University of South Florida

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USF students help local youth practice evidence-based happiness strategies through class project

USF student working with elementary student on happiness strategies

Since its launch in 2014, students in the USF course "Positive Psychology in Schools" have served as counselor trainees to students in seven partner schools through Hillsborough County Public Schools.

TAMPA, Fla. – This spring, about 100 students in the College of Education are providing school-aged youth with evidence-based tools to improve their overall happiness.

Shannon Suldo, PhD, a professor in the School Psychology program at USF, says the class, “Positive Psychology in Schools,” was created with a two-fold purpose: to share the field of positive psychology with USF students and to serve children in the Tampa Bay community.

“Positive psychology is a newer discipline within psychology that’s preventative, promotive and wellness-enhancing,” Dr. Suldo said. “By having a service-learning component in the course, students are able to apply the strategies they learn and develop professionalism.”

Since its launch in 2014, students in the course have served as counselor trainees to students in seven partner schools in Hillsborough County. Last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the project shifted to a virtual model and is now open to any child in grades 3-12 who wants to increase their personal happiness.

USF graduate student Alexis Elvy, a course instructor working alongside Dr. Suldo, says child participants will engage in a 30-minute session with a counselor trainee once a week for 10 weeks.

Sessions will take place on Zoom and activities follow a timeline that focuses on fostering happiness in the past, present and future.

“So, when we talk about promoting happiness in the past, we do activities that are related to gratitude,” Elvy said. “Keeping a gratitude journal and doing a gratitude visit, which involves (having participants) write a letter of gratitude to someone in their life and then delivering it, is how we can start promoting happiness in our present lives.”

In the “present” period of the project, children participate in activities like choosing one day to practice five acts of kindness, taking a survey to identify their strengths and brainstorming ways to use those strengths more often and creatively.

In the final weeks of the project, participants are guided by their USF student counselor to think about what happiness could look like in the times ahead.

“There’s an optimism session that we often reserve for middle school and high school children, and it’s focused on reframing the way we think about certain events,” Elvy said. “We then do a hope activity where they imagine their best possible self in the future, and we create goals so that they can work to achieve that best possible self.”

The tools past participants received gave them opportunities to appreciate the individuals around them. They also gained a clear understanding of what happiness is and how it’s attained.

For USF students who take the course, their experience in the service-learning project is just as rewarding.

Teaching participant Yamilex Bardales, a senior who’s majoring in Psychology, says the time she spent with her six-year-old student has motivated her to think about the impact she wants to make in her life.

“Though I still have plenty to learn, I feel as though I have a greater sense of what school psychologists do and how they work towards supporting students in an academic setting,” Bardales said. “(The project) has pushed me to consider a career in the field.”

Alexa Petrie, a school psychology graduate student who was a former participant in the project as an undergraduate, said the intervention allowed her to witness her student become more positive and happier each week.

“I think the hands-on experience with students is very important,” Petrie said. “I probably benefitted from it just as much as my child did.”

To sign-up your child for the Happiness Tools Project, please contact Dr. Shannon Suldo at by Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.