Dr. Nicole Mumpower is the assistant principal at Robbinsville High School in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Using the science and skills of positive psychology, she and the leadership team at Robbinsville have transformed the school’s culture. But you’ll want to hear about it from her: 

Hello! Nicole here. I have been in the Robbinsville School District for 27 years and the high school since its inception in 2004. I am the mom of two kids, Owen, 16, and Murphie, 6. I love to travel, exercise, read, and spend time with family.  

Years ago, our school went through a phase where morale was low due to many factors that affect education. Concerned staff and normal teenage issues were apparent. While students and staff were excited about the school year, it quickly became an anxious environment where students exhibited signs of loneliness and depression. Although our school’s overall culture was good, we had many students who were avoiding school or in need of support. They needed outside counseling overall skills to help them learn resilience and seek the good things in life.

While these needs may seem standard for a high school, I knew we could do better. We surveyed the students and asked, “Who are you connected to? Do you believe one adult at Robbinsville High cares about your wellbeing?” Several students couldn’t find one connection to an adult staff member. That was enough for us to know we needed to do something.

We posted student photos and prompted the staff to indicate which students they knew by name and if they knew anything personal about the student. At the end of the exercise, we noted which students were unknown to staff and made a concerted effort to reach out to the students and let them know their teachers cared about them.  

To boost student wellbeing, our leadership team agreed our efforts must start with the staff. So, we trained the adults at Robbinsville High for an entire year to use the skills of happiness in their lives. We coached them on how to add joy to their day, capitalize on their character strengths, practice gratitude and mindfulness, think about their thinking,  and take care of their wellbeing and happiness first. 

Not everyone was on board. Some staff members (like the physics teacher who was set in his ways) didn’t think it was necessary. Why waste time with “fluffy” stuff when our curriculum was already so dense, and we needed students to be test-ready? Science teachers are used to questioning things, I guess! But when we showed him the science behind positive psychology—and that the wellbeing practices were evidence-informed, we finally piqued his interest with the resignation that if it’s proven by science, it must be worth our attention. 

Once we empowered our staff to practice wellbeing, it was time to educate our students. We systematically incorporated the skills of happiness into our freshmen program. We created a calendar with a monthly rollout of skills and time set aside for educators to implement wellbeing into their classes. Implementation was school-wide and included the entire student population. To ensure our approach was as inclusive as possible, we created modifications of the skills for students with disabilities.

We posted a bulletin board calling out the staff’s character strengths. A minute-to-win-it activity based on resilience became a staple of school-wide assemblies. The wellbeing practices and language became infused in daily life at school. 

As with any school-wide implementation, roadblocks were encountered; we found a way around them, and wellbeing persisted as a goal. One solution for sustainability was pairing new staff members with staff who knew the benefits of positive psychology. Even when teachers moved on to new districts, they carried their wellbeing with them, and a ripple effect happened—they started spreading the science and skills of wellbeing to their new schools and new students and their families, creating an impact that lived well beyond the walls of Robbinsville High. 

We started to see the transformative power of consistent wellbeing practices. There were zero Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying (HIB) reports in the first year of implementation and a significantly low number of suspensions. 

Students felt empowered, and there was open communication between the administration and teachers and between teachers and students; we started using a common language around wellbeing—it’s now infused in the DNA of the school community. 

Teachers had go-to strategies when kids were struggling, and it was not just content-related. Their post-lesson exit slips asked, “What went well today?” Teachers posted visuals reminding their classes to have a growth mindset. Students and teachers were creating Positivity Portfolios each week to focus on the good. Kids use effective strategies in conversations with teachers and classmates when they’re not feeling well or confident. Each teacher posts their character strengths on their classroom’s door to remind themselves and students that we all have unique strengths to celebrate, creating connections with students about noticing and appreciating their strengths. In this way, our differences unite us as a school community. 

Wellbeing extended beyond classrooms, too. The athletic director requested training for all coaches in the district each season. One girl stood up at a board meeting, thanking us for bringing wellbeing to her life and teaching her valuable life skills. Another group of kids named themselves the “SPARK crew” and created an Instagram account dedicated to spreading the news about the skills of positive psychology. 

I, too, gained confidence as a leader and confidence that wellbeing can win, even if the odds are stacked against you. 

Wellbeing has become a movement that is much bigger than the individual person, and if changing our school’s culture can make this big of a difference, then there’s hope for widespread change. Your administration, educators, and students will be better for it. 

Now, if you asked any student or staff member, “Who are you connected to?” They readily answer. 

And that skeptical physics teacher? He is now an assistant principal and on our leadership team—and is our strongest advocate for using the science of positive psychology to enhance wellbeing. 

He said, “In the end, the science and skills of happiness changed my life.”

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