What Does Happiness Look Like In Classrooms?

The Delhi Government, in an innovative and bold move, introduced a policy level change in the way we look at education, with the launching of the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ in all government schools across its national capital territory. This was spearheaded by Manish Sisodia, aiming to make children from nursery to class VIII ‘happy,’ through mindfulness, self-awareness, critical thinking, reflection and inner stability.

The thought behind this curriculum was creating an urgent need to implement a curriculum which not only promotes development in numeracy and literacy but stresses on the well-being and happiness of students. These could be seen as life skills which are of prime importance for young people to be prepared for life. World Health Organisation (WHO) defines life skills as psychosocial abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour which enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life. Why do we need to think outside academic achievements?

In the process of ensuring the enrolment of 90% of Indian children in primary school, fretting about their poor literacy and numeracy levels and thinking about ways to skill them for employability, we have forgotten to think about our students’ mental well-being. With the largest demographic dividend, India also has the highest suicide rate in the world among youth standing at 35.5 per 100,000 people for 2012 (last year for which numbers are available).

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2015 data, every hour, one student commits suicide in India. The lack of economic, social and emotional resources, mainly academic pressure, workplace stress, social pressures, modernisation of urban centres, relationship concerns and the breakdown of support systems are attributed as reasons for these high numbers. Some researchers feel that urbanisation and the breakdown of the traditional large family support system is the reason for such a high rate of suicide amongst youth. This begs us to question, what can we do to ensure that our students have a positive learning environment at school?

Research shows that children develop in an environment of relationships that begin at home and include extended family members, early care and education providers, and members of the community. When these important care-givers are absent, it causes development lags in children which translates into impairments in their adulthood (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). When talking about a policy level change as radical as this, there is also a need to talk about a mindset shift when dealing with parents, teachers and the society the children grow up in, which influence their learning environment.

Dream a Dream, one of the lead NGOs in anchoring the development of the Happiness Curriculum and its rollout in Delhi has been focusing on empowering young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and be life-ready, through a creative life skills approach in the presence of an empathetic and compassionate adult. The main responsibility of Dream a Dream is to build teacher mindsets which will lead to the success of this curriculum. By empowering teachers to nurture empathy, expand their creativity and develop listening and validation skills, we are helping them unlock their own potential and changing their attitudes towards being educators.

In an attempt to explore what happiness can do to students, I journeyed to a government school in Delhi to observe the Happiness Curriculum in action. I started my visit by speaking to the school principal and asking her what she felt about the curriculum. Her school has a strength of 900 and her students come from nearby bastis where they live in congested spaces, with 6-10 to a room (what they call the house they live in).

She said, “School needs to be a place where they can come to feel like they matter so we make extra efforts to give them a positive learning environment. I have been speaking to a few students and nearly all of them have said that they look forward to the Happiness Curriculum periods in the day. I’m not expecting a drastic change. New things take time. I have noticed though that before between classes, the students were always loud, unruly and restless but now, I can see that they have become quieter and better behaved.” Could this be what happiness translates to?

I then met the Happiness Coordinator and asked her what she thought about the sessions she took for the students in school. She said, “There are days when I get moved by the lessons like today, when I suddenly remembered my father and felt the need to be grateful for all that he has done for me. In the middle of all the tensions of school and home, this one period helps me pause and reflect, along with the students, everyday.

This piqued my curiosity and I eagerly looked forward to sitting in for a session conducted in Class 6. Slipping into the back row as I normally do, during classroom visits, I sat silently observing the class as Sheela Ma’am (name changed) greeted the class and settled them down. As the curious glances towards me and whispers quietened, the Happiness Coordinator (Sheela Ma’am) asked the students to close their eyes and focus on their breathing. After a few minutes, she asked them to open their eyes.

She asked them to recollect what had happened as soon as she walked into the class. The students all screamed out answers and she reminded them about raising their hand first before answering, which they soon began to follow, post the reminder. One of the students said that when Sheela Ma’am walked in and all the students wished her, she asked them to sit down, to which they replied, “Thank you!

