Hudson Middle School principal Keith Bowen noticed a disturbing trend a couple of years ago.
"A lot of our achievement scores hadn’t changed, despite all our efforts."
Test scores are one thing. But then Bowen noticed more troubling trends.
"We started to hear about the opioid crisis. There were a lot of students who lost a parent, partly because of opioid use, partly due to suicide."
In other words, students were dealing with challenges bigger than algebraic equations.
"They were coming in under a cloud of things happening outside of school and trying to deal with that and trying to learn at the same time. It wasn’t working."
Around this time, Bowen heard about a program from the Greater Nashua YMCA for elementary school kids to boost self-esteem.
He spent the next couple of years with the YMCA and Rivier University to develop a similar program for middle schoolers.
The theory behind it is simple. When kids are happy, they perform better in school.
"Let’s sit in the living room."
That’s Erin Mitchell, with the YMCA. She stands in a room that looks nothing like a typical middle school. The space is furnished with powder-blue couches, ruby-red chairs, a couple of cafe tables and stools.
"We’re going to talk about our strengths and our wishes."
Mitchell - who on this spring morning, wears a basketball jersey and athletic shorts - spreads a deck of picture cards on a table.
"What I want you to do is if you see a picture that describes something you’re really good at, grab it, come back and we’ll talk about it. Who wants to go first?"
Seventh grader Olivia Gentile latches onto a photo of a nurse treating a patient.
"One of my strengths is helping people. Like, I’m going to help pack for the troops this weekend," she tells Mitchell.
The students also journal, meditate to reduce stress and reflect on what it means to be kind.
Andrea Mousseau of Rivier says the nine-week class helps students to think differently about how to grow their talents.
"I’m not good at this yet, but if I learn and I work and I practice, I can develop the skills I need."
Of course, there’s a flip-side to confidence and persistence, says Mousseau.
Bullies are persistent, too.
That’s why she says students receive praise for their efforts.
"We’re teaching them about the power of doing nice things for other people. When we’re teaching them to be confident, it’s in character strengths we know tend to help people do well."
The class ends and students spill into the wide hallway with a mix of exuberance and caution. They’re still figuring out where they fit in.
Mallory Busnach is twelve. Her rocky start to middle school was typical.
"It was nerve-racking. I was terrified."
When she failed to grasp a concept in class, she froze.
"It’s hard to ask a teacher. It really is. Some people get scared people are going to tease them because they don’t understand something."
But then she joined Mitchell’s class. An activity where other kids described her traits changed everything.
"Some of them said I was brave. Definitely a shock. I didn’t think it was. It just makes you feel good about yourself."
"Do you think before taking this program, you would have done this radio interview?"
"I don’t think I would be. I think I would be very, very scared."
In a recent Education Week survey, nearly all teachers said they’d like to use a positive psychology approach like this one in their classrooms. But less than 20 percent said they have the resources.
In Hudson, the middle school provided the space and the YMCA supplied the instructor.
The program costs around 75 thousand dollars to run, and those funds came from private grants.
Hudson is partnering with middle schools in Nashua and Merrimack to expand the program. The key, they say, is to reach kids when they’re young and malleable, because those struggling now are more likely to drop out in high school.