The Third Path

The 8 Conditions of The Third Path: A Relationship-Based Approach to Student Well-being and Achievement by David Tranter, PhD

We want our children to be successful at school, and we expect that school will help prepare our children to be successful in life. So, how can schools best foster success in all students?

First, it is important to define what we actually mean by success. It turns out that most of us—whether we are parents or educators—are notoriously poor at understanding success, or knowing how to achieve it. For example, consider the happiness u-curve. Studies show that, despite our best efforts, most of us spend much of our adult lives experiencing a declining sense of psychological well-being.

Psychological Well-being chart

The first half of our adulthood is spent running on the hedonic treadmill. This is the term that describes our never-ending pursuit of an improved standard of living. We strive to get a job, then a better one. We struggle to buy a home—and then realize we need a granite countertop! No matter how hard we work to improve our lives, the treadmill never ends. We rarely feel successful, because there is always more to pursue.

It’s usually not until mid-life that we finally start to get wise. We stop defining ourselves by our possessions or accomplishments or status. We stop comparing ourselves to others. We begin to see that our own path is unique. Our life is not better or worse than anyone else. It’s simply different. And it’s this difference that make us who we truly are. We start to live life on our own terms. When we finally stop chasing success—ironically—we start to feel more successful than ever.

There is a version of the hedonic treadmill in education too. It could be called the achievement treadmill. Educators feel pressure—along with their students—to chase an elusive image of the successful adult. The treadmill is powered by the promise (and veiled threat): The better students do at school, the better they will do in life! Progress is also measured by accomplishments and status. But here, it’s about constantly delivering more curriculum, always improving student grades, and implementing yet another education initiative. And, like the u-curve, even when students are successful academically, neither student nor educator may feel successful personally. There is always more to do. As a result, educator burnout is high, and more students than ever feel anxious and depressed.

Getting off the achievement treadmill means doing different, instead of more. The Third Path encourages educators to rethink the what, how and why of education. It starts by clarifying that the curriculum (i.e., the what) shouldn’t be narrowly viewed as a series of tasks, initiatives, or checklists. It should be a flexible tool used to achieve the true goal of education (i.e., the why)—that of human development. In order to truly facilitate the unique development of each student, what matters most is how the curriculum is taught. The Third Path clarifies the how of education by emphasizing the critical importance of relationships, as well as outlining the Eight Conditions that support learning and development for every student.

What_How_why to the third path

Each condition represents a set of basic human needs that, together, creates an environment in which all students can truly thrive. The conditions are closely connected and hierarchical, meaning that each supports the next. The conditions begin with the most fundamental of developmental needs and build to those that are of a higher order. If a student continues to struggle in an area related to one condition, then the difficulty might lie within a condition that precedes it.

The Eight Conditions of The Third Path:

1)   Safety:

Students require more than physical safety; they need emotional safety too. They need to know that the adults in their lives truly care and are responsive to their needs.

2)   Regulation:

Stress is a necessary part of growth, and learning how to regulate—to successfully recognize and address stress—is a critical and lifelong challenge. School provides an opportunity to help students recognize their signs of stress, understand its impact, and develop successful coping strategies.

3)   Belonging:

The more connecting experiences students have, the more they feel they belong. Belonging can be strengthened by increasing the number and depth of connecting experiences that the student has with the school, their educators, and their peers.

4)   Positivity:

Positivity leads students to be motivated and open to discovery. For educators, positivity is about spreading the joy of learning and believing in the extraordinary uniqueness and potential in each and every student.

5)   Engagement:

Engagement is about being fully open to learning, connected to others, able to take on complex challenges, and reach conclusions that are thoughtful and accurate. Engagement doesn’t just lead students to make good decisions—it also provides them with a deeper sense of satisfaction and confidence.

6)   Identity:

School is important for students’ exposure to a variety of ways of being, and for them to develop a stronger sense of who they truly are. They begin to form an identity that is their own, as well as come to appreciate and support the similarities and differences between themselves and others.

7)   Mastery:

Successful learning and development requires a sense of self-efficacy. Students need regular and accurate feedback along the way. Recognizing the value of effort and experiencing success is critical to maintaining motivation to learn.

8)   Meaning:

Meaning: Meaning is a powerful force for ongoing motivation and personal fulfillment. Students are much more likely to commit to lifelong learning and personal development when they are able to experience the intrinsic value of the activities they engage in.

Success comes in many forms. When we pursue it narrowly, it often remains elusive and frustrating. However, if we focus on creating an environment for it to flourish, it can then happen in ways that are numerous and unexpected. Focusing on strengthening the Eight Condition (the how of learning and human development), better enables the curriculum (the what of education) to be delivered in a way that best supports all students to thrive at school and in life.

(To learn more about the Eight Conditions and the Third Path of education, check out the new book from Nelson called The Third Path: A Relationship-Based Approach to Student Well-being and Achievement. The book is also accompanied by a series of practical Educator Classroom Strategy Guides—one for each of the Eight Conditions. Go to to learn more.)