She then began asking the students why they had thanked her, to which a lot of the students replied that it was out of respect or because she had asked them to sit down or because she was their teacher, etc. When asked what makes them express gratitude, most students found it rather difficult to explain why and the rest found the act highly conditional. It was more along the lines of, “when my friend helped me or when my classmate gave me water or when someone shared their dabba or whenever parents, siblings, relatives did something for me,” etc.

When Sheela Ma’am pushed them a bit further and asked them why they said thanks, the students went quiet for a while and it seemed like they were reflecting on the what drove them to express gratitude. Gradually, one of the students slowly put up her hand and said, “Those who help us would feel that they were taken for granted and maybe not want to help again.” Another student said, “The teachers may feel like we don’t respect them.

Sheela Ma’am then passed small flash cards to everyone in the classroom and then asked them to think of people they want to thank and write a small note to each of them. She wrote a note on the board for them in Hindi to illustrate what the expectation was and to help structure their thoughts. Each of the students started writing and the bell went off in the middle but she ensured that every student read out their note in front of the whole class, motivating and encouraging students in the process. Their cards were then stuck on the wall, which she called the ‘Gratitude Wall.’

One of the students felt he wanted to thank his dogs. Hearing this, I initially laughed to myself thinking that a few students maybe needed some extra explanations. He soon continued to explain how they protected him from other dogs on the road. That’s when I realised how wrong I had been to assume that children didn’t understand gratitude. Another student spoke about how we forget the army who protect us, selflessly, putting their own lives at risk and how the nation is constantly questioning of their actions. The depth of their gratitude made me feel hopeful that we were leaving the world in the hands of young people such as them.

This activity had the participation of all the students in class, including those who had stage fear and who found it difficult to read and struggled through it. The students didn’t heckle each other or comment on what the others read. They were respectful of their classmates’ views; however silly the thoughts were. I felt that this acted as a small method of making students feel confident about expressing their feelings and sharing their opinions in front of an audience. While I was following Sheela Ma’am out of the classroom, I overheard the students thanking each other for small acts like lending a pen, notebook, eraser, etc.

The National Curriculum Framework 2005 states that the education system should connect knowledge to life outside the school, ensure that learning is shifted away from traditional rote methods, and enrich the curriculum to provide for overall development. Instead of solely stressing on cognitive development, creating situations where the young person discovers themselves, imbibes values of human dignity, empathy towards others through the development of non-cognitive skills like critical thinking, communication and team work, our youth will understand and adapt to the rapidly changing environment and thrive (Patri, 2017). Could the implementation of the Happiness Curriculum be a reflection of that intent?

The hope is that when these students through these activities, become aware of their thoughts and actions, like what does gratitude mean and why is it important to be grateful etc. A conscious change in their behaviour, being more grateful to those small acts around them, helps them coexist better. By becoming more aware, being more mindful of their actions, they begin to look deeper within themselves and reflect on the purpose of their lives. Sustenance of this type of happiness which stems from learning, reflection and awareness helps retain a sense of calm and peace when faced with hurdles and obstacles in life (A. Nagraj, 2015).

A number of studies have established a link between this domain of non-cognitive skills and education, employment and socioeconomic outcomes (Carneiro et al., 2010; Heckman & Rubinstein, 2001). Social and emotional competences do not only play a role in raising academic achievement and educational attainment, but also have strong correlations with personal satisfaction and growth, citizenship, and reduced risky behaviour like violence and drug use (Currie, 2001; Borghans et al., 2008; Bowles et al., 2001a; Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; 2006).

According to the World Happiness Report 2017, India is among the world’s least happy nations and ranked 122 among 155 countries in the global ranking, and further slipped to 133 among 155 countries in the World Happiness Report of 2018. Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen feels that factors like togetherness, a sense of community, trust and kindness amongst others could explain the difference between the happiest and unhappiest countries of the world.

This visit left me with hope along with a whole bunch of plaguing questions. Could educational innovations like the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ lead us to think of holistic approaches towards notions of progress? Will they soon override economic and material aspects of well-being and lay stress on emotional well-being instead? Is this model sustainable? How soon till we become one of the happiest countries in the world?

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sanchit Khanna for Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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