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Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience: Improving emotional resilience and well-being through worldwide evidence-based positive education programmes

Prof Ilona Boniwell

Positive education programmes developed at ARU have helped build resilience and promote well-being in tens of thousands of people across the world and influenced government policy.

Positive education brings together the science of positive psychology with best practice in teaching life skills, to prevent mental health problems and promote wellness. Prof Boniwell conceived and designed two positive education programmes while at ARU and collaborated with researchers at other universities to conduct studies evaluating their impact: they are the first such programmes to evidence their positive impacts.

The SPARK Resilience Programme (SPARK RP) is a universal resilience programme that builds on cognitive-behavioural therapy and positive psychology concepts to foster emotional resilience and decrease depression.

Personal Well-being Lessons (PWBL) is a school-based curriculum that targets every known major predictor and correlate of well-being using positive psychology interventions. The programme provides educators with a flexible and grounded resource with up to 36 lessons covering Positive Self, Positive Body, Positive Emotions, Positive Mindset, Positive Direction, and Positive Relationships.

Research summary

Prof Boniwell, in collaboration with researchers at Queen Mary University London, conducted a study on 11-year-old girls in a secondary school sample in the UK to investigate whether the personality trait Sensory-Processing Sensitivity moderated the efficacy of the SPARK Resilience Programme aimed at the prevention of depression. Middle to highly sensitive children showed a significant increase in self-esteem scores and a decrease in depression scores, with both effects sustained after a three-month follow-up.

A further study explored the efficacy of SPARK on depression symptoms and resilience in a high-risk population of 11-to-13-year-old girls in England. Prof Boniwell found evidence for a decrease in the girls’ depression symptoms directly after the intervention and at a six-month follow-up, while resilience scores were significantly higher in the treatment cohort compared to the control cohort at post-treatment and follow-up assessments.

In collaboration with researchers from the National Research University in Russia and the University of East London, Prof Boniwell led a mixed-methods study evaluating the impact of implementing the PWBL curriculum in a sample of 11- and 12-year-old pupils in secondary schools in London. They found a significant buffering effect of the intervention in protecting students against the decline of satisfaction with self, satisfaction with friends, and an increase in negative effect throughout the first year of middle school.

An adult and a child cuddling on a sofa, smiling

Summary of the impact

  • PWBL and SPARK adopted around the world
  • Improved well-being and resilience in school children
  • Improved resilience in employees
  • Changes to educational policies and practices in France, Portugal and England

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO


Prof Boniwell presented the research at over 20 keynotes on positive education and resilience at major national and international events, including at:

  • Unilever (UAE, 2020)
  • Chanel (France, 2020)
  • International Conference for School Violence (Canada, 2018)
  • GESS Education (UAE, 2018)
  • Goldman Sachs (UK, 2018)
  • BNP Paribas (Singapore, 2018)
  • 9th European Congress of Positive Psychology (Hungary, 2018)
  • 5th Happiness and Well-Being Summit (Mexico, 2017)
  • 8th Congress of the European Network of Positive Psychology (France, 2016)
  • 5th Australian Positive Psychology and Well-being Conference (Australia, 2016)
  • Positive Economy Forum (Italy, 2014)
  • Printemps d’Optimisme (Belgium, 2015)
  • 7th Congress of the European Network of Positive Psychology (Netherlands, 2014)
  • Action for Happiness (UK, 2014).

PWBL and SPARK were adopted by the Kids and Emotional Competencies Foundation, Japan Positive Education Association, Schools of Positive Psychology in Japan and Singapore, and Partnership for Children.

Read more about more about presentation of research and adoption of practices.

In France

The consultancy company Positran has handled distribution of the programmes since 2015. They have trained 269 teachers and 35 trainers in SPARK RP, 63 trainers in PBWL and 1,400 school children. This generated income of 276,150 euros.

'This adventure was a real discovery for me, it allowed me to meet new people, discover things about myself and how to handle situations that I encounter,' said one young person who participated in SPARK RP.

Content analysis of participants’ feedback showed a positive impact on their emotional resilience, including emotions/pleasure (54%), positive relationships (39%), self-discovery (33%) and use of emotion-regulation strategies (52%).

In the Netherlands

The Kids and Emotional Competencies (KEC) Foundation has translated the PBWL into Dutch and delivered the programme to 31 schools since 2016. 114 teachers were trained, and 2,045 students have completed the programme.

Teachers testify that adopting the PWBL has increased the self-confidence of individual pupils and helped them discover and become aware of their strengths, while overall classes are calmer due to better relationships.

