Happy Boxes by Nicky: Achieving well-being through promoting joy

The aim of this blog is to support education professionals to promote the well-being of their pupils with severe autistic spectrum conditions through encouraging development of the self, spirituality, not in the sense of religious practice but relating to the mind, a growing understanding of personality.

In her book, Ways of the Spirit, Siobhan. Bryant, D, ed. Suggests that a core element of the spirituality of each of us is the self. For people with autism in special schools, with limited communication or interaction with their peers the sense of self can be ignored as an important area for development. Dr Peter Vermeulen points out that interventions, such as the activities we use in special schools, tend to be measured by the assessment of measurable aspects such as number and degree of autism symptoms, levels of cognitive functioning, skills and behaviour. However, in focussing on these areas we fail to support our learners in the important area of well-being and happiness. To read his article go to: http://network.autism.org.uk/knowledge/insight-opinion/promoting-happiness-autistic-people

Dr Vermeulen, working from the perspective of positive psychology suggests that we should concentrate on developing strategies to help our learners experience happiness. Of course, happiness can mean something different to each individual and be derived from a myriad of different experiences – one person’s dream is another’s nightmare (think Marmite or peanut butter dipped in celery!)

If we are going to succeed in teaching learners how to modify their feelings in times of stress then we must help them to experience and identify positive feelings such as joy.

Happy boxes

Teacher, Nicky R, completed a Mental health research project in 2016 with the aim of identifying a practical resource useful in supporting young learners with profound learning difficulties.

She came up with Happy Boxes to help promote spiritual well-being in learners with ASC and profound learning difficulties.

Nicky focussed on connecting with people and taking notice, both factors identified through research evidence as being helpful in improving well-being and resilience by the New Economics Foundation (2008).

She decorated and filled boxes with ‘happy’ stimuli, objects or references to activities chosen for the learner to enjoy by using a happiness checklist in conjunction with their family. Staff conducted observations of the learners using their happy boxes reporting an increase in energy, facial movements and pleasure, unhappiness seemed to decrease.

To make this activity work in an autism specific classroom each learner will require their own box with chosen items in it, families and previous teachers may offer advice about what to offer the learner but they should have the final say over what goes in it.

Learning objective can be around making choices, communicating choices, recognising photos of themselves and others, recognising specific facial expressions, matching these to symbols representing facial expressions.

Extend this activity by using the happy boxes as a prompt to build a feelings wall display. Have a large section of wall devoted to the things that make us happy, consider having a small section of wall displaying things that make me sad. You may want to cover this with a curtain/sheet of card and put a warning on the outside with a sad face on it.


What follows is Nicky’s original project.

  • Mental Health Research Project
  • 2016


This short research project briefly looks at what mental health is and how it affects learners with profound and complex disabilities. The aim of this research is to identify a practical resource which will be useful in supporting 2 young learners whom have profound multiple learning needs within a Special School in Cornwall. The learners will take on fictitious names throughout this project in respect of confidentiality.


Facts – All people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities will have a greater difficulty communicating. Many of these people will have additional sensory or physical disabilities, complex health needs or mental health difficulties. The combination of these needs and/or the lack of the right support may also affect behaviour. 

    Children and adolescents with learning disabilities are over six times more

likely to have a mental health problem than their peers who do not have                                                  learning disabilities

(Children and young people with learning disabilities -understanding their mental health DFE)

 Children and young people with learning disabilities may not understand their feelings and often find it hard to communicate these feelings.


What is our mental health?

 We all have mental health. Mental health relates to how we think, feel, behave and interact with other people.


Where young people have a good mental health they are likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing.


This doesn’t mean that they will be happy all the time or not experience negative emotions such as grief or loss as these are a normal part of life. It simply means if a learner has high levels of wellbeing they are more likely to be able to cope better if they experience such feelings which will have less impact on their mental health.


It can be helpful to understand wellbeing as being made up of two key elements:


  • Feeling good
  • Functioning well

Feeling good means experiencing positive emotions like happiness, contentment and enjoyment. It also includes feelings like curiosity, engagement and safety.

Functioning well is about how a person is able to function in the world. This includes having positive relationships and social connections, as well as feeling in control of your life and having a sense of purpose.


How can we help?

Through this research project my aim is to provide a resource which can enhance good mental health through supporting and focusing on a learner’s emotional wellbeing and happiness.


The New Economics Foundation (2008) has identified and set out five evidence-based things that we can do to improve wellbeing and resilience. These are:


  1. Connect– with the people around you, family, friends and community
  2. Be active –exercise makes you feel good
  3. Take notice – catch sight of something beautiful…the seasons, a smell, sound
  4. Keep learning – try something new
  5. Give – smile, do something nice for someone


We will be concentrating on connecting and taking notice, however the hope is that the resource will also encourage the learner to be active, be engaged to learn, have fun and smile!

We are all unique and our brains are therefore ‘wired’ differently which means we will all view the world in a variety of different ways. This will also mean that we have different values and emotions…however it is fact that we are all at our happiest when we feel secure, valued, safe and in a happy anxiety-free environment. It is here and only here where our moods and emotions can be channelled usefully and productively.


Emotions are identified in 6 major areas and were portrayed beautifully in the Disney film ‘Inside Out’ (2015):


       Joy (pleasure)fearsurprisedisgustangersadness


The resource I wanted to make would focus predominately on happiness which is part of ‘joy’ and to enable me to gauge what made a learner happy I needed to partake in number of observations on them.


Why a Happy Box?

