Affecting student well-being through positive feedback

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 12, 2018 - March 18, 2018.

The idea is based on the fact that if we are focusing on positive things, we are feeding them and starting to diminish the negative ones. We are boosting self-esteem and class spirit and decreasing anxiety and bullying. > Haapamäki

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When the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) started collecting data on the well-being of students (which was published last spring), it stumbled upon two major threats — anxiety and bullying.

“How can you expect to learn if you feel anxious all the time?” asks Kirsi Haapamäki, head of communications and marketing at Mightifier, a product of Finnish education technology (edutech) start-up Mighty United Oy. She was giving a presentation on Mightifier, an app designed to help children master social and emotional skills, to a group of international journalists in Helsinki last November.

Haapamäki points out that anxious and bullied children lose hope for the future, which is one of the worst things that can happen to any society as demonstrated by the spate of school shootings in the US — six this year alone so far, the worst being in Florida on Valentine’s Day.

Pisa is a worldwide study conducted by the

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate educational systems in both member and non-member countries by measuring the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading.

The OECD had a suggestion for tackling these two issues: developing social and emotional skills. “Basically, this means teaching children the knowledge, attitudes and skills they need to manage their emotions, establish and maintain relationships, make rational decisions and feel and show empathy for others.”

Haapamäki points out that the education market is really a traditional market and has been slow to react to changing trends. “What can we teach at school that separates us from all that? Once again, it starts with emotional skills and our ability to have human relationships. And these huge changes are driving countries, cities and schools. All the education decision-makers are into finding some concrete tools to improve our students’ well-being and their social and emotional skills.”

One of these tools is Mightifier, a positive peer communication app with measurable impact for classrooms, she says. The app has two parts. “The first part teaches children how to give each other positive feedback, and the feedback is always based on character traits. The second part is the class well-being pulse.”

The company provides teachers with an easy-to-use well-being pulse that they can activate for the class to follow the development of the class’ well-being and atmosphere in real time. “This makes it possible to interfere early if they find out, for example, that there are some students in class who do not have any friends at all,” says Haapamäki.

She says the app is based on positive psychology, that is, the science of everything that makes life worth living. “The idea is based on the fact that if we are focusing on positive things, we are feeding them and starting to diminish the negative ones. We are boosting self-esteem and class spirit and decreasing anxiety and bullying.”

Haapamäki says the app identifies 27 character traits. “These are universal — creativity, leadership, kindness, humour, love of learning, persistence ... things that everyone, everywhere has to some degree.”

She points out that if you are aware of your character strengths and able to use them, it makes a huge impact on your life. “It has an impact on your relationships and even your well-being and problem-solving abilities.”

Haapamäki says it is easy to understand the importance of character strengths if you relate it to yourself. “Think about what is essentially you. What are you great at? Are you brave? Are you fair? Are you kind? Are you enthusiastic? Creative? What is it that is really the essence of your being?”

She adds that if you identify a core strength and then are not allowed to use it, you would lose all knowledge of it. “For example, I find fairness to be one of my core strengths. If I was told that fairness was no longer on the table, I wouldn’t even feel like myself. So character strengths are really a matter of life and death.”

Haapamäki says the people around you already know what your strengths are though they may not mention it. “And when you give each other positive peer feedback, you build each other up. What a perfect tool for building good self-esteem and self-knowledge.”

She says Mightifier was co-created with schools and teachers.

“As we are trying to sort of mould the future of learning, we have to actually know what is happening in the classrooms, we have to be able to test it there so we can actually provide the tools that reflect the actual needs of the schools in their everyday life.”

The product has been tested in the classroom and she describes its impact as “magic”. “It is wonderful to see the students in the class who have, for the first time, heard someone say they are funny. We have even seen tears and children saying, ‘I don’t deserve this.’”

But the children do not simply tell each other the character traits they have identified. They back up each assertion with observable proof. “They say, ‘I saw you do this. It was you. It totally is you.’ And that is the learning experience. You start to realise that you are actually good at something. And you did not even realise this before.”

Haapamäki says even in Finland, which has one of the best school systems in the world, there are children falling off the wagon after elementary school. “They don’t feel that they are good at anything and they end up doing nothing. But what if we tell them that they are good in this and that? What if we tell them what their super strengths are? Would it make a difference?”

Right now, empathy has become the hottest trend. “Schools want to teach empathy. All the corporations want to hire empathetic employees. But I am thinking that empathy is not enough. Because empathy means the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or relate to their feelings.

“But I think what actually matters is what we do with those feelings. That we use them for something positive as we are relating to someone else’s feelings.

“Many children who are using Mightifier have told us that their favourite part is not when they are getting positive feedback, but when they are giving it. To see that smile on their friend’s face as they read the wonderful message they have written for them. They are actually saying their favourite part is the active actions of empathy.”

She says the schools that are using the app have witnessed these behaviours spread outside the classroom. “Our great Mightifiers have told us that they even try Mightifying at home, giving some positive feedback to Mum or the annoying little sister whom they usually consider a pain.”

Haapamäki points out that active empathy is not just a handy skill in the classroom or a trick to use at home. “It actually affects our well-being. Just recently, a big group of Canadian researchers found out that doing good for someone else actually decreases blood pressure as much as starting to exercise.”

This is the future of education, she says. “Student well-being has to be at the top of anyone’s list. Mightifier exists to make sure each child knows they are valued members of our society, just as they are.”

But it does not stop in the classroom. When Haapamäki tells people where she works and what she does, most of them immediately say they need this in the workplace. “So, we are starting our corporation pilot. At the moment, most of our users are in primary school. But we are also starting to pilot this in middle or high school because that is where the problems are.”