Thematic analysis of the Best Possible Self writing exercise before and after the programme showed significant increases for well-being-related signals (from 77% to 86%), behavioural intention signals (from 11% to 15%) and positive emotions (from 11% to 14%). A significant decrease was found for the percentage of factual descriptions (from 9% to 5%).

As well as showing an increase in well-being, they indicate that the programme helps young people to become more action-oriented. For example, one participant stated, 'I want to become a heart surgeon. I want to achieve this goal by paying attention in class and by being serious about school'.

In Japan

Around 20,000 students have completed the SPARK RP programme in either the short term (half- to one-day) or long-term (over a year) versions.

The Japan Positive Education Association has implemented it in over 57 schools (from elementary schools to universities and teacher training) and other organisations since 2015.

A study of high school students in Tokyo found SPARK RP was effective in enhancing students’ overall self-efficacy, and that students with significantly lower self-esteem had greater reduction in depression and promotion of self-esteem.

Around 20,000 children have received PWBL. Feedback from teachers and parents in Japan includes:

  • 'These ideas changed how they see things'
  • 'They always use the technic [sic] they learnt because it is very fun and easy to use in daily life'
  • 'The atmosphere in the class was changed after I introduced this programme'

Partnership for Children

The major international educational charity Partnership for Children has partners in 32 countries around the world and a global reach of 1.8 million beneficiaries. In 2017 it positioned SPARK RP for secondary school age children as a follow-up to their existing resilience programmes aimed at children in primary schools.

SPARK Resilience in The Workplace is a training programme to improve resilience in employees. It’s been implemented in the UK and France by Positran and since 2018 they have trained 240 trainers and delivered resilience workshops and webinars reaching almost 2,200 employees in 19 companies, including Chanel, Unilever and BNP in the UK, France, Morocco and UAE.

Since the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown it has been taught online to hundreds of French-speaking participants. Their resilience, positive emotions, meaning and work engagement grew, whilst stress perception and negative emotions decreased significantly in comparison with participants in the waiting list control group.

Content analysis of feedback such as “Finding motivation and energy to carry out daily activities and those related to work” and end-of-programme resilience stories showed benefits in:

  • solution-focus/behavioural intentions (74%)
  • awareness of emotion-cognition interaction (68%)
  • growth after adversity (63%)
  • knowledge and use of emotion regulation strategies (57%)
  • mental health/well-being (50%)
  • relationships improvement (49%).

The School of Positive Psychology in Japan and Singapore adopted a version of SPARK Resilience in the Workplace and delivered it in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. They have trained almost 400 trainers and delivered 48 workshops to 1,200 people in 30 different companies, generating income of 711,000 euros.

97% of the people who have completed the programme report being very satisfied/satisfied with the programme. Testimonials from clients include, 'I learned how to build mental and emotional resilience against workplace stress', and 'The program teaches new way of dealing with stress'.

Read more about more about increasing resilience in the workplace.

The educational system in France is relatively unusual amongst the OECD countries in an almost total absence of any type of teaching related to life skills or character education. Recent legislation opens the door to new programmes and provision.

SPARK Resilience won two prizes in 2016: the Positive Innovation in Education prize by the University of Grenoble-Alpes and the Pedagogical Innovation Prize of the Foundation “Apprendre & Réussir”.

Consequently, Prof Boniwell was called to advise the French Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health on how well-being and resilience should be positioned as key educational outcomes. The French Ministry of National Education nominated the programme as one of the top 30 teaching innovations in 2017 and in 2020 the Ministry’s training arm Réseau Canopé proposed SPARK RP as support to teachers during the Covid-19 period, resulting in the participation of 189 teachers.

The UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability programme adopted PWBL in 2017 to develop positive education in Portuguese schools, and PWBL is featured as part of the 2019 UNESCO Chair Network Progress Report.

As one of the founders of IPEN (International Positive Education Network), Prof Boniwell was invited to take part in the Life Skills Working Group established by the Youth Team, Cabinet Office (British Government) to form a solid evidence base for the teaching of life skills.

Because of this work, Public Health England (PHE) London on behalf of the London Health Board (LHB) selected SPARK Resilience as one of the best resilience programmes in the UK and show-cased it on the London Grid for Learning portal. Teaching training in SPARK RP resulting from the LHB promotion is delivered by the charity Partnership for Children.

Read more about more about the influence on educational policy around teaching of well-being and resilience in schools .

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, target 4.7.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 04: Improving emotional resilience and well-being through worldwide evidence-based positive education programmes

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