A few years ago, in the school I worked at as a Maths teacher, the results from a survey that the school had given to the parents were reported to us at a staff meeting. Our Head of Secondary informed us that the number one reason parents sent their kids to this particular school was so that their children would be happy.

Now this sounds fair enough, but some of my colleagues and I were more than a little concerned as quite a few questions sprang to mind. What sort of happiness did the parents have in mind? How were we as teachers supposed to interpret this survey result? And how would our professional points of view clash with the points of view of our leadership?

I inevitably left the school as it became clear that what I knew about creating opportunities for lasting happiness in my students clashed tremendously with what the leadership advocated.

We all want our children and students to be happy. But we should be more interested in ensuring that they develop an ability to achieve and construct their own happiness rather than us delivering them moments of happiness on a platter. As you can probably guess I was for this former method while much of the rest of this school seemed to prefer the latter.

So how do we go about ensuring that our children are both happy at school and learning how to be happy in life? By helping them live and work in a state of flow.

Hungarian pscyhologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for developing his theory about flow as the optimal state for happiness. Now as a Maths teacher I can’t resist taking a look at a graph or two, so bear with me!

The graph below illustrates the relationship between a person’s skill level and the level of challenge they experience in any situation. Each of the eight segments show how you feel when you match up a certain level of skill with a particular challenge.

In the classroom we get a lot of students in the boredom and apathy range. My aim has always been to move all my students to the areas of control and flow. The problem is to do this some students will need to pause for a while at the level of anxiety and worry while I keep momentum on the degree of challenge while giving my students time to lift their skill level.

Watching students work in a state of flow in the mathematics classroom is the most rewarding experience as a teacher. At the beginning of a new school year my students look at me like I’ve lost my mind when I exclaim “Isn’t this just so satisfying?!” as we work through a problem together. Soon enough a few students have entered the flow zone and the vibe of the whole class lifts with the possibilities. It usually takes a semester to get the majority of the class in the flow zone. It seems to be quite contagious and it’s easy to see why.

The arousal zone of learning

The first signs of a child moving to the flow zone are increased concentration and dedication. They don’t know why they want to be able to understand the work they’re learning, they just feel a necessary drive to persevere. As a parent you might start to notice that your child seems more studious than normal and you’re no doubt quite chuffed about it. This is a crucial time to get involved and support your child in developing their skills.

The control zone of learning

Next comes a kind of contentment. These kids are in the zone of control. They feel confident in their abilities and feel they can tackle most problems without any help. You might notice your chuld feeling more relaxed about certain homework tasks and even chatting to you a little more about what’s been going on in the classroom and even what they’re learning.

The flow zone of learning

Finally comes the deep satisfaction from working in a state of flow. These students are beginning to ask inquisitive questions to expand their understanding of the topic they’re learning. They’re eager to apply their skills to more challenging problems and best of all, at the end of a lesson they’ll say “Whoah, that went fast!” You’ll know your child is in a state of flow in mathematics when they come home and tell you it’s their favourite subject!

It’s the satisfaction that comes with the experience of achievement and mastery that leads any individual, child or adult, to a state of true happiness. For kids, it’s the most important lesson they can learn. Once they experience a state of flow, they will know to seek it out in all areas of their life. When they do so they will lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.

Isn’t that what we really want for our kids? A happiness born of fulfillment and satisfaction? It takes work and effort to get there, and will inevitably require your support and assistance at home. But when you ask your kid at the end of another day “How was school? What did you do today?”, wouldn’t you rather hear “Maths is hard, but I think I’m starting to get it” than “Dunno, not much, watched a video”?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks / Foter / CC BY-NC