At the start of the year, school returns and everything is new for students. A new classroom, new teacher, new equipment, and for some, even a new school. Your child may have a sense of excitement about starting the new school year, for others, perhaps they might be feeling a little daunted by or apprehensive about these changes.
I can still vividly recall when my own family moved from England to Australia and I started Year 2 in a new school, in a new country. Funnily enough, my most easily recalled memory from that time is being told by another little girl in my first few weeks that she was “dobbing on me”, I went home in tears having no idea what being “dobbed on” actually meant, but knowing it wasn’t anything good.
Aside from my quick immersion into Australian slang, what I understand now as a Psychologist is that my developing brain processed this as a threat and responded accordingly, which is one of the reasons three decades later I can still easily recall this experience.
This capacity to give greater attention and focus to the things that go wrong, and to remember and recall negative things far more, when compared to positive things, is known as the negativity bias (Vaish, Grossman, & Woodward, 2008).
This phenomenon means that negative information is processed more thoroughly by our brain and can have more of an impact on us (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). To reflect on the real-world applications of this, consider how often children and adults alike come home and give more energy and attention to the things that went wrong in their day. It might be something that went wrong in the playground, getting something wrong in class, a negative interaction with a work colleague or bad traffic on the way home.
While such a memory bias has an evolutionary advantage in that it can help children to predict potentially threatening situations in the future (Baltazar, Shutts, & Kinzler, 2012) we also want to cultivate the skills in children (and adults) so they can counteract this bias when it is unhelpful or unhealthy.
As part of the wellbeing approach at PLC, students in the Junior School and those entering Year 7 complete the Positive Detective Programme (https://positivedetective.com) at the start of the year.
This programme is designed to support students to pay greater attention to and focus more on the things that go right in their day and share these experiences with others. The commencement of a new school year is a particularly powerful time to build these skills, given it is a time of change.
What can families do to overcome the Negativity Bias:
- Be intentional every day to take notice of the good things.
- Back praise others (as opposed to back stabbing) by telling others about the good things you see in your family, friends, children or colleagues.
- Practice savouring by being mindful of the good things and pausing to linger on them, extending the positive emotions you experience and recalling them again in the future.
- When greeting your children at the end of the day ask them positive questions such as what went well during their day or what they enjoyed most.
- Create a ritual to look for the good. This may be making an intention to share as a family at the dinner table or before bed the good things from your day or keeping a ‘good stuff’ journal.
- Practice ‘Strength Based Parenting’ by intentionally focusing on your child’s strengths, assets and abilities. For parents interested in completing an online course on this topic, PLC parents have been offered a 10% discount using the code ‘10off’ for the Strength Switch online course.
By Laura Allison, Director of Wellbeing PLC Perth.
Baltazar, N. C., Shutts, K., & Kinzler, K. D. (2012). Children show heightened memory for threatening social actions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 112(1), 102–110. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2011.11.003.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370. http://doi.org/10.1037//1089-26220.127.116.113.
Vaish, A., Grossman, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development, 134(3), 383–403. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383.
About the Author:
Laura Allison (BSc, BPsych, MPsych, ProfCertEd(PosEd)) is a registered psychologist currently employed as the Director of Wellbeing at PLC Perth and as a member of the school’s Senior Leadership Team.
Laura has worked across the Government, Catholic and Independent sectors and is highly recognised for her expertise in the field of mental health in education, most recently being the recipient of the 2015 WA School Psychologist of the Year Award.
She is currently completing a PhD exploring the relationship between teacher practice and student wellbeing.