how happiness impacts learning


Knowing that children will do better at school if they’re happy isn’t anything new. But what if our children aren’t happy at school? How can parents help their child in that scenario and what exactly are the learning benefits of being happy at the elementary stage? These are just some of the questions that education expert, Rory Mooney tackles in this interview. He also provides plenty of practical tips and advice to parents.

You can watch the video interview below and/or read the written version below.




NP: Hi everyone. I’m Nicola Pearson and the owner and founder of Minds of Wonder. The purpose of MoW is to help parents support their children’s learning journeys. As part of this, I’m doing a series of interviews with education consultants, where they will share their experience and expertise over a range of topics.

Today’s interview looks at the one thing that we all worry about as parents, and that’s our child’s happiness and its role in a child’s success.

Today’s guest is, Rory Mooney. Rory has almost forty years of experience in education, and as an expert in the field he continues to be as passionate as ever about children’s learning.

In this interview, we’ll look at why a child’s happiness is so crucial to their success, and most importantly, what role parents can play to help their child be happy at school. The video is pre-recorded, but we’ll be holding a FB live session where you can ask Rory questions.

If you enjoy the interview, please don’t hesitate to share it with friends on social media.

Let’s make a start! Hi Rory.

RM: Hi Nicola. How are you?

NP: I’m pretty excited about this interview, as it’s talking about something that is so important to us as parents. Before we dive in, I’d just like to give viewers a little bit of your background. Maybe a good place to start is that you’re a parent…

RM: Yes, Nicola. I am the extremely proud father of three boys, and as a parent, I have shared – and continue to share – all the same hopes, dreams, aspirations and concerns that I believe all parents have for their children. However, because I have been fortunate enough to have been a teacher in primary and secondary schools around the world, and because I have been the Principal of a large elementary school in the United States, I have gained some deep insights into how I believe parents can best support their children in school. As a result of my experience, I feel I am able to provide some guidance to parents with whom I can deeply empathize about how to help support their child’s learning journey – at home and at school.

NP: In terms of our children doing the best they can at school, how high up there is their happiness? Where does it rank?

RM: Perhaps not surprisingly, a child’s happiness is the single greatest hope – and concern – that parents have for their children as they start and progress through school. Of course, as parents, we all want our children to be happy, and that parental desire extends naturally to their child’s school setting too. A wide range of significant research that has studied students and schooling in numerous nations globally has shown that a child’s happiness in school – across all age ranges – is directly related to the relationships they have with their immediate classmates, other peers, and with their teachers. It is clear from the research evidence that the greater the level of positivity of those relationships, the happier the child; and the happier the child, the greater success they experience at school.

NP: You mention there the importance of a child’s relationship with their peers. Inevitably, when children are young, they’re going to have plenty of fall outs with their friends. But when it comes to be a bit more than that; if your child is struggling to forge good friendships with peers, what would you advise parents to do?

RM: That’s certainly a challenge that many parents find their children face. Making friends is never easy – and perhaps especially so for young children. What I have experienced as a teacher and Principal is that parents can play a strong supporting role in helping their child in forging friendships by establishing their own relationships with other parents, and using that friendship to bring their children together in social and play activities outside of school. Often, close friendship bonds can be forged better away from the academic pressures of the classroom and the social complexities that exist among groups of children in a school setting. Friendships established and nurtured in the external setting tend to naturally flow over into the school and the children’s classroom. They also tend to be stronger and longer lasting.

NP: That’s great advice. As parents we’re modelling all the time and it’s not different with friendships. Do you think that if a parent is really concerned that they should approach the child’s teacher to help with the situation?

RM: I certainly do believe that parents should not be shy of approaching their child’s teacher and ask for their perspective on why their child may be experiencing difficulties in cementing friendships. From my own experience as a teacher, I know that the teacher will undoubtedly have deep insights into the range and nature of friendships in his or her classroom, and will be able to offer intelligent suggestions for what the child might do to strengthen their friendships and that could quickly help overcome any current obstacles.

In addition, in a sensitive discussion with the teacher, a parent can also explore if the teacher can be additionally supportive in helping their child with friendships through general classroom practices – such as changing seating and table arrangements regularly, or frequently using cooperative and collaborative teaching strategies in which children work together in varied groups. These classroom strategies can help to break down cliques that may be occurring in the classroom and which may be preventing some children from forging friendships. Parents should explore whether such strategies are being used, and if they are not – for example, children sit in fixed groups for the entire school year – the parent can sensitively and diplomatically enquire as to whether such strategies might be helpful in helping children to build a broader base of friends. Most good teachers will be receptive, and parents should never be shy, afraid or shamed in taking sensitive action in support of their child. We are, of course, our child’s advocate – no one else will play that role in the same way.

NP: I think that’s great encouragement for parents to reach out to their child’s teacher. It’s not always easy though for a lot of parents as they don’t want to be seen as pushy, or worry that it might negatively affect the teacher’s relationship with their child. In terms of forging friendships, is there anything in particular that the child themselves can do?

