How to Boost Students’ Sense of Optimism
Students who don’t see a bright future for themselves may have trouble getting motivated for school, but a trauma-informed approach can improve their expectations.
My colleagues and I recently asked urban middle school students to reflect on their future. We were dismayed to discover that about half did not expect to graduate from high school or college. Less than half expected to have a healthy and happy life. What is the likelihood that kids with these expectations will dedicate themselves to academic pursuits or focus on positive health habits like avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, or eating nutritious foods?
In our work, my team and I encourage teachers to build what we call “optimistic future-mindedness” in their students. In doing so, we can’t be unrealistic—we need to recognize that, particularly in contexts of poverty, students’ pessimism is not completely unfounded. They see classmates dropping out or dealing with family crises—and their own families may experience crises as well. In the mass media and in their own lives, they see and hear about—or experience—incidents of bias against people of color. Taking a trauma-informed perspective comes in part from recognizing how ongoing adversity reinforces a strong sense of pessimism.
Before Carol Dweck wrote about growth mindset, Martin Seligman wrote Learned Optimism. The 1991 book reflects research findings, confirmed often since, that just as helplessness can be learned, so can its opposite. For teachers, counselors, psychologists, and others working with children, here are some ways to help students become more oriented to a hopeful future. Please note that most of these are easily adaptable to both live classroom and virtual classroom environments.
Communicate exceptions to the rule: Show students examples of individuals in every field of endeavor, preferably as close to their backgrounds as possible, who overcame long odds to succeed. Encourage them to read and watch videos about Greta Thunberg, Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafzai, Franklin Roosevelt, and diverse others who did not let failure or handicaps get in their way.
Provide service opportunities: Research shows that students benefit from being helpful to others, particularly when they understand how they are being helpful and reflect on their feelings while doing so. Optimism is one outcome of doing good for others and in the world.
Look for opportunities to allow students to be helpful to others, take care of the environment around them, orient new students, help absentees catch up, participate in safety patrol squads, be cross-age tutors, or work as buddies to younger students or students with disabilities.
Guide students to see exactly