Desperately Seeking Performance: An Appreciative “What Works” Approach

What enhances student motivation, engagement and learning? We know many answers to that question.

  • Motivation is enhanced when students have the pathways and agency to accomplish tasks on the way to goals that are self-determined.
  • Engagement is enhanced when students use their strengths of character and capacity.
  • Learning is enhanced when students practice and persevere with mindful grit and determination.
  • All of the above are enhanced in the presence of positive emotion and resilience.


We hear regularly in the media and from both teachers and parents that students are increasingly more difficult to engage.  Technology, especially in the form of the ubiquitous cell phone, is often considered the culprit. But technology is not going away. Nearly all students in our K-12 schools and most undergraduate universities today are “digital natives”, the term for a person who does not remember ever having lived in a world without digital technology.  This matters because we are in a transition period that is about to abruptly end. Rather like the masters of the oral tradition lamenting the coming age of writing, and the great scribes lamenting the invention of the printing press, in the near future we will have only retired teachers to lament the good old days (if they were) of reading, writing and arithmetic. 

In their place, our newest teachers, born about 1987, will bring to school an integrated and automatic sense of uses of technology, and they will likely be less offended by the many ways that their students use it. By the time in digital history when these newest teachers were born, the CD-ROM existed, Apple had invented the Mac, and Windows machines were not far behind.  The cell phone was invented, too, and ISP’s and e-mail, as we know them (albeit dial-up versions), were around as of 1995. Our newest teachers were only eight. By then they had learned ABC’s, geography, and math facts by playing with the electronic toys and games that would make modern mobile phones and their numerous apps seem completely second nature to them.  Digital natives, unlike digital immigrants, have no “good old days” to look back to.

Digital immigrants, on the other hand, are people who have moved (or in some cases were dragged) into the digital age. They may have said of the first cell phones that they would never catch on. After all, who would want to be available 24-7-365, a term that was not yet invented? Conversely, they might have been early adopters, but no matter how tech-savvy digital immigrants think they are, they have a holdover that digital natives do not: they think in the dual languages of before and after digital. Yes, you may be addicted to your Blackberry or texting, but being a digital immigrant means you are not oblivious to the incoming technology tide like a digital native is. Our digital natives are our future, and lamenting the many ways that they do not engage in school as we knew may be true, but it is not helpful.

The digital divide exists even among those with digital tech access.  Last week, I tuned my fiber optic-connected, flat panel, HD display to the BBC (technology, but as I was reminded, very low-end) to see Senator Edward M. Kennedy eulogized at his funeral in Boston. I was later chided by one of my students that I had wasted my time, because if anyone had said something that was really important, I could have “YouTubed it” later. Here was a big event, the end punctuation to the Kennedy era, and I was being told that my time could be better spent in some other way.  “But then I wouldn’t have seen the whole thing live,” I said. “Exactly,” my student replied.

Compared to one of my early memories, that of sitting on my father’s lap for hours, watching a small flickering black-and-white TV broadcasting JFK assassination news, today’s kids have more news and information available to them in more types of digitally-supported media than we could have imagined back in the days when as a nation we just trusted Walter Cronkite.

Education Reform: Let’s Ask Students What Works

Kids today take for granted that any information they need can be Googled, that their friends are on Facebook or IM, that important events will eventually show up on YouTube, and that they are no one without their cell phone.  And from the point of view of the digitally anointed, they are right; there is no need to see a news item “live and late-breaking” since it is digitalized for later consumption, which they may or may not ever take advantage of. On-demand is about more than movies—it is about the way kids want to learn, too.

New approaches for motivation, engagement and learning may only be as far away as kids’ cell phones. Even low-end cell phones do more than make phone calls.  For students aged middle school and above, the cell phone is the technology of choice, with capabilities like video, MP3, messaging, HTML browsing, and GPS, in one tiny package. 

