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Defining positive psychology

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Student wellbeing has become an extremely important aspect of education in Australia. When students have higher levels of wellbeing, they are likely to to achieve better academically and on an interpersonal level throughout their schooling and life.


We caught up with Professor Lea Waters, psychologist, researcher and author from The University of Melbourne to discuss the role of wellbeing in schools, her Visible Wellbeing approach and its relation to positive education, as well as the role of teachers and parents when it comes to wellbeing.


As the founding Director of the Centre of Positive Psychology at The University of Melbourne, Professor Waters developed the Visible Wellbeing™ approach, which combines the science of teaching and learning with the science of wellbeing.


How do you define positive psychology and how is it different from regular psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific inquiry into the positive end of human behaviour. In positive psychology, we look further into our strengths, moral behaviour, virtues, positive emotions and proactive skills. 

Traditional psychology has a healing orientation and focuses on the problem end of human behaviour. It focuses on our weaknesses, pathology, mental illness and addiction all with a view of trying to fix it.

As you can imagine we need both approaches to help children: fixing the problems and building the positives.


What inspired you to focus on positive psychology?

The first part of my career was focused on traditional psychology. I was working as a psychologist and research psychologist at the University of Melbourne and completed a PhD in organisational psychology.

I was studying problems in the workplace like stress.

About 15 years ago, in the very early stages of positive psychology, I was on maternity leave and started reading Martin Seligman’s first book published on the field of positive psychology, Authentic Happiness. While reading this book, I became fascinated with this new field of positive psychology and realised that this was the sort of approach I wanted to take in raising my son.


Being a psychologist, I was well equipped to be able to assist my son with any problems that he encountered in life. I also realised that I wasn’t very well trained in being able to amplify all the good things in life that he will experience. The concept of positive psychology made me realise that I wanted be able to use this to identify the good qualities in my son and build them up. It also gave me a passion not only to help my own son but other young people.

So I transferred into the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne and spent 7 years setting up the Centre for Positive Psychology where we focus primarily on schools and aim to bring wellbeing to young people.


How does positive psychology apply to education?

The way we apply positive psychology to education is based on science, which shows us that you can teach the skills for wellbeing in the same way you can teach skills for literacy and numeracy.

Positive psychology allows you to work with teachers, students, and all staff in school, such as administrative staff, IT staff, and other non-teaching staff so that everyone can be equipped with the skills to better manage their own wellbeing.

What we have found in implementing positive psychology into schools is that when students are able to better manage their own wellbeing, they achieve higher levels of wellbeing, which in turn helps them to perform better academically.

The Centre for Positive Psychology focuses on evaluating the impact of positive education programs and has found that implementing positive psychology into schools helps students to better manage their own wellbeing which in turn helps them to perform better academically. The Centre for Positive Psychology also offers formal university training for teachers.

We do this by setting up an early intervention approach where we can teach students the skills that set them up for a well-lived life.


How does a student's wellbeing impact their overall growth as learners? 

Higher levels of wellbeing in a student helps to cultivate a number of personal qualities that make students more effective learners. These qualities include things like perseverance, the ability to bounce back from failure and having a growth mindset. Students can develop these qualities or character strengths through practise, which helps them throughout their learning journey.

By connecting a student with what their own unique strengths are, they become better motivated because they know themselves more authentically and are able to choose subjects and study habits that best suit them. 


What is the Visible Wellbeing™ approach and how did the concept come about?

The Visible Wellbeing™ approach is different to traditional positive education in the fact that it is not a curriculum that teaches students about wellbeing but rather it is a set of practises that teachers can flexibly bring into their own teaching practice so students directly experience wellbeing in the classroom, sports field, school yard etc...

There are many high quality positive education curriculums, which is great, but what I have found even if a school has a great positive education curriculum, it doesn't necessarily change the culture of the school. It doesn’t reach all students in the same way that teacher practice does.

By implementing the Visible Wellbeing™ approach and bringing wellbeing skills into schools, teachers are able take their own existing teaching practices for each specialised subject and alter them in a way that builds wellbeing in their students.

This allows students to have the opportunity to build on their wellbeing in multiple classes throughout the day. It also ensures that all staff and students have access to these skills and are able to build on their own wellbeing at any time. What this means is that it builds teacher wellbeing in ways that student focused curriculums cannot.


What role do parents play? What is strength-based parenting?

Parenting can have a profound impact on the wellbeing and life trajectory of a young person. With the Visible Wellbeing™ approach, what we are doing is taking certain concepts of positive psychology and looking at how we can weave this into everyday parenting so that we can help build resilience and optimism in our kids.

Specifically, I have focused on strength-based parenting, which entails parents first identifying what is good in their child and then placing more time and attention on their strengths than their shortcomings.

As humans, we have a negativity bias already built into our brains. We then add parenting on top of this and it becomes very stressful. Whether we realise it or not, as parents we tend to focus on our kids’ weaknesses and shortcomings, forever trying to ‘fix’ their flaws.

By focusing on the positive aspects, my research has found that it creates a more positive and more trusting relationship between a parent and child, purely because you are looking at what is right with them.

