At Academy360, our students’ emotional well-being is of equal importance as their health and academics. When students’ mental health, moods and stressors are off-balance, other areas of life can suffer. Which is why our counselors, administrators and school staff are always on the lookout for methods and strategies to lift the spirits of the student body.
One important piece of that strategy is Academy360’s partnership with Proof Positive, a non-profit organization which works with schools to improve the well-being of individuals with autism through tailor-made curriculum, teacher training and exercises, and fusing the philosophy of “positive psychology” with behavioral analytics.
Positive psychology encompasses the five building blocks of Positive Emotion, Engagement Relationships, Mattering, and Accomplishment, which are considered key actions to achieving wellbeing and meaningful living. Plus the all important component of Health.
Proof Positive provides professional development sessions for partner schools. In the summer of 2022, selected counselors and teachers from the Upper School attended a week-long program to reflect upon the core question of “what makes students – and staff – happy” and methods to encourage well-being for all.
The staff brought back ideas and activities which have found their way into life skills lessons, one-on-one counseling, art classes, music, academics and beyond. Additionally, the organization’s online offerings, exercises and printables are a valuable resource for all staff on campus.
One Proof Positive exercise used at the Upper School explores “Character Strengths.” Using a survey adapted for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the VIA (Values in Action) evaluates a person’s capacity with 24 identified strengths.
Though the concept sounds rather heavy, teachers at the Upper School have utilized the results in many creative ways.
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Barnel P. loves to interact with others and enjoys working with staff on inhouse jobs such as making copies, deliveries and announcements during our school basketball games. School Counselor Gloria Nelson incorporated character strength discussions into her meetings with Barnel and they collaborated on ideas for showing kindness and gratitude to his teachers throughout the school year.
“We picked a department each month and delivered a button which represents the staff members character strength. We discovered everyone became super motivated by this good deed. Now when they see Barnel making deliveries, everyone gets excited in hopes that they are next on the list.”
Working with Barnel on character strengths brought about positive changes in many of his behaviors. Goals regarding body posture, eye contact and more have been achieved – but Barnel’s advancement in communication has been immense. Witnessing Barnel come out of his shell and discuss his emotions with others was thrilling for Gloria. “It really struck my heart in a positive way,” she says.
Character Strength is playing a part in lessons across the school, from life skills to academics to art. A student working with counselor Colleen Manley created a presentation for classmates about Character Strengths, helping all the students in his class fill out the survey about their strengths and using his own as an example to guide them.
“It was amazing,” says Colleen. “He’s a student who at times struggles with self-regulation, so seeing him be successful and so proud to lead his peers was really nice. We sent it home to his mom and dad, and they were so proud of him too.”
In another classroom, Ms. Yoscari used music to help her students identify and explore their own character strengths, with staff helping each of them choose a popular song to sing that represented a strength in themselves. – songs that the students could be heard singing throughout the year as they walked into that class.
Learning about character strengths showcases the good, continues Gloria. The positivity is contagious with students and staff. The buttons from Barnel remind staff members to use their strengths when interacting with students and each other – because it feels good. And feeling good enriches their lessons and their own mental wellness.
“What makes me feel good at the end of the day is seeing the kids recognize and identify those character strengths in staff. Things that Barnel would say in particular were just amazing, and right on the ball.”
Gloria was thrilled and surprised to learn how much insight Barnel had into the staff and how in particular he regarded her as a counselor, motivator and a person.
“I didn’t realize how much the students really look at us as mentors,” she said “Hearing how I inspired him to get out of his shell to socialize, because part of his goal was to communicate better with staff and students. So this was the perfect project for him, it matches it all, and it’s naturally spilling over into his daily interactions – earlier than I ever would have thought.”
Staff also benefit from the positive psychology techniques they are working with students on. From “wellness check ins” to “jolts of joy,” the tools they are teaching are also lessons for themselves.
“It has helped me grow tremendously,” says Tynesha Cummings, a social worker with the Upper School. “In my current role, and actually my role in life, I’ve found that making gratitude journals or seeking jolts of joy helps.”
Jolts of joy for Tynesha are her four cats, while for others it could be a calming sound, or any touchstone that can bring you happiness, she explains.
“When I’m having a bad day, I can look at a picture of my cats and it can boost my morale. It really truly helps with your mental state because it puts you in a whole different frame of mind, shifting from thinking negatively to a state of positivity.”
Gloria adds, “I think it has to start with you first before you can implement it with the students – you need to be the first student.”
Proof Positive has provided invaluable tools for staff to use, but what comes first and is most important is a staff that cares deeply for our students, and Academy360 Upper School has that in abundance.