" in a class or school.

3. To understand the events that people experience outside of school and how if effects the.

4. For educators and students to feel physically safe in their environment.

5. For educators and students to attend work and school free of ridicule, harassment, intimidation and bullying

The first activity, called High/Lows, is an extremely effective method of building a bond within any group of people. If this activity is conducted on a weekly basis, you will be amazed at how quickly this tool works to build a positive climate within a classroom.

How to get it started:

I suggest using this activity with the education staff in your building to kick off a school wide program. By first having the staff participate in this activity, it allows them to understand how simple it is to implement with their students. In my experience, "proving" to your staff that this activity is easy to implement, is the biggest hurdle in motivating and expecting educators to take on additional tasks in their job description. Once educators witness how this activity makes classroom management a whole lot easier, the positive results will be exponential!

Depending on the size of your group, you may need to split into several groups. If this activity is just one activity of many, similar to the format at a retreat, it is best to keep it moving quickly. In order to accomplish that, I would suggest splitting the attendees into groups of 10 - 15 people.

For teachers who are working towards a positive climate for their class, it is important to have all class members participate in one group. Have your group get into a circle. Each group should choose a facilitator or someone to keep the activity moving (in a classroom, the teacher is the facilitator).

How it works:

To begin, the first participant in the circle will share with the rest of the group their "High" of the week, or the best thing that happened to them. The facilitator or others in the group may ask questions or comment. When doing High/Lows with kids, the facilitator role is an important one in order to keep the activity moving. Next the person who is talking will share their "Low" of the week, or the worst thing that happened to them. Going clockwise, each person in the circle should share their High/Lows.

The idea of this activity is to offer an existing group of people the opportunity to learn two current things about each person. It is natural for people to be most concerned with self-centered thoughts. This activity allows each participant to focus their thoughts on someone other than themselves, as well as practice their active listening skills. As a result of this activity, classmates begin to understand motives or circumstances of why people may act out or react in various situations. Once this activity is practiced on a consistent basis (I like choosing a particular day of the week and doing it in the beginning of class) you will see that participants begin to "notice" things about other people. Once people are not focused on self-centered thoughts and needs, they begin to see what they have never seen before. As a result of this new realization, participants are able to see opportunities to help those who may need support and comfort.


Following the high/lows, you may want to emphasize with your staff the purpose of this exercise. I believe that it is always better to ask the participants what it is they learned rather than lecture them; therefore I use a 21st Century strategy. Here is a list of discussion questions that allows for this exercise:

* Why do you think we did this?

* What did you think about the facilitator (you and the person who was running the exercise)?

* Do you think we cared about what you were saying? Why? How could you tell?

Suggested answers:
** Shook my head
** Told a personal story
** Asked questions
** Smiled
** Looked at you

Good Luck and Enjoy!-

Jill Brown

Bev Kirk's picture
Bev Kirk
multi-subject credit recovery high school teacher

One thing I have done in my secondary credit recovery classes in a public all-special education school is spend a couple of days a month devoted to student-selected appropriate social interaction (aka non-lesson periods). We make lists of things we enjoy and schedule a day when we may concentrate on some of those. These have included beadwork, cooking, drawing, painting, reading, creative writing, geocaching, woodwork, board games, etc. Attendance is always better on those days and the events promote sustained high interest for many of the kids.

Andy XU RUNYUN's picture
From Shanghai, China. A volunteer in Walnut Valley Unified School District.

Somehow, as educators, we have to deal with "anger management" , even cultivate ourselves in becoming a relaxed person before we can cultivate "real happiness" at our schools/school districts.

Catherine O'Brien's picture
Catherine O'Brien
I teach sustainable happiness.

I was just watching the video that grade 10 students in Nunavut created to share their views of sustainable happiness. I think it portrays nearly all of the elements in your article Elena!

Marc Helgesen's picture
Marc Helgesen
university efl (English as a Foreign Language) Japan

I teach English as a Foreign Language in Japan. I find it useful to build on ideas from Positive Psychology in my English classes. I have a website with lots of free downloadable activities for that at


Heidi A. Olinger's picture
Heidi A. Olinger
Educator, Social Entrepreneur + Founder of Pretty Brainy, Inc.

An Excellent Framework for Daily Life
Guidelines on cultivating happiness, such as this terrific post provides, are needed because too often we experience a happiness void, provoked by how we live and work. In sum, our voids inform our values: we value happiness because we need more of it to balance the grind. Regarding "blast good music," "get outside," and "move your body," these create an environment that cultivates not only happiness, but creativity and creative thinking. The list of tools the post provides can be --- perhaps must be --- among the "how-to's" we provide students for learning how to learn.

Natalie's picture
paraeducator from San Jose, CA

Teachers who get the older kids to sing are awesome! I had a high school teacher who used the "Shave and a Haircut" ditty to get our attention when the noise level was too high. I also had a college professor who got us all singing a cheesy song about thermodynamics/molecular motion.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

"spend a couple of days a month devoted to student-selected appropriate social interaction (aka non-lesson periods). We make lists of things we enjoy and schedule a day when we may concentrate on some of those." If every teacher took a small step like Bev our kids would be happier, as a ripple effect we would prevent a number of student suicides and prevent a number of Newtown type tragedies; some day, hopefully soon, we'll transition from a focus on our kids $ making potential to a focus on our kids :) making potential.

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