How Children Succeed “Book Club” Part 6 – Optimism

This past year I taught a sixth grade student whose demeanor mimicked Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh. Argentina could have won the World Cup (he was a huge Messi fan), but this particular student still would have found something to be pessimistic about. The student’s outlook influenced both his behavior and his academic performance. While our grade-level team continuously sought ways to support this student, I regretfully admit that at the end of the school year, the student’s attitude hadn’t changed much, if at all. In reflecting, I realize that while we knew the student needed a strong dose of optimism, we didn’t necessarily give him the tools to become more optimistic.
 
So what exactly is optimism? And, more importantly, what tools can educators use to help students cultivate optimism?
 
Optimism Defined
 
At one syllable, grit seems to be the catch word of choice in conversations surrounding character strengths. Yet, optimism is one of the drivers behind grit. According to Character Lab, someone who embodies the character strength optimism:
 

  1. attributes problems to temporary and changeable causes rather than explaining them in what Martin Seligman calls “the three P’s” – permanent, personal, and pervasive
  2. expects good things from others, the world, and the future
  3. can overcome obstacles to reach goals

 
Application to College Success
 
In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough refers to Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, one of the primary scholars behind positive psychology and character strengths research. Seligman argues that optimism is a learnable skill and that pessimistic individuals can train themselves to be more hopeful. The result, Seligman says, is a happier, healthier, more successful life. Character Lab further articulates the benefits of optimism by noting that it promotes greater persistence on academic tasks and higher academic achievement as well as better physical health and a lower risk of anxiety and depression.
 
Opportunities and Strategies for Developing Optimism
 

  • Create a positive, stable, caring environment. Some of the research behind optimism concerns children’s parents, whether or not a caring environment is created, and whether the parents allow the children to encounter difficult or painful experiences, rather than stepping in. While instructors cannot control a student’s home environment, we can ensure that we create positive, stable environments at school in which students feel known and cared for. For specific ideas related to building strong relationships read our posts “Building Relationships with All Students” and “The Relationship Side of Results.”

 

  • Help students develop more positive thinking patterns. Our previous post in the series already touched on this, but it’s worth mentioning again. I’ve found that one of the best tools for leading students to change their mindsets and thinking patterns is to repeatedly guide them to craft more positive statements to replace those statements that fall into “the three P’s” category. For example, if a student gets stuck and says, ‘I’m not good at math,’ having them reposition the statement as, ‘I need more practice to master this math concept.’ This won’t happen within a class period, or within a week; it takes persistence and consistency for both the instructor and the student(s).

 

  • Give students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. If students don’t experience failure and learn from that failure, they will struggle to develop resiliency when obstacles occur. Giving students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in order to cultivate a more optimistic outlook can happen in two capacities. First, leverage your conversations with students when they’ve made a bad choice. Guide students to reflect on the changeable actions that led them to make the choice as well as how they can avoid the behavior in the future. Secondly, even though there is an abundance of knowledge and skills to cover within a given year, prioritize building in time for students to go back and correct their work to learn from their mistakes and experience increased success. And when students are successful after mistakes, be sure to point out and praise their success so they recognize it and see how often it can happen.

 

  • Build students’ awareness of others who’ve exemplified optimism. Whether through analysis of a character in a class text or through real-life examples, provide students with opportunities to reflect on individuals who demonstrate optimism and the benefits of “looking on the bright side.” For her students to understand what optimism looks like and sounds like, Meghan Muir at North Central showed students this SoulPancake video about an adolescent’s optimistic outlook in the face of a rare form of cancer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NjKgV65fpo

 
What strategies do you have for developing optimism in your students? Share your ideas in the comments section below.
 
In case you missed the first five installments in our “book club” series, you can find them all here.

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