Psychologists Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham aim to use positive psychology on the youngest members of society to prevent them from later struggling with anxiety, depression, or other psychological problems. An estimated 2 million or so 12- to 17-year-olds experience clinical depression annually, and Reivich and Gillham have found that building resilience in younger children can help thwart depression before it starts. The pair has developed school-based curricula that teach educators, parents, and ultimately kids the core skills of resilience and other tenets of positive psychology.
The Penn Resiliency Program, which they run at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, has been shown by 17 studies of nearly 2,500 middle-school students to prevent or reduce depressive symptoms, effects that last at least a year after the program ends. That success, they say, is what's led them to bring the program to schools in the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as to others in the United States. They are among the leaders of the new field of "positive education."
A key resilience-building skill they teach is how to identify the link between self-talk—in essence, what's playing on kids' "internal radios"—and kids' feelings and behaviors, says Gillham. Negative self-talk can create self-fulfilling prophecies, leading kids to behave in ways that create new situations that only reinforce the negative thoughts they have about themselves. Say, for example, that a child does poorly on an algebra test. That may prompt her to think, "I can't do math," fueling feelings of discouragement and sadness. Because of those thoughts, she stops studying and then bombs the next exam. A downward spiral ensues.
"A lot of what we're trying to do is interrupt that process," says Gillham. Her approach to positive psychology teaches teachers and parents how to help kids challenge negative self-talk and see disappointments from other angles. Perhaps the hypothetical girl did poorly on the algebra test because it's an area of math that she finds difficult, though she excels at fractions; perhaps she felt groggy during the exam because she didn't sleep well the night before. Once the faulty link in those thought patterns has been identified, adults can encourage kids to come up with ways to best tackle the problem. Positive education also encourages kids to identify and embrace their strengths.
Gillham advises parents and teachers to model these techniques, since kids are more likely to imitate what they see adults do than what they hear them say. Unless parents set the example, she says, "children are really unlikely to follow."