If we work to find out what students can do with their technology and how they choose to use it, instead of trying to keep that distracting technology out of schools, we might find out more clues to the changes in motivation, engagement and learning. With the power of technology, we can track the effects of these approaches, too. School districts can conduct an Appreciative Inquiry that includes their students and young prospective teachers. To ignore the truth that these people are the future of education—of teaching and learning—will make the inevitable paradigm shift far more painful than getting started now.


Parts of this article were originally featured on the Positive Psychology News Daily. Read my column there on the 5th of each month.


Great Expectations: Using Your Anticipated Emotion For Learning and For Good

Neena is hoping to be back in college soon after a rather disastrous semester has left her “withdrawn/failing.” She has never been a stellar student, not even in elementary school. A review of report cards finds a pattern of “talking in class; socializing instead of working” and “inconsistent work production” “could be a good student” and “needs to apply more effort.”


In art classes she consistently earned A’s, and she loved being part of the theater productions at school, but as she says, “I don’t want to be a starving artist, so I am going to get a degree in business.” Ask Neena how she feels about reapplying for next semester and she says, “This time will be different. I just wasn’t ready before. I’m just going to do my work this time.  That will change everything.”


Maybe, but not likely.


What Neena doesn’t know is that her years of self-defeating behaviors—procrastination, disorganization, inconsistency, and excuses—are symptoms of more than just needing to work harder.  Neena needs to work smarter. Maybe you do, too.


Here is a list of steps that include Positive Psychology as well as other interventions and assessments that can help break the pattern of ineffective behaviors.



  1. Get a learning evaluation.  This can be as involved as neuropsychological with attention and executive function assessment, as well as a wide variety of academic, language, psychological, and cognitive tests. Realize that intelligence alone does not bring success.  My motto?  “It’s not how hard you work; it’s how you work hard.”
  2. Work with a coach who understands and specializes in learning and who can help you decode and apply the results of the testing.  It is not enough to just read the results or recommendations pages of the testing. You will have your brain for life: learn how to make the most of it with someone who “gets” you.
  3. Track the ways you may be using short-term gain to your detriment.  Nearly every behavior has a hidden benefit, even if it does not directly result in an outcome you want. Do you visit the refrigerator instead of completing the next step in an assignment?  Call a friend?  Take the dog for a walk?  Go out when you need to stay in? These might be great things to do, or they might be preventing you from initiating or completing your work. Do you wait until the last minute and then cram for a test, or rely on last minute pressure to motivate you? Worse, do you justify these behaviors even when an objective look shows that they are not working?
  4. Don’t blame the messenger: Beware the rose colored mirror.  Are you having a hard time incorporating feedback from teachers, parents or the boss? Neena was always quick to blame her teachers for her grades and comments.  Ask yourself: What’s my contribution to the problem? What is this pattern showing me? How can I use what I know to turn things around?
  5. Learn to delay gratification by controlling your choices and setting arbitrary time lines.  There are numerous articles on this site that reference self-regulation studies and approaches that work.  Attention, Will, Habit, Action.  And the most important of these is….?  Right—Action.
  6. Get honest about your emotions and how they are shaping your behavior, problem solving and choices.  If you are not getting more of what you want, maybe you need to want something different.  Sheryl Crow reminds us, “It’s not having what you want
    It’s wanting what you’ve got.”
  7. Tune into your affective residue from years of under achievement.  Your brain remembers emotions, like fear or anxiety, and connects them to previous circumstances that produced the emotion you feel now.  Do you expect to do poorly?  Wonder how to break tasks into steps that you can complete but let anxiety take you over? While current emotion can increase the likelihood that you can access memories of the learning that took place at a past moment when you felt similarly, it can also dredge up feelings that prevent you from taking the action needed.
  8. Shake up the status quo by changing your “if-then” script.  Are you anticipating… stress? Failure to reach your goals? Regret? Guilt? Are you suffering from social comparison and the pressure to perform according to someone else’s script? When we expect a negative outcome and the emotions that will accompany it, we may choose a tolerable (but not optimal) outcome. What will it take for you to get out of the box?
  9. Learn—and use—your VIA Strengths for good! See how you can use your strengths in new ways, but also look at how you may be using them in very effective but undesirable ways.  Neena has “perspective” as her top strength, followed by humor, social intelligence, appreciation of beauty and excellence, and bravery. She regularly uses these to make excuses for why an assignment isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of her life. She has laughed off her failures; manipulated others (including instructors) to access extended time, higher grades, or different standards; and cheated, since she didn’t want to turn in something “bad.”   
  10. No excuses.  There is a wonderful life waiting for you, full of experiences to savor.  If you are not getting more of what you want, today you can take steps to change that.