RM: Well Nicola, that’s a tough one because young children – especially in the lower elementary grades – have not yet acquired the depth of social skills to independently face the challenges of forging meaningful friendships. However, I believe from my experience as a parent and educator that a great starting point is to talk with your child – in a light and non-threatening conversation – about their school friendships. If they express that they don’t have many friends or that they are having difficulties making friends, this is your opening as a parent. This is the opportunity to impart your parental experience and knowledge. Discuss with your child ways that they can reach out to other children independently. Teach them the importance of listening to others, of showing genuine interest in other children’s interests and hobbies and finding ways to start simple conversations with others. These can be challenging social skills to develop, but it is important that your child learn that establishing friendships requires effort and thought, and that they will experience both success and failure in finding and holding on to true friends. You may even want them to practice those kinds of conversations and interactions with you, or with one of their favorite dolls or toys.

NP: You also mention that a key to a child’s happiness at school is their relationship with teachers. This certainly makes sense at the elementary level, as children spend most of their day with that one teacher. How can parents guide and support their children to establish a good relationship with their teacher, as being children it’s not so easy for them to interact with adults.

RM: Well, we know as parents that it is never generally easy for children to interact with other adults, but assuming that your child likes and respects their teacher, talk to your child about how they can approach their teacher regularly – but briefly – each day to engage in short conversations that show interest in the teacher as a person, without prying into their private life of course. There is much to be gained in building the teacher-child relationship when your child offers a personal greeting each morning to their teacher; when your child engages during non-teaching moments in simple conversation that enquires into the teacher’s well-being, their likes and dislikes, and their interests and hobbies. Offering to do things such as helping to tidy up, to put away books, or to help other children are all ways a child can nurture the relationship with their teacher. I know from experience that every teacher likes to see helpful children, and to see children who care about others – including the teacher!

These strategies are similar to how you might encourage your child to build friendships with peers, but your child may see this as much more daunting because the teacher is an adult. Help your child learn and understand that teachers are regular people too.

NP: For a variety of reasons, it can happen that a good relationship between the teacher and child doesn’t happen. What advice would you give to a parent in this situation?

RM: Nicola, this is perhaps one of the most difficult scenarios for a parent to address given all the sensitivities involved. Firstly, I would strongly suggest that a parent ask their own child’s view about how they see the relationship with their teacher. Essentially, a parent needs to know if their child likes their teacher – and why or why not – and does their child feel that the teacher likes them – again explaining why or why not. However, without simply accepting your child’s perspective – as much as we want to believe our children all the time – it would be a good approach to seek to volunteer in your child’s classroom a few times to establish your own perspective on the relationship.

Parents should not see this as spying, but as a parental responsibility to understand their child’s needs and to support their child’s wellbeing and welfare. Volunteering in the classroom will allow a parent to identify what obstacles are preventing the building of the relationship. Where a parent identifies things that the child personally can change, they can have that conversation gently and sensitively with their child – in bite-size chats, not bedtime lectures.

However, if as a parent you observe that the obstacles are created by the teacher – there is some element of dislike on the part of the teacher towards your child, or their preference leans heavily towards other children, or “classroom favorites”, then the parent must strengthen themselves for a difficult and potentially challenging conversation with the teacher. Of course, the conversation can still be addressed sensitively and diplomatically, and it should not be accusatory. It should be approached as Stephen Covey would tell us in the spirit of “seeking first to understand”.

NP: I can imagine that such a conversation would be challenging for most parents, but it’s good to hear you suggest that it is still not a conversation to be avoided.

To bring it back then to where we began Rory, you have expressed that happy children are successful children. What are some of the learning benefits then of being happy for an elementary school child?

RM: Great question Nicola. Research has shown that when children are happy at school there were a number of direct learning benefits:

* they were better able to problem solve;

* their critical and creative thinking skills were enhanced; and

* their ability to retain and recall information was heightened.

Indeed, research shows that, biologically, happiness and other positive emotions play a critical role in cognitive functioning and processing. Moreover, when a child is happy and successful at school, it leads to greater happiness and success – the child is much more likely to be motivated at school, to collaborate and build friendships with classmates, and to troubleshoot and solve both social and academic dilemmas.

As positive psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth explain: If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network – about your friends and family and the strength of the bonds with them.

We should not really be surprised at the part happiness plays in the success our children can experience – we all know personally that when we are happy at our chosen professions, we are more productive and more successful. Perhaps we never really grow up!

NP: A big thank you, Rory for taking the time to do this interview.

RM: Thank you for inviting me Nicola. I look forward to talking to you and other parents again soon.

Over To You…

Did you find this interview helpful? Is there anything you would like to know more about or share your experiences? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can also check MoW’s Facebook Page for a Q&A session: 

Related: Creative Learning: An Interview with Cassandra Pouge