Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lessons from WDW #9: Positive Messaging

I've been thinking a lot about student happiness lately. We know that students learn better when they feel comfortable and happy. I also contend that learning itself can create happiness, but there are undeniably factors that can influence a child's happiness that are out of our control. When a child is unhappy because of external forces, there isn't much that we as educators can do in the short term except listen to the child, help them find the resources they need to address their unhappiness, and advocate for them when others don't. Admittedly, that itself is a tall order.

But I'm more interested in the ways that we can help to support and elevate a child's happiness more generally. How do we inspire happiness in a kid who doesn't feel unhappy, but whose mood is not yet determined? How do we create an environment that promotes happy moods?

As is usual with these posts, I'm taking as my muse the work of the folks at Walt Disney World. Based on my experiences at the Disney parks, I believe I can point to some very intentional choices that the Disney folks have made to try to ensure that park guests are prone to having a happy experience even when other factors (crowds, heat, toddler meltdowns) might lead them in a different direction. I also believe that many of these choices can be understood as intentional positive messaging.

What Disney Does

The experience that started me on this thought-tangent was riding in the car with my children, listening to a Disney playlist on my iPod. The kids were all singing along (I was, too), and I was struck by how many songs had positive, life and self-affirming messages. This led me to think about the many times I've found myself happily singing along to Disney standards at Downtown Disney. The songs they pump through the speakers there (as well as the live music offerings) all have the effect of elevating mood. This isn't surprising, of course. We've known for a long time that music can affect mood. This is the reason you won't walk into a retail store or restaurant without discovering a carefully curated soundtrack for your shopping or dining pleasure. What makes the Disney version of this so pronounced is that the music is not only happy in meaning and tone, but it is also associated with happy memories the listener has with the narratives (rides and movies) that the music represents. Taken all together, a playlist of Disney songs becomes a potent mixture of memory, verbal cues, and musical reinforcement.

If you don't believe me, spend a little time with this playlist:

Another way that Disney reinforces positive emotions is through the written messaging that happens throughout the park. Not only are there signs that politely guide guest movement from place to place, but there are all sorts of written cues across the parks and in the lines that subtly share positive messages. Over and over, words like "Magical," "Enchanted," "Pleasure, " and "Wonder" appear in written messages that visitors see. The vocabulary of Disney is purposeful, and its positive slant finds its way even into attractions that might otherwise have a darker tone (I'm thinking of the "Happy Haunts" in the Haunted Mansion).

Another visual tool that Disney uses to affect mood is the color palette from which they work. Again, this isn't much of a surprise given the amount of research that exists on the psychological affects of color, and also given the artistic talent that fuels Disney design. In the parks, color itself can be a playful source of joy, from the changing colors of the lights that reflect off of Cinderella's Castle at night to the colorful interactive structures that follow the Journey Into Imagination ride. The stimulus-rich environments that the Imagineers craft not only combat boredom, but they actively engage the mind.

Perhaps the most remarkable tools that Disney has at its disposal for promoting positive messages are the many cast members who interact with the guests every day. I can honestly say that I have never had a negative interaction with any cast member, whether it be a character, a food server, a shop clerk or a street-sweeper. They are always impeccably polite, helpful, happy, engaging and quick to step in and make a difficult moment (like a toddler meltdown) better. The feat here, of course, is that they are all humans. They can't possibly be that happy all of the time. Yet, I've never seen a crack in that facade. I suspect that it is a combination of genuine enjoyment of their jobs, exhaustive training, immersion in such a positive culture, and a true desire to be a good host. Whatever it is, the cast members make a visit to Disney that much more enjoyable when in other places the staff do not. Service with a smile is alive and well in Walt Disney World.

I'm sure I could go on, but these examples alone make it clear that Disney has been very thoughtful and thorough when it comes to promoting happiness among its guests. To some, this type of skewed emotional messaging can come off as saccharine, but Disney is so complete in their approach to this that it's hard to fight the effects over time. They don't call Walt Disney World the Happiest Place on Earth for nothing.

How Can We Do This In Education?

This leads me back to my original question. How do we do the same thing for our students? Are we capable of creating an environment that reinforces positive emotions for our learners? To what extent do we use music, language, signage, color, and our personal interactions to create a space in which children are happy to be with us? Can we create a culture of playful exploration where students are less likely to be derailed by difficulty, boredom, or discomfort?

While I recognize that the Disney folks have an amazing set of resources at their disposal to put into that work that schools typically do not, I do think that as educators, we can take a critical look at how we shape our environment and our interactions with kids to enhance their mood and prepare them for learning. I'd encourage any educator to go through the following exercise and see what it reveals about the emotional messages we are sending to kids:

Ask yourself:

  • What do my students hear in my classroom/school, and what impact might that have on their mood?
  • What messages are visible in my classroom/school, and what is the tone of the language in those messages? What are the key words that students see throughout the day in my classroom/school?
  • What do my students see in my classroom/school? What colors are there? What shapes? Is there variety? Is the environment whimsical or stark? What are the implied messages of what my students see in my classroom/school?
  • When I or my colleagues talk to students, what does that sound like? What is the tone? Am I/are we contributing to an environment that feels comfortable/safe/happy? What types of voices are my students hearing everyday?
  • When I look at my students, do I see evidence of happiness? Do my students look stressed? Depressed? Engaged? Excited? What messages are my students sending me about my classroom/school?
  • To what extent is my students' happiness a priority to myself, my colleagues, my school? If it is, what is my evidence for that? If it isn't what is my solution to that?
  • If my students drew a picture of my classroom/school, what would it look like? And what would that tell me?
  • What can I do to make sure that the learning space I am responsible for represents my hopes for kids.
In the end, I feel certain that we all want students who are happy and ready to learn, but I also realize how difficult it is to ensure that for a majority of students daily in an environment that prioritizes other things. We're human, and the work can be frustrating. But I also feel certain that when we are purposeful in how we create the messages we want to send, we are more successful than when we don't pay attention to these details.

photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc
photo credit: ~Beekeeper~ via photopin cc
photo credit: mickeyavenue via photopin cc
photo credit: @edrethink via flickr cc

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