This was originally published at Positive Psychology News Daily

Get Your High Schoolers to Tell How They Learn

Originally published by Positive Psychology News Daily

 By Editor S.M. Editor S.M.'s website Editor S.M.'s email

Positive Psychology News Daily, NY (Editor S.M.) – April 10, 2007, 12:15 amWe here at Positive Psychology News Daily are very proud to be among 5 brain-and-psychology websites co-sponsoring an essay contest for high school students!

THE TOPIC:  “Based on brain research, what is learning and how do we learn?”

THE WINNERS:  Ten winning essays will be published on the five websites hosting the contest.  We here at Positive Psychology News Daily will publish two of the ten winning essays on May 20, 2007.  Additionally, the winning essays will be submitted to blog carnivals, and will receive a free annual subscription to TuitionCoach.

Please submit your essay of 400-800 words by May 10, 2007 (directions below).  We also encourage teachers to tell their high school students! We have written about learning here extensively including these articles by Sherri Fisher, Kathryn Britton, Dave Shearon, Sulynn, Derrick Carpenter, David J. Pollay, John Yeager, Elizabeth Peterson, Doug TurnerKathryn again, and Sherri again

Please tell every high school student you know!  The primary sponsor is SharpBrains.  We are honored to be participating in this contest.


Happiness and Being Your Best Self

This is a story about a real person.  This particular story happened many years ago, but similar events have since happened over and over in my work with both children and adults. In case you are wondering if it is someone you know, I have changed the student’s name. I had been warned about 13 year-old Phillip by several people—his former tutors of whom he had scared off several—his teachers, his principal, and his mother.  “That boy is a piece of work” was the general consensus. When Phillip and his mother arrived in my office, his face was red and his eyes swollen.  His mother announced, “I wish you good luck.  It was all I could do to get him into the building.” 

As she departed, I introduced myself to Phillip and attempted to build some rapport.  I anticipated a challenge. “I know I’m not the first tutor you have had,” I helpfully pointed out, “so I’d like to know what your goals are for our sessions together so that we can be sure to incorporate them into the meetings.”  Phillip did not wait to formulate his answer.  It spilled out of him. “My goal is to never see your face again!” he spat angrily, narrowing his eyes to thin slits and turning away from me with his arms tightly crossed.  I was briefly shocked; it was the first time I had ever been told this by any client.  I tried not to react too quickly lest I respond with anger at a boy who had merely answered my question quite honestly, and the thought of what to say came to me surprisingly easily, despite never having had his particular answer offered to that question.   

“Phillip, I think that’s a wonderful goal,” I said with real enthusiasm and a lack of sarcasm that astonished even me.  He turned to me looking quite stunned and listened as I continued.  “I only work with people until they don’t need me anymore, so I will do everything that I can to make it possible for you not to need to see me again.  I can’t promise when that will be, but I will promise to honor your request. ” By now Phillip was quite confused, but he wasn’t as angry, and I wasn’t feeling threatened by his very straight-forward comment. And he did need me; he needed to learn to use his powers for good. 

During subsequent meetings, there was sometimes tension.  He complained to his mother that I was positively the most stubborn person he had ever met, but he never refused to attend a session. (Perhaps he meant that I was stubbornly the most positive person he had ever met. It can be frustrating to work with someone who is sure there are solutions to problems!) There was also lots of growth, and one day I knew that Phillip was ready to use his toolbox of strategies and self-knowledge independently.   I reminded him of my promise when we had first met, prefacing what I was about to tell him—that his goal had been met and he didn’t need to see me anymore—by reading Phillip the notes about our first conversation. “Wasn’t I just awful?” he remarked with embarrassment.  “Well, were you happy then?” I asked. “Were you being your best self?”  It’s not just that Phillip learned skills like reading and writing, and learned content like Biology and Algebra. He developed self-efficacy: that he had the power to produce results. Your kids do, too.

