Building A Positive Institution

KIPP classroom in Houston, TX

By Dave Levin, KIPP Co-Founder

“Positive institutions facilitate the development and display of positive traits, which in turn facilitate positive subjective experiences.”

This quotation, shared in Chris Peterson’s, A Primer on Positive Psychology has had an incredible impact on both my professional and personal life. I agree with everything except one word: “trait.” I prefer the term “strength” or “skill.” “Trait” often makes us think about eye color or height… a fixed characteristic. But “strength” or “skill” implies that the characteristic can increase over time. I’ve come to the conclusion based on the leading research in the field of positive psychology and my own experience as an educator, that most character strengths can be developed.

The best schools strive to create an environment where students, staff, and community members feel positive, are engaged with their surroundings, form relationships with others, ascribe meaning to what they do, and feel a sense of accomplishment. These are the essential components of what Dr. Martin Seligman calls human flourishing. In his recent book, Flourish, Dr. Seligman creates the acronym PERMA to describe flourishing – Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Our challenge as educators is: how do we help ourselves and our students achieve PERMA?

In February, I’ll be hosting a Relay GSE Massive Open Online (and free!) Course* that explores the question of how to develop character and create positive classrooms. We’ll introduce key concepts from the field of positive psychology and demonstrate how great K-12 teachers apply those lessons to maximize student engagement and accomplishment. We’ve got great interviews with some of the amazing psychologists who have helped us with our work. We have incredible classroom footage and conversations with K-12 teachers from public charter schools, New York City Department of Education, the Riverdale Country School, and a public Montessori school.

Over the last two years, in collaboration with incredible public and private school educators and many of our country’s leading psychologists and researchers – including Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Shelley Gable, Walter Mischel, Martin Seligman, Greg Walton, and David Yeager – we’ve developed the idea that what allows educators to create positive classrooms and schools is fostering two seemingly opposite things: macro-structures and micro-moments.

Macro-structures are proactively planned structures, systems, and routines that have been created—explicitly or implicitly—with the goal of developing character. For example, many KIPP schools hold Friday awards ceremonies where students are recognized for having demonstrated key character strengths during the previous week. Other examples of macro-structures include leadership or character classes, extracurricular activities with a character focus, dual-purpose lessons, or structured independent practice sessions for students.

Micro-moments are the moment-to-moment interactions in our daily lives between teacher and students. For example, a student might exhibit self-control when they solve a difficult algebra problem in math. These interactions are unstructured and unscripted, but they can still be influenced by an organization’s culture. At KIPP, based on our experience as teachers and students, and in collaboration with the psychologists mentioned above, we have identified three ways to increase the likelihood of a positive micro-moment:

  • Respond constructively. Be intentional (and as often as possible positive) with your words, body language, and tone of voice while engaging with students.
  • Keep a growth mindset. Focus on student effort, reinforce effective and repeatable strategies, and encourage students to proactively seek help.
  • Use character behavior language. It’s great to integrate the language of character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity— into daily conversation inside and outside of class. It’s even better to use the repeatable behavior language the helps build these strengths – i.e.– getting over your frustration, working independently with focus, etc…

Dr. Peterson contends that positive institutions facilitate the development of both individuals and entire organizations. This is one of the reasons that the idea of positive institutions possesses such power for our schools and classrooms. We can think of creating positive institutions as an essential part of our jobs as school leaders and teachers. In turn, these positive institutions enable students and staff to flourish, both individually and as teams.

We are excited to share what we’ve learned about creating positive structures and moments to help students build character. We hope you’ll join us online!

Click here to learn more.

One love,


*Since publishing this post, the MOOC is not currently running but you can add your name to the wait list to find out when it will run again!