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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: The Power of Perspective

Randy Taran

Filmmaker, Project Happiness

In this nine-part series, we will look at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children. These are very useful in helping students learn, manage emotions better and increase empathy. Each blog features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS:

  1. H = Happiness
  2. A = Appreciation
  3. P = Passions and Strengths
  4. P = Perspective
  5. I = Inner Meanie/Inner Friend
  6. N = Ninja Mastery
  7. E = Empathy
  8. S = So Similar
  9. S = Share Your Gifts

In this post, we’ll explore perspective.

How we frame the circumstances in our life has a great deal to do with the happiness we derive from them. According to Shawn Anchor, "90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world."

Perspective is defined as our individual way of looking at things, events and people. Do your students see a rainy day as gloomy or as a chance to play in the puddles? When they see a glass, is it half empty or half full?

What makes perspective so important is that students can learn they have a choice as to what perspective they will adopt in any given situation. This is an effective tool for helping them learn that they actually have the power to influence their own happiness from within, simply through the perspectives and choices they make. This impacts not only their own happiness, but also that of the people around them, whether in the classroom, the playground or life in general.

There are four levels that impact perspective, and each one builds upon the other. Feelings and thoughts lead to the expression of words. Words influence actions, which result in either negative or positive choices. Depending on the choice made, the consequences will be either positive or negative.

Let's look at these levels one by one:

1. Feelings and Thoughts

Dr. Carol Dweck refers to fixed and growth mindsets. Let's say a student does a class presentation and it does not go well. Does the student consider him- or herself a failure and tend to give up (fixed mindset)? Or does he or she adopt a more resilient perspective (growth mindset) and understand that more practice and effort can help him or her do better in any area? Encouraging effort rather than just results contributes in a big way to long-term success. Dr. Dan Siegel, in his work with the Wheel of Awareness, explores another aspect. Do students get trapped in ruminating about familiar negative patterns of thinking (I’m afraid of . . .)? Or can they recognize that fears are always there, sometimes for a good reason, and that their emotions don't have to be the boss of them? There are many other good things to focus upon.

2. Words

Words can either help a situation or fast-track it to a negative outcome. When a new student enters the class, do members of the class whisper that the newcomer is weird, or can they say something welcoming? The words or labels we use also shape the way we look at something. For the teacher, if a subject is relatively dull, can he or she take another perspective and look at it as a challenge to activate creativity? A fundamental question is: "Are the words or labels I am using making a situation better or worse?" The idea of looking at how something is being framed holds a lot of power in and of itself.

3. Actions

Words lead directly to actions. Mean words show up in bullying behavior. Words that are helpful fuel actions that are caring, which in turn reinforce a positive perspective. Often students (and people in general) default to a patterned reaction. The child whose parents are physical with him or her may replay that behavior in the schoolyard. Actions are sometimes done on autopilot. Yet there is always the choice to change perspective -- to adopt a new approach that yields a positive outcome and more happiness for the student and the group. "What actions make you feel better and help the situation, too?" Which leads us to the next level:

4. Choices

Even if an automatic response is negative (such as interrupting in class), students can choose not to react the same way (they can raise a hand when they want to talk). The transition to a positive choice is faster if the student receives positive recognition for the behavior (positive consequences).

Perspective comes into play for teachers, too. Sometimes teachers can judge themselves too harshly for not meeting all their goals. A more supportive perspective would include recognition of the pressures being faced, and some self-compassion for how challenging that all can be. That's where choice comes in -- more specifically, the choice to carve out a little more free time to decompress vs. the choice to ignore it and soldier on. With teacher burnout on the rise, which perspective serves you better in the long run?

Perspective counts! While we cannot necessarily change the circumstances in our lives, we can absolutely influence our attitudes and perspectives towards them. The lens through which our brain sees the world shapes our reality and impacts others. And students can learn that they have the choice to reframe their lens for a more empowering and positive view.

Find lesson plans and additional resources at projecthappiness.org. Meanwhile, how has the power of perspective impacted your experience or the experiences of your students?

Project Happiness: SEL Curriculum for Elementary Students
From Project Happiness, this 9-part series includes social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary school students.

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Twila's picture
Twila
Elementary ACT teacher from Marysville, WA

In my building we teach our students about growth mindset. The teachers emphasize effort rather than outcome, perseverance over smarts. In my own classroom, we talk about choosing our attitude, Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Perspective can have a major impact on student achievement. If a child sits down at a math assignment and thinks "I can't do this" then they will find the task difficult or impossible. If the same child sits down thinking "I've got this!" they are much more likely to be successful.
Thank you for your post. I really like the project Happiness lessons and will be including them in my social skills groups.

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