Why Be Happy?

Why Be Happy?

 ·       Happy individuals live longer. 

·       Happy individuals have better marriages. 

·       Happy individuals, business teams, and marriages are more likely to thrive than their less positive counterparts.

·       Teachers who have a shared sense of their effectiveness (“collective efficacy”) have students with higher achievement even when controlling for student socio-economic status.

·       Positive psychology approaches can inoculate both elementary and college-age students against depression.

·       Athletes with optimistic explanatory styles in sports as diverse as swimming, baseball, and basketball outperform their less positive peers when responding to adverse situations.

·       Happiness beats drugs.  Depressed individuals participating in on-line happiness exercises experienced decreases in depression of greater scope and duration than would have been expected after the administration of anti-depressant pharmaceuticals.

·       The character strengths of hope, zest, curiosity, love, and gratitude are significantly related to life satisfaction. People who have learned to use signature strengths like these in new ways are lastingly happier. These can now be reliably measured.

·       A meta-analysis of over 200 studies reporting on almost 300 samples totaling 275,000 individuals shows that it is likely that happiness causes success, rather than vice versa.

 Bottom line: Well-being works! 

Here’s something you already know: Nearly everyone has far more strengths than weaknesses. The trick is learning to use your powers for good! Just try harder, right?No. The truth is this:  It’s not all about effort.  

It’s not how hard you work; it’s how you work hard. 

The current legal approach to special education mandates a deficit model that focuses on what is wrong with a person. While diagnosing problems can help get the services that make a difference, it is far more likely that there will be no “finding of special needs” despite a student’s (and parents’) struggles. If nothing is “wrong” you can get more of the same after school with more teacher attention and review. This works for some students, but not for many others.  Ready for something different? 

Blending Positive Psychology and Educational Best Practices

Welcome to Education Ecology™: identifying, preserving and developing what works well in both schools and individuals, in support of a flourishing future. Built on the science of Positive Psychology and rooted in years of educational best practices, this approach is strengths-based and asset–focused.

 Does your child have trouble with:

·       decoding or reading comprehension?

·       remembering facts?

·       academic learning?

·       organizing personal belongings?

·       planning and executing school (and other) work ?

·       homework: getting started, completing it, remembering to turn it in?

·       test-taking, every day and standardized?

·       personal responsibility? 

Are you frustrated?

Do you feel as if you have tried everything? Are you tired of the see-saw of helplessly watching your child struggle and wondering if it really is just a laziness problem? (It isn’t.) Do you want an approach that incorporates the best practices of education with the science of positive psychology?  What’s Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is the study of human strengths, happiness, psychological well-being, social well-being, positive emotion and quality of life. It looks at building positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions through three pathways: happiness, engagement and meaning.

 It’s about finding out what is good and making more of it and is hence very success oriented.  When positive psychology focuses on failures, it is with the use of strengths in mind to overcome them.  It doesn’t “fix.”

Applied Positive Psychology is a set of technologies for delivering practical uses of positive psychology science. These address the very real need to deal with life’s problems but are based on empirically validated approaches that “broaden and build” our positive emotion, and focus on our strengths and abilities.

You’ll learn more about these approaches here, so stay tuned.

Positive Educational Management

Student Flourishing works with students of all ages and their families to help them see themselves as capable, effective and resilient partners in education, reframing students’ learning difficulties through their strengths of interest, character, ability, and experience, to name just some.

 We look forward to helping you with both general and special education needs, including:

·       determining the need for assessment

·       reviewing existing testing and placement

·       advocacy services

·       IEP review

·       patterning student and family strengths for learning

·       managing learning needs at home

·       direct services to students

·       parent coaching

·       career and college exploration

Please read the About page for more information.