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Toxic Positivity

Typically, the positive ones encourage and teach us to do more useful things for ourselves and others. Joy comes when giving a family member a birthday present; pride comes from achievement or effort.

As a result, we can repeat or even habitualise these feel-good actions without the need for ongoing extrinsic motivators.

But negative feelings have a role too – even the ones that feel all kinds of awful. Fear is useful for teaching us how to avoid harm and stay safe in a variety of risky situations. Anger teaches us to respond rapidly when something we value is compromised or threatened.

And in the restorative model, we teach about the usefulness of the sting of shame we feel when we do the wrong thing to others or break our own moral code. It hurts sometimes, but there’s no other way to build a conscience than through a healthy relationship with our own shame.

To build a well-adjusted young person, we need them to respond accordingly to the full gamut of emotions, not just the pleasant ones.

So, when schools focus only on positive emotions through programs that teach only nice behaviours and encourage classrooms where there’s almost pressure to feel and think all the time positively, we do our kids a disservice – because we’ve placed a ceiling on their social and emotional growth.

While I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say that the many programs schools can purchase that are framed and marketed positively are doing damage, I would be comfortable to say they’re inadequate and not fit for purpose.

Social and emotional growth in young people is, to a large extent, learning positive ways to deal with negative emotions far more than it is denying them access or permission to feel negativity.

Keep fighting that good fight,


PS. I’ll be hosting two workshops, “Restorative Classrooms, Strong Classrooms” and “The Art of School Culture Leadership”, in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin and Perth. With limited places available, click here to register.


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