Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom

My new book promotes whole child education.

My new book is born of the conviction that whole child education is all but abandoned in public schools despite the neuroscience that proves it. In my 25 years in education, many advocated for more emphasis on mental health and hygiene and a psycho-educational model. There was a movement promoting the whole child and affective education. Many championed emotionally intelligent education. The neuroscience of education and positive psychology emerged. Yet, a sound developmenal approach was trumped by demands for more tests, more charter schools, more scripted lessons, and more behavioral compliance.

In too many schools, teachers deploy control mechanisms rather than motivational mechanisms. Children and adolescents are extrinsically conditioned to respond - they are not taught to intrinsically self-motivate. The behavioral strategies rely heavily on contingency management: reward, poorly understood negative reinforcement, and mostly, punishment. These approaches are more standardized than customized, easier to implement in groups, and dominate the educational culture. The behavioral approaches do not leverage the neuroscience research to help children understand and act on the complex emotional, cognitive, and conative connections in their brains.

I want 21st century teachers to understand there is an alternative. I want to encourage teachers to try another way. I want them to understand the basic neuroscience of learning and the neuronal emotional connections that advance or hinder it. I want them to understand the conditions that nurture strengths that enable students to self-regulate and self-propel. I want them to know how to help students make and keep friends that are not only agentic friends assigned the same project. I want them to assure students can find their own meaning in the work and distinguish between achievement and accomplishment.

I want teachers to take one of the basic ideas I present and consider how to expand it, extend it, elaborate it, and enhance it. I want them to understand that self-regulation and deferred gratification must be explicitly taught. To know that when a person in authority allows you to express strength you stay engaged and that strength is internalized. To add a fourth R: proficiency in relationship building. To teach students to find the inherent meaning of a task and to self-assess their own accomplishment so they don’t work only for grades or test scores but also for self-satisfaction. I hope that a teacher can distill the basic principles and extract the promise of positive psychology using my book as a prompt and manual. I hope reading the book will cause a teacher to ask: have I tried it this way?

Building children’s capacity to flourish in the classroom must begin with a cohesive approach to teaching positive psychology. To the extent that children develop emotional strengths, they are better equipped to apply these to the art of friendship and the pursuit of fulfillment in the quest for accomplishment.

If the positive psychology classroom movement grows, there can be a contemporary revival of whole child education grounded in the neuroscience of affective learning. I hope the publication of my new book, Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom, a Norton Education book, will spark lasting change.


How important is the whole child movement in assuring success of students? Does a strictly cognitive or academic approach work? How does the “reform” movement of the past decade – more tests…more scripted lessons…more compliance – affect the emotional component of learning? What variables predict that children will thrive in school? Do you think positive psychology is the best means to build the developmental assets that correlate with school and lifetime accomplishment? Do you think a book that overviews the neuroscience, presents an affective teaching taxonomy, introduces the positive psychology principles (PERMA), and applies those to the elementary classroom will be helpful? Will the methods and strategies be helpful? Will the sample curriculum, units, lessons, activities, and games be helpful? Will it spark your own ideas and applications?


O’Grady, P. (2013) Positive psychology in the elementary school classroom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Preview the Book

Boniwel, I. & Ryan, L. (2012). Personal well-being lessons for secondary schools. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Author's Website

More from Patty O'Grady Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today