It’s important to remember that emotions like happiness are very powerful and take superiority over all that happens in our brains. If a learner is happy it can therefore provide an optimum framework for learning.


The Resource

When doing this research I was well aware that Teachers and class teams did not need any additional pressures to produce more resources for learners – it needed to be ‘ready to go’!  Therefore, with great thought and prior successes from a resource ‘the happy box’ I trialled in the Early Years Department, I will be developing this resource with the support of the learners Parent/Carers.


Firstly I liaised with the Josh and Jordan’s parents and we discussed the project and suggested the idea of creating a personal ‘happy’ box. We went through the happiness checklist and also started this at school. Brief observations were taken over a period of time using the sheets enclosed. Happiness could be seen by observing an increase in energy, facial movements and pleasure whereas unhappiness seemed to display a drop in energy, decreased enthusiasm, not wanting to take part in activities, withdrawal and sad faces.


The chosen box was decorated with the parents and learners together. Josh was particularly excited as his was shiny – a known visual like – and Jordan’s    was painted in ultra violet paint with a tactile quality to support his severe visual impairment. We had a team meeting and went over the idea behind the boxes and went through the happy box guidelines.


Happy Box Guidelines – How to create a ‘Happy Box’ sensory tool


Start a baseline assessmentyou can use the enclosed observation sheets or make your own up


Making the box

Make the box itself personal to the learner – favourite colour/texture/pictures. A shoe box is a good start. The learner can be as involved as much or as little as they want in this part. They can do this at home with a parent or carer. If preferred any item can be used to store ‘happy items’   – a bag, special box.



Parent or carer involvement is crucial to the beneficial effects of this box, as they know their child the best and can provide a wealth of knowledge and ideas in which to put in this special box.


A happy box is full of great sensory items and much more to awaken, integrate and stimulate the senses with the emotion of happiness as being the main focus or intent. THE THINGS WHICH YOU HAVE OBSERVED.


The happy box can be shared with the learners’ peers at any time with the aim to help others understand what makes their friends happy. The idea is that it is shared with the learner over the course of the day – not timetabled but led by the child or young adult. The aspirational intention would be for the learner to work towards making a request using their own form of communication for their happy box.


What to put in

A good happy box should have:


  • Movements that I like – Fine motor (manipulatives for use by the hands), spinning top, riding.
  • Multi-Sensory – items with different textures and feelings known to the learner as a ‘like’, taste, smells, what I like to see
  • Personal Words/sounds I like hear – which are known to make that learner smile/giggle. These could be recorded on talking tin lids.
  • Appropriate touch like from humans – tickles, firm touch, blowing my fingers
  • Personal music – favourite songs put on a CD or rhymes noted down which can be sung by a familiar adult
  • Class team observations – brief notes on what has been seen to make that learner happy – this maybe a walk to see a particular person in school
  • NOT EVERY ITEM IN THE BOX NEEDS TO BE AN OBJECT – SEE ABOVE –it can be a statement i.e. I like it when you blow on my fingers


Using a happy box to fulfil its maximum benefit:


Where are you planning to use it? The happy box can be taken anywhere


What would you like to accomplish with it – Feelings of emotional happiness therapeutic …play…sharing…exploration…


Have you explained the purpose of the happy box to the learner? Can they share it with anyone? Can they request the box as needed?


Checking that items are in the box are clean and discussed with learners parents when it’s reviewed or updated to re-interest learners.


Size – small enough to be portable…individual to the learner





There is very little research on happiness and learners with special multi-needs. Conclusions were simple – when Josh and Jordan were given their ‘happy boxes’ for short periods throughout a day to explore, sometimes alone, sometimes with peers, it was clear to observe an increase in happiness. Their emotional happiness was an excellent framework for learning providing the optimum environment for learning. When both Josh and Jordan were happy they were keen to engage, interact and respond.


The ‘happiness’ assessments can be further used to plan and extend activities in the class i.e. we knew that Josh showed joy when he heard funny noises therefore this was to be included into an intensive interaction session for him.


Parental involvement proved crucial in developing these ‘happy boxes’  and to help in interpreting the learners behaviour i.e. Jordan would scream out and cry when he felt anything crackly or shiny…during conversation his mum recalled how he loved crackly items and noises so much that he would cry with delight and happiness when given. At school staff interpreted this initially as a stimulus that Jordan did not like. Partnership conversations could be used to engage with the parents in the exploratory stage if they were clearly discussed as happiness…these could then be reviewed regularly.


I feel if we do a baseline assessment on our learners’ happiness these indicators can help us ensure that we offer these elements of happiness within learning experiences within our specialist curriculum. These observations need to be used to build up a picture of happiness over time.


Overall the ‘happiness boxes’ were excellent in becoming a ‘quick grab resource’ during downtime or in providing quick bursts of happiness throughout the day which can be easily incorporated into the learners individual curriculum plan. The team were very optimistic about the positive impact this project could have on all learners and found the guidelines and recording sheets easy to follow and understand.


It is a resource which could become part of an admissions activity within the first partnership conversation and also created with the support and close liaison of our family support worker.


We must enable each individual to engage with their world and to   achieve their potential so that their lives go beyond being ‘cared for’ to being valued for who they are as people (Mencap 2010)

Nicky 2016


Children and young people with learning disabilities – Understanding their

Mental health DFE


The New Economics Foundation (2008), Five Ways to Wellbeing: The Evidence


National Association of Special Schools (2013) Making Sense of Mental Health. Accessed October 2013.









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