Research also shows that children who have strength-based parents have high levels of life satisfaction, more positive emotions, a greater sense of self efficacy. Therefore they believe in themselves more to be able to create change and have control over their own world.

Parents who practise strength-based parenting ensure that their child is receiving a daily message that basically tells them ‘I see the good in you, I want to amplify that and help you build that’. It’s not about ignoring the weaknesses but addressing the strengths first.


What does the Visible Wellbeing™ approach involve?

In implementing the Visible Wellbeing™ approach, my team works with schools and goes into the school to train teachers for 1-3 days on how they can combine the science of wellbeing with the science of teaching and learning.

The Visible Wellbeing™ approach is heavily influenced by three areas of science: positive education, visible thinking and visible learning. Once teachers are taught how to combine these areas of science, they are able to implement the appropriate skills successfully in the classroom.

A big trend over the past decade has been the use of learning goals. Learning goals can be written on the board at the start of every class to give students an idea on what they aim to achieve by the end of the class. This has been quite a success and fits into Professor John Hattie’s idea of visible learning where students are able to see what they are aiming to achieve and have clear direction and feedback on their learning.

What I’m doing with the Visible Wellbeing™ program is coupling a learning goal with a wellbeing goal. For example, an English student may say ‘Okay, so today I’m learning how to analyse a sonnet, but I also need to think about that in relation to understanding the strengths of the person in this poem and how this relates to my own strengths’. By doing this, you’re infusing wellbeing into the learning process itself.


Why should the Visible Wellbeing™ approach be more integrated into schools?

The Visible Wellbeing™ approach has the capacity to reach everyone in the school. As Visible Wellbeing™ is not a curriculum that you teach to students, but instead a training program for the staff themselves, there is the capacity to impact and build the wellbeing of the staff in the school, as well as the students. It becomes quite important and insightful to teaching.


What are the key elements of the Visible Wellbeing™ approach and integrating wellbeing into teaching?

There are three key elements or areas of science to the Visible Wellbeing™ approach and they are positive education, visible thinking and visible learning.

Visible thinking is a concept that comes from Harvard University and the visible learning concept came from Professor John Hattie at The University of Melbourne.

Through merging these three areas of science in the Visible Wellbeing™ approach we are able to see what wellbeing looks like in the classroom. It can be seen through the setting a Visible Wellbeing™ goal in classes, and identifying those teachable moments for wellbeing that occur when a student is struggling or even doing really well.


How does one measure a student’s overall wellbeing?

To measure student wellbeing with the Visible Wellbeing™ approach, teachers use a quick one-page teaching rubric where they can evaluate their class along the six pathways to wellbeing. Visible Wellbeing also has it’s own survey to measure the staff and students along these six levels.

For an even more comprehensive assessment of students wellbeing, the Centre for Positive Psychology has developed the Wellbeing Profiler. This is a robust tool that schools can use independent of the wellbeing program they have put into place. These can be used on a school level, year level and a student level. They provide really useful data, as it helps schools and teachers to identify what year levels may be lacking and in what area.

It also allows for a more data driven approach, enabling teachers to make decisions about what effective learning is in their classroom.


What feedback have teachers given after training and implementing
these teaching methods into the classroom?

When I have worked with schools I have found that there is always a group of staff who are really passionate about their job and are motivational towards their students. Students leave their classes feeling like they learnt something.

These groups of teachers had already been teaching in a way that builds wellbeing intuitively. After being taught the specific skills for wellbeing, through the Visible Wellbeing™ program and given a framework for wellbeing, they are able to infuse wellbeing into their teaching more intentionally

It has given them a real confidence boost because it’s given them the signs behind what they knew and what they were doing was right anyway. It really helps them to refine and make their practice more effective.

On the flipside, you will always have a group of teachers who don’t think it is for them and not their style, which is fine. But if you have the other 80% of the teachers at the school on board, you will be able to see a change in the culture from teachers using a wellbeing approach in their practice.


What were the key learnings from the Visible Wellbeing™ approach pilot at Kambrya College?

What we found from the pilot at Kambrya College, is that these students, who had been exposed to wellbeing practises for were reporting high levels of optimism, high levels of resilience, lower levels of stress and were also saying that they were able to better manage their own wellbeing.

The core of Visible Wellbeing™ is making something that is invisible, visible. You cannot see a person's wellbeing from the outside. But the Visible Wellbeing™ approach helped Kambrya students to better see the wellbeing of themselves, their friends, and their family more clearly. Students then tend to watch out for their classmates and raise concerns with teachers about their peers.

The Visible Wellbeing™ approach is really about training the teachers in basic psychological skills so that they can better see and hear the wellbeing of themselves and others.


What are some simple things that teachers can do to get into the right mindset for the school year?

The first thing I would say to teachers would be start with yourself, take care of your own wellbeing. It is a busy time of the year and teachers have many constraints, however it is crucial that teachers take time out for themselves to focus on their wellbeing as well.

Another recommendation is that teachers should try and seek out professional development around wellbeing to analyse their own practice. What’s one or two small things that you can do in your own teaching practice that will help to boost your own wellbeing and will help boost the wellbeing of students as well? 

You can also do really simple things like create a teamwork assignment so the students can get their social needs filled as well as their learning needs filled during the class.

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