Human thriving has been recently defined as ‘the joint experience of development and success’. Though in its definition it has differed over the years, human performance remains a topic of great interest. It is also a topic that covers a wide range of fields and domains, from business, sport, health, education, arts and sciences. As we better understand how optimal performance can be achieved in elite sport and non-sport domains, I am very interested in how knowledge acquired through sport and exercise psychology can be applied to the field of education and specifically in special educational needs (SEN) and autism.
It is perhaps only more recently that those positive psychological models are being explored as a way to focus and address barriers to human learning, development and thriving. Rather than placing a lens on a problem that needs ‘fixing’ it is now more accepted the alternative approach of looking at an individual’s strengths, interests and internal motivators as main protagonists for change. This has been the significant shift and starting point of a lot of my work. Why focusing on weaknesses and barriers? Why investing enormous amount of energy in trying to magnify what does not work, instead of directing the lens on what actually work? And support more of it.
This is not to say that one becomes ‘blind’ to what needs addressing, modifying, and eventually adapting, but always looking at things which are broken does not give us an understanding of the person as a whole and the strength characters we have even if not as yet aware of it. Seligman’s PERMA model widely discussed and adopted since the introduction of positive psychology has been a very useful framework in informing processes of assessment, conceptualisation of intervention programmes, their implementation and ultimately their evaluation in my work.
Promoting and guiding reflection among teams and professionals through this framework has in many cases supported productive and positive discussions, often in difficult situations, where the individual has not been lost just to what they do (or don’t do) and what they need to change – a deficit model –but to a way of placing the individual at the centre of possibilities.
By promoting enjoyment in all in the learning process, and gratitude and compassion in often highly stressful working environments we can cultivate positive emotions (P); by identifying, promoting and nurturing the individual’s interests and strengths we can support their engagement (E) , by facilitating opportunities for productive meaningful working (and supportive) relationships we can facilitate and nurture a sense of belonging (R); by facilitating and promoting individual internal and external motivation within areas that are meaningful to them we might be more successful in reaching greater engagement and participation (M); and by promoting a culture and an educational environment that celebrate all kind of successes even if small we promote individual accomplishments (A) and foster one of the key three human needs for development and success – a sense of control.
According to self-determination theory, human beings have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness and experiencing fulfilment; and satisfaction in these areas will likely enable greater human thriving. Let’s promote psychological resilience through active acceptance and compassion. Setbacks, adversities, barriers are to be celebrated as challenges that, with the resilient positive outlook and strength-based approaches can serve as an incredible enriching learning experience. And ultimately development and success.
If we are fulfilled, content and engaged in what is in front of us, we are more likely to succeed in the wider meaning of the word. Promoting wellness and well-being ought to be at the forefront of our aims and aspirations as human beings and as a diverse and enriched society.
Dr Irina Roncaglia is a Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist and Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS) based in London and working for the National Autistic Society (NAS). She graduated from Roehampton University with a BSc (Hon) in Psychology and Dance Studies and gained a PhD in Life Course Development Studies from Birkbeck, University in London. Irina has worked for the last 15 years for the National Autistic Society, supporting autistic people and their families and leading training in Autism and Learning Disability.