Learn how ACT can be helpful for working with students on their personal development with this article and activity from Jez Belas.

When starting our school wellbeing platform, we knew we wanted to make a digital solution that provided something more. An app that not only monitored mood but gave support to help students improve and flourish. Enter our wellbeing director and NHS Clinical Psychologist, Dr Alistair Bailie (Dr Bear). His work with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has placed the practice at the forefront of our approach to safeguard pupil wellbeing and has inspired the development of our most recent free KS3-4 worksheet, the 80th birthday exercise.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that combines mindfulness strategies with behavioural change techniques. It was developed in the late 1980s by Steven C. Hayes and his colleagues. ACT is based on the idea that psychological suffering is often caused by the struggle to control or avoid unwanted thoughts and emotions. It aims to help individuals develop psychological flexibility, which involves accepting their experiences and committing to actions that align with their personal values. The goal of ACT is not to eliminate or suppress unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but to change the relationship with them.

 

Why can ACT be particularly useful to use in school settings?

ACT can be helpful when working with students for a number of reasons:

  1. Flexibility and adaptability: It is a dynamic approach that can be tailored to the unique needs and developmental stage of each young person.
  2. Acceptance of emotions: The therapy’s techniques help young people develop acceptance and non-judgmental awareness of how they feel.
  3. Values-driven action: ACT focuses on helping young people identify their core values and make choices aligned with those values.
  4. Developing psychological resilience: It equips young people with skills to build psychological resilience and cope effectively with stress.
  5. Mindfulness and self-awareness: The therapy incorporates mindfulness practices that can enhance a better understanding of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This increased self-awareness can lead to young people having improved emotional regulation and better decision-making.
  6. Interactivity: ACT frequently uses experiential exercises, metaphors and interactive activities that can be engaging and enjoyable.

What is the ’80th birthday exercise’?

The ACT classic 80th birthday exercise is a unique way to reflect on your values and purpose. This activity involves imagining that you are celebrating your 80th birthday and looking back on your own life. Through a gentle series of thought experiments, it asks you to consider what you want to be remembered for and what you would like your legacy to be.

How might this help children and young people?

Whilst this exercise can be helpful for people of all ages, we find it is great for young people in schools, as it can help to clarify what’s most important to them. It’s a creative and inventive introduction to values and gives students the freedom to self-reflect and explore. There’s no right or wrong answer to any of the questions posed during the exercise, making it a very flexible and personalised experience. Asking students to try this can help them to clarify their feelings and ensure that their actions align with their values. For example, if a student imagines themself at 80 years old and realises that they want to be remembered for their kindness, this can help them to focus on goals and actions to promote this.

How else can it help?

Beyond simply discovering their values, the 80th birthday exercise can have a broader impact on student wellbeing and personal development. As it involves posing questions about their life and their ideal self, the 80th birthday exercise often provokes pupils to express an increased level of self-compassion and understanding. It can be a great opportunity for students to reduce an internal narrative of self-criticism, enhance their self-esteem

Furthermore, we’ve found that pupils are more motivated to make a positive difference after thinking about their values. This can lead to pupil-led volunteer projects and a kinder school community. Volunteering in turn can boost how we feel, in fact, The National Council for Voluntary Organisations shares that, ‘77% of volunteers in 2019 stated that their work improved their mental health and wellbeing.’1

R.I.S.E. Magazine readers can download the youHQ ’80th birthday’ resource FREE and take their first step towards using ACT.

Preview of the 'Your 80th birthday party activity sheet' Some text is visible that reads: "This is an exercise to help you identify your personal values. You'll need a little imagination and a lot of willingness to think in a big, very abstract way. Identifying personal values can be tricky. It's natural to feel worries about getting it right or wrong. Let's put that aside for a moment and agree to be curious. Be willing to explore and consider what might be important for you right now, knowing that this won't be perfect - it's simply a first go! WHOOOOSH! You've been transported to the future. Today's your 80th birthday and you're having a party!"

References

1 McGarvey. A et al., (2019) Time Well Spent; A National Survey on the Volunteer Experience, Available at: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/news-and-insights/news-index/time-well-spent-national-survey-volunteer-experience/volunteer-impacts/#/ (Accessed: 23 May 2023)

Author

  • Jez Belas

    With over 15 years' experience in education, Jez is the co-founder of youHQ, the school wellbeing and personal development platform. Passionate about wellbeing through acceptance and commitment therapy and exercise, he is committed to the belief that better education comes from happy children and teachers.
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