'Positive psychology' helps pupils turn their lives around

Parents and teachers in Dubai and Sharjah have been increasingly turning to "positive psychology" in a bid to raise their children's performances at school.

United Arab Emirates -Dubai- May 18, 2009:

NEWS: Practitioner of positive psychology Breon (cq-al) Michel (cq-al. Desk, there is no 'a' or 's' in the name.), 28 (29 on July 13.) poses for her portrait at a friend's home in the Garden View Villas neighborhood of Dubai on Monday, May 18, 2009. "It's applicable anywhere in the world, not just Dubai. But I think that here, with so many cultures coming together, it gives people an opportunity to appreciate what's right with people from around the world rather than what's wrong because they're different," said Michel, an American, who currently has eight individual clients in the region, though she plans on moving back to the States at the end of the month. "Positive psychology provides tools to help kids become more optimistic, resilient and not only be happy now but to sustain that happiness into adulthood." Amy Leang/The National
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Parents and teachers in Dubai and Sharjah have been increasingly turning to "positive psychology" in a bid to raise their children's performances at school. The technique, which focuses on the need to capitalise on people's strengths rather than dwell on weaknesses or negative experiences, has been used widely in many countries over the past 10 years in sport, education and professional performance. It has recently been adopted in the Emirates.

The Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania defines the field as "the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive". Sometimes called the science of happiness, it tries to get people to focus on "contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future" and to strengthen an individual's capacity for work and love, and to build on positive traits such as courage, compassion, integrity and self-control.

Breon Michel, a counsellor, coach and educator from Pennsylvania, and one of a handful of such specialists in the world, has introduced sessions for children and adults at institutions including the Emirates International School, Middlesex University in Dubai and the annual medical conference Counselling Arabia, where educators and high-level business people, students and medical professionals attended her two-hour presentation.

Sarah Dayal, the head of psychology at Emirates International School in Dubai, introduced the concept to her grade 12 and grade 13 pupils this year through seminars with Ms Michel. The pupils benefited in both their academic and social lives, she said. "This is an age where they are under a great deal of pressure. At school, they are thinking about applications to Yale and Harvard, and outside school they are reacting to peer pressure. Through positive psychology, they can learn to deal with life's stress in a positive way and channel it to their academic and professional lives to be motivational."

Ms Michel said the concept was still in its infancy in the Gulf region though it was widely used around the world, notably for some leading sports teams. Positive psychology is being implemented at the London School of Economics in the UK, and 500 teachers received training this year at Geelong Grammar School in Australia from Ms Michel and 10 other trainers from the University of Pennsylvania. Teenagers in Dubai and Sharjah were referred to Ms Michel because their parents wanted to improve their study habits and boost their self-esteem.

"I question them on their study patterns to find out how they seem to learn best," she explained. "From there, I can help formulate a study programme which will suit the individual student, using their strengths and interests, ensuring they are working at their best, optimal levels." One mother in Dubai, who asked not to be named, sent her daughter Hana to Ms Michel's sessions because of severe behavioural difficulties. Hana, 13, had gone through counselling with a psychologist in Dubai without effect.

"The first thing I wanted was to repair Hana's self-esteem and self-worth," her mother said. "Then I wanted her to focus on taking responsibility for her actions and the consequences that they brought with them." She now reports a visible turnaround in her daughter's behaviour. Hana talks to her parents with greater respect, the mother said, and responds to requests from them in a more positive manner.

"She is now focusing on school and she's doing her homework, which is great as she's been on academic probation for the last two terms due to her lack of participation and not turning in assignments. "I'm hoping the work Breon does will help her enough to pass her grade this year. She's feeling better about herself and that makes a world of difference." mswan@thenational.ae