Positive pedagogy enhances wellbeing in general upper secondary schools

The message from the field was clear. Many general upper school students are not feeling mentally well, and something must be done. This was the starting point for the Study with Strength project, that aims to support student wellbeing.

So far, 10 Finnish general upper secondary schools have offered a course in positive psychology and pedagogy. The preliminary results indicate that the course has increased student wellbeing.

What is Study with Strength?

University Lecturer Monica Londen at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki, and Åse Fagerlund, a neuropsychologist, psychotherapist and senior researcher at Folkhälsan have, together with their project group, developed a course in positive psychology and pedagogy for general upper secondary schools. The course includes theory, practical exercises, homework, reflection assignments and video clips.

“One of our aims is to support students’ personal resources, stress management skills and wellbeing,” says Londen.

Before the course is offered at a school, the teachers who will give the course participate in a training, during which they themselves complete all the course assignments. From the very beginning, the course has been designed together with general upper secondary school teachers.

“It’s important that the teachers who give the course are from the school where it will be given because they are familiar with their students and know both the students and the school environment,” states Londen.

What type of research is conducted?

The course also serves as an intervention study with an experimental group and what is known as a wait list control group, the members of which take the course after the experimental group. All course participants also undergo extensive health surveys, and some are interviewed by the researchers.

“The goal is to examine whether the Study with Strength course affects the wellbeing and stress management skills of general upper secondary school students. We use both qualitative and quantitative methods. The study includes extensive health surveys covering, for example, wellbeing, perceived self-efficacy and study skills at the beginning of the course. The health survey is repeated at the end of the course and six months after it. In addition to the health survey, saliva sampling is used to measure cortisol, oxytocin and various inflammation markers,” Londen explains.

After the students have completed the course, some of them participate in qualitative in-depth interviews. Teachers are also interviewed to enable them to reflect on their experiences in the course.

The control group completes a questionnaire at the same time as the experimental group to establish whether possible differences depend on the course or on something that is simultaneously happening at the school, for example, remote studies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How did it all get started?

Both Monica Londen and Åse Fagerlund were contacted by various general upper secondary school teachers who explained that many of their students face a combination of academic and social pressure. Fagerlund had previously carried out a similar project on positive psychology aimed at comprehensive schools, whereas Londen had worked to prepare general upper secondary school students for higher education. They decided to cooperate on a project to support general upper secondary students through positive psychology and pedagogy. The Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland has granted funding to the project, which is being carried out at nine Swedish-language general upper secondary schools in Finland. A Finnish-language general upper secondary school is also involved. It has used the pandemic-related funding provided by its home municipality to have the course material translated into Finnish.

When the project was presented at a seminar organised by the Finnish National Agency for Education for Swedish-language general upper secondary schools in Finland, several schools immediately signed up. Several of the schools involved plan to make the course a permanent part of their course provision, and some intend to turn the course into a compulsory requirement for all students.

So far, the course has been organised 25 times at 10 general upper secondary schools to approximately 400 students.

What has been the response?

The preliminary results of the in-depth interviews with students who have completed the Study with Strength course are positive.

The results indicate that the course has been of real benefit to these students in various situations. For example, high-achieving, ambitious students have learned to set priorities as well as think about and take care of themselves.

But Londen stresses that positive psychology and pedagogy is not about sweeping problems under the rug and just focusing on the positive.

“We all have difficult times. The course is about resilience and providing the tools needed to handle setbacks as well as becoming aware of your strengths and using them. Students with difficult family situations have told us how the course has helped them a great deal,” notes Londen.

How will the course change the world?

Interest in the course has been considerable, and Londen and Fagerlund are overwhelmed by the positive response to the project. The project began with just Londen and Fagerlund, but the group now also includes three doctoral students, three master’s thesis writers and two research assistants. The research group members are Stefania Fält, Nina Hongell-Ekholm, Pehr Jakobsson, Julia Simonsen, Miivi Selin-Patel and Niels Främling.

In addition to spanning language boundaries, the course has crossed national borders. Two general upper secondary schools in Sweden found the project online and contacted Londen and Fagerlund. They had been looking for something similar in Sweden, but to no avail. With the teacher training given remotely, the Swedish participants have also been able to participate and receive the course material, even though the project funding does not cover Sweden. In one of the Swedish schools, 240 students will complete the Study with Strength course this year.

“The Swedish participants now aim to have the course offered at other general upper secondary schools in Sweden,” Londen states.

During the teacher training provided by the research group, it has become clear that the course meets a need.

“The teachers say that they are good at supporting students with school subjects, but the mental part is overlooked. The course has helped teachers support their students, and it’s great to see how motivated they are to work for and promote their students’ wellbeing,” Londen says.