EDUCATION: Using psychology in the classroom

13 November 2017

As education practices shift towards a more holistic style of learning, many schools are looking to psychology to build positive classroom environments. In the hope of better equipping our kids to make good choices and be happier people as they grow up, there are now several schools across the region where psychology practices underpin their entire school culture.

Glasser Choice Theory

To help them better understand behaviour, Sunshine Beach State Primary School has been using William Glasser’s Choice Theory as their psychological base since 1994, and in 2003 they became the first Glasser Quality School in Australia.

A Glasser Quality School (GQS) primarily functions in three ways: actively building quality relationships, providing a need-satisfying environment, and encouraging all learners and staff to achieve to their potential. And the psychological base to this is Choice Theory.

Choice Theory is Dr William Glasser’s explanation of how and why we behave. Even though most people around us operate from an external control perspective, Choice Theory offers us a way to understand how our behaviour is motivated internally and that we are driven to meet our needs.

“Choice Theory can be taught to anyone who is capable of understanding what a choice is,” Dr William Glasser explained. “All through our lives we make choices… we make choices that help us get along with people in our lives, and we make choices that harm us. In Choice Theory, we want to make mentally healthy choices… we believe that there are good things to choose.”

When put into practice in the classroom at Sunshine Beach State School, the impact was significant.

“We saw a huge change in the school,” said Gerard O’Brien, Intensive Self-management Support Officer from the Student Services Team at Sunshine Beach State School. “We were able to connect with those kids that we’d had issues reaching; we were able to build better relationships, teachers were happier, families were happier, and learning outcomes jumped through the roof.”

Building relationships is at the core of Choice Theory. “Teachers put a lot of energy to create a safe environment for the kids; to build trust and get to know every side to the child,” explained Jenny Easey, Principal at Sunshine Beach State School. “Once this exists, when we ask them to do something, they want to do it.”

psychology 2

Choice Theory brings with it a common language that is used throughout the school. Everyone knows what is meant when they talk about ‘filling a bucket’ and all the teachers are on the same page. “By looking at what happy people do and think and speaking to each other in a common language to achieve this, we can help kids grow towards those things and think those things,” Gerard said.

Rather than forcing kids to learn and behave, and using punishment to achieve this, Choice Theory works from a different angle. Instead of an environment based on a coercive culture, where the aim is to get the kids to do what the teacher says, this theory focuses on self-directed learning.
“The kids manage themselves, their behaviour and their learning. We are helping kids get to the point where they are helping themselves; they own their own behaviour,” explained Gerard. “Choice Theory gets kids to recognise where the behaviour is coming from. They can then understand and know what not acceptable, and the teacher works with the child to help them find another way to get what they want – someone is there to talk to them to help them find a better plan.”

Off the back of the success of this methodology, Sunshine Beach State School also began to offer a parenting program, so that Choice Theory could be introduced in the home environment and continued into the teenage years.

Some of the core concepts of Choice Theory include:
• Removal of fear and coercion
• Doing quality work is deeply satisfying
• Quality relationships enable quality learning
Self-evaluation and co-verification lead to quality learning outcomes
Operating this way removes barriers to learning

Positive psychology

With 139 schools across the region and 71,000 students in their care, Brisbane Catholic Education is another organisation taking a holistic approach to every student’s development, incorporating principles of positive psychology in their approach to supporting student wellbeing and learning. 

“Our starting point is a principle of positive psychology; a strength-based approach to learning,” explained Kathy Shelton, Principal Education Officer – Learning & Teaching, at Brisbane Catholic Education. “Rather than trying to fix something, we look at starting at the point of what students can do and building from that.”

Drawing from the research of leading researchers such as Carol Dweck and Michael Fullan, Brisbane Catholic Education’s foundation is based on key principles that include: developing a growth mindset, high teacher expectations for every student, explicit teaching of self-regulation and motivation, and using feedback and goal setting to improve learning. And these principles underpin both their pedagogy and teaching framework.

Their strategy is based on a whole school approach, providing teachers with an excellent learning and teaching strategy that brings the psychology to the classroom. “Teachers need to understand the elements, as they are working closely and directly with the students, so we have done a lot of work in positioning teachers and the work of student wellbeing to happen within the curriculum rather than as a separate program – making it an integrated part of what teachers are doing in the classroom,” said Kathy.

Underpinning that strategy is student engagement in learning and positive relationships with their peers and their teachers. “We look at their engagement in learning, their progress in learning and their wellbeing.”

The combination of these psychology principles, a strong pastoral care program and the Catholic philosophy, ensures that the core values of the organisation flow throughout the network of schools. “We believe that every person should be fully supported to reach their full potential,” explained Kathy. “We have programs for social justice and you’ll find lots of examples of students helping others in the community; students are fully supported in their own spiritual and personal development.”

Over time, Brisbane Catholic Education has put more resources into providing professional learning for teachers and providing schools with school-based guidance counsellors. “Every school in our system has a school-based guidance counsellor, many whom are psychologists, providing proactive and leading approaches, as well as providing more targeted and individual support for students and families when needed.”

Since implementing the changes, the schools have seen a definite change in the culture and environment. “These approaches have had a really positive effect,” said Kathy. “We are seeing a very positive impact in student learning growth, but the impact is because we have an integrated approach – we focus on improving literacy and numeracy, however it’s not separate from students’ engagement and wellbeing. We want students to be engaged in their learning and have positive relationships where they feel connected – there is positive impact because the two things go together.”

With the systems in place, Brisbane Catholic Education has been able to collect a huge amount of data to perform detailed analysis of student progress and student behaviour, which allows them to see patterns and trends, making it possible to target resources towards areas of need.
“We do collect a lot of data and we have a very detailed analysis of students’ progress in learning combined with student behaviour support policy and processes – reflecting students’ engagement in their learning,” said Kathy. “For example, we can look at data and notice that incidents are occurring more during transition between classrooms we can look at our structure and how students are moving around school – a preventative proactive approach to behaviour.”

Because of this large network of schools working together, the organisation is also able to share a common language across the entire group. “We are a system of schools and we are able to get that common language and shared approach across the schools – providing a consistent approach to student behaviour, pastoral care, and excellence in teaching.”

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Kids on the Coast/Kids in the City
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