Learning through service: How MAPP students created a roadmap to resilience for public servants

Photo of MAPP road sign

During the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program, students work in small groups to partner with organizations from around the world and put their positive psychology expertise to work. Each service learning project studies the organization's structure, mission, and goals and develops an actionable plan to make an immediate impact and advance the mission. The Learning Through Service series takes a closer look at the service learning project processand what both students and clients learn from the experience.

"We're public servants," says David Leon, Director of Workforce Programs for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. "So, our question is, how do we help the public? At any time, when anyone in our agency may be on the phone with a constituent of the state of Virginia, how can we make sure those interactions are positive? And if they are unhappy, how do we make sure they feel heard?" The statewide department David directs includes business development managers, who lead job placement counselors and work with both employers and DARS clients, and support specialists who help connect vulnerable populations in the state with resources for financial empowerment, job training, and more. It is a challenging field, and state agencies across the nation are seeing trends of attrition and low recruitment. David saw a need to build his department's capacity for resilience and to cultivate a supportive work culture as their caseload rises. That's why he partnered with students in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP).

"I've always been fascinated by positive psychology and behavioral economics, and I try to weave tenets from those things into a lot of the work I do," reflects David, who has incorporated these areas into the agency’s work implementing the federal Ticket to Work program, financial empowerment services and staff development trainings related to leadership and effective communication.  David learned about the opportunity to propose a service learning project through a colleague from the National Disability Institute, who is also a MAPP alum and teaching assistant. "And I said, of course I want to write a proposal. I need all the help I can get. This is tough work!" says David. "This was the chance for us to work toward creating the kind of environment and culture that would help people feel valued and supported."

DARS Workforce Programs unit was matched with MAPP students Jon Rosemberg Kort, Kristen Lessig Schenerlein, Lara Merriken, and Kristina Shea in January 2023. By May 2023, the team submitted a detailed plan that David was immediately able to share with his colleagues and put into practice: Well-Being Roadmap: Promoting Resilience through a Culture of Mattering in the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (2023).

The process of applying positive interventions

During the five-month project, the MAPP students met online every week with a small, dedicated leadership team from DARS assembled by David. “We found that having a weekly standing meeting to implement interventions—giving the DARS team a chance to experience the benefits—would be a valuable approach if the end goal was for them to take our Well-Being Roadmap forward,” reports Kristen. David agrees. "I felt like I was learning as well," he says. "And they were all incredibly qualified, intelligent, and enthusiastic. It wasn't hard to have a recurring event from 4 to 5 at the end of many people's days—they made it fun."

One positive psychology-based intervention introduced in those meetings was Strength Spotting. “When you strength spot, you are recognizing and appreciating strengths about individual team members,” describes Lara. “This built such a foundation of positivity and trust among the team members and energized the team. It demonstrated to me the power of focusing on the strengths of individuals, and when those strengths are expressed and encouraged it makes the team stronger and more cohesive.”

Another intervention was the PERMA™ partners exercise, designed to strengthen five building blocks (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment) that support human flourishing. “Doing the PERMA assessment in our small group with the MAPP students deepened several working relationships for the staff paired together. That was a very nice thing to see,” David reports. "The gratitude and emotion that the team showed in having the opportunity to do this exercise was a huge surprise to me," observes Kristen. "The pairings supported individuals in setting goals for themselves while also creating a psychologically safe place for them to share parts of themselves that had not ever been expressed within the team. A powerful experience for us in leading as well."

Putting lessons from the MAPP curriculum into action, the power of mattering and the importance of high-quality connections became clear to project participants, and laid the foundation for building the DARS team’s resilience. From there, the framework of the project deliverable was built around the BET I CAN model (which stands for behaviors, emotions, thoughts, interactions, context, awareness, and next steps). BET I CAN provides actionable methods—such as steps to identify and challenge negative thoughts, or build personal goals that align with your organization’s goals—to promote positive behavioral change and personal resilience. "By understanding and fostering resilience, we were able to support individuals who work for DARS in navigating challenges with grit, grace, and determination," Jon explains. "Embracing resilience not only enhanced their skillset to overcome obstacles but also reinforced the belief in their inherent strength and capacity for growth."

A positive plan for action

By the end of the project, the students had completed the Well-Being Roadmap for David and his team: a user-friendly 75-page workbook that included many of the exercises the group had practiced, which can scale from one-on-one interactions to team meetings to large trainings. "It is a very robust document," says David. "We've been a part of other projects or grants where we've paid for a white paper, and this was at that level, if not higher—really quality work."

As a first step, David recalls, “we almost immediately began an awareness campaign of the work we did.” That involved presenting the roadmap at a quarterly meeting with their talent advisory board, then again at a statewide managers meeting, and then again at a meeting with senior leaders in the agency. "I want people to feel like they own it and to use what’s going to work for their teams," he says. "The beauty of what they gave us is that you can pick and choose pieces. I’ve had people from those meetings come back and say, ‘Hey, I've already started using this tool.’"

David lists a number of strategies from the roadmap that he has found personally effective and meaningful. In every staff meeting, he and other team leaders list three things that have gone well, and why. To manage anxiety about public speaking, a short breathing exercise can be calming and centering. For some meetings, listening in pairs can prepare staff members to really hear and be present with one another—a cornerstone of building high-quality connections, which his colleagues can use not only within the team but with their clients. "It's been really cool to see it building," David reflects. "I'm excited to see the next iterations of this."

A milestone for mutual flourishing

Energized by the impact DARS has seen in just the short time since receiving their roadmap, the agency is already thinking about the next round of service learning project proposals. "My hope is to build an ongoing relationship with the MAPP program while also slowly bringing more of our internal staff to be a part of it," David says. While DARS will continue to apply guidance from the roadmap to grow their internal support structures and cultivate well-being among their employees, David would also like to work with a team on promoting strength and resilience for their clients, the constituents of Virginia—particularly socially and economically vulnerable citizens navigating the workforce. “At any given time, we are working with 4,000 to 6,000 people who live on the benefits they receive from social security, which means living below the poverty line most of the time," he explains. "My interest in financial empowerment and resilience is to help the people we serve get out of poverty.”

For the MAPP students involved in the service learning project, working with a real-world organization is one of their first opportunities to put theory into practice at scale, and the experience can transform or deepen the framework for their final capstone project. From working closely with David and his team, Kristen observed that sustainable well-being strategies are most successful when they begin with organizational leadership—a lesson she applies regularly as a certified leadership coach and founder of Koi Consulting. “I also continue to focus on the team connection and creating a psychologically safe environment,” says Kristen, who has adapted and personalized the team's roadmap for use with her clients. “With that connection as a foundation, it is much more likely that any team that I work with will be successful in creating an environment where teams can flourish and thrive."

For Jon, the founder and CEO of Strongpoint Group, a global advisory firm focused on strategy and operations, the project emphasized his interest in mental health support. “The experience not only enriched my capstone research but also shaped my approach to professional and community work outside of the MAPP program, emphasizing the importance of exploring holistic and groundbreaking approaches to human flourishing,” he says. “This project was deeply moving to me personally,” adds Lara, founder of LÄRABAR energy bars. “I left the project energized about what is possible for this organization and how positive psychology can make a lasting impact on their team."

For more information on the Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree program and how MAPP students make a difference in the world with the science of well-being, please visit www.upenn.edu/mapp.