“Can Optimism Be Taught?”


Is Your Classroom Half-Full or Half-Empty?

You will never hear me downplay the importance of teaching the "Three R's."

However, you'll never see me teach a class without teaching responsibility, optimism and other life skills, either.

In a previous article, I discussed something called "emotional intelligence," which, by one definition, could be said to describe "the capacity to create optimal results in yourself and others."

 Kids with healthy EI levels tend to be likable. They get along with others, they respect authority figures, they're able to empathize with the problems of others, and they seem to have built-in sensitivity radars that allow them to avoid trouble.

They have the fortitude to persevere, and they know how to get things accomplished with optimism even in the face of obstacles. In short, they're the type of person employers love to hire, even if their raw academic scores might not suggest it.

I firmly believe these traits are worth cultivating in kids, along with all their required studies.

How can we do that?

Well, here are three components children (and anyone else) can exercise to develop these special skills . . .

     > Increase self-awareness by understanding “how you operate” and make decisions.

     > Consciously select your thoughts, feelings and actions.

     > Develop empathy and principled decision-making to increase wisdom.

 Can optimism be taught?

The good news is that the answer appears to be yes.

It's tempting to think that a sense of optimism or pessimism is simply a personality trait, or "just how someone is," but research has shown that optimism or pessimism can be learned and adopted.

When you teach a child to be more optimistic, he or she will be more motivated, successful and healthy, both mentally and physically.

One key difference between optimists and pessimists is how they view failure. Pessimists see failure as permanent, personal and pervasive, while optimists see it as temporary, non-personal, and specific. Interestingly, their views on success are just the opposite: the optimists sees success as something long-term and global, something that results from hard work. Pessimists are more likely to view success as something short-term and accidental.

I don't know about you, but I find it tremendously exciting to learn that these traits can be improved in kids. I can hardly think of a more valuable skill to teach than the type of optimism that breeds perseverance. We've all seen how perseverance can trump talent in the real world, so why not teach these skills along with your regular curriculum?

Here are three ways you can teach optimism

1. Model it yourself.

If you're naturally the type to walk on the sunny side of the street, then this will be easy for you. Simply give voice to that nature in front of your kids.

However, if your glass is typically half-full, then you'll want to listen to yourself as you react to various frustrations and obstacles. My book discusses this in detail in the chapter titled "Right Words." For example, instead of reflexively saying "Isn't this frustrating!" when stuck in traffic on the way to school, catch yourself and say, "Well, isn't this interesting."

Using the non-judgmental word "interesting" instead of the more pessimistic word "frustrating" will make a difference immediately in your outlook (not to mention your blood pressure), and if you do this consistently enough you will notice a fairly profound change in your outlook. Your students can't help but pick up on that.

2. Help re-frame your students' perception of a frustrating event.

For example, let's say your class had to cancel a special outdoor field trip because of bad weather. You hear one boy griping about the lost opportunity, so you decide to turn this into a mini-optimism lesson. You could say to the class, "You know, I'm disappointed, too. I was looking forward to going to this event as much as you guys. But I'll bet you we can brainstorm at least 10 ways why this is actually a good thing."

And then you turn to the blackboard and start the class off by writing one or two reasons that come to mind, and let the class come up with the other eight. By the way, I don't care what the disappointment is — if you are creative and persistent enough, you will be able to come up with at least 10 possibilities and/or reasons that will re-frame that disappointment into something positive.

3. Help kids pinpoint exactly WHY something failed.

Pessimists tend to "globalize" failure and ascribe it to "fate" and "just the way things are." However, if you can identify an exact cause and effect for their disappointment or failure, they will be less likely to take it to heart and become fatalistic.

Here's an example. Let's say a student is unable to finish an in-class art assignment because the one red magic marker she needed is dried out and can't be used. She says, "What lousy luck — now I'll never be able to finish this project!" You say, "Well, it looks like someone left the cap off this particular marker, which is why it's dry now."

By pointing out a specific cause and effect, the sting of the disappointment will be reduced, and you can then re-frame her perspective by saying something like, "Yes, that's really frustrating, Katie, but you'll still be able to finish this project, even if it's not right now."

These three techniques help "de-personalize" failure, and if you can teach a student to see failures as just temporary bumps in the road, you'll be teaching them something that will serve them the rest of their lives.

In my teacher training program, I share some more specific ways you can develop this inner fortitude in your students. I can't emphasize enough how crucial it is to give troubled students a new mental paradigm. Clearly, for some of our students, the big picture they have of school and their lives isn't working for them, which is one reason they have no problem in trying to ruin your day. But if you can get them to see a better and bigger picture for themselves (also known as "Hope" and "The Future"), then you'll experience your greatest fulfillment as teacher.

For more details on that teacher training package, click here.   It includes an 80-minute DVD that steps you through my entire program in easily digested 10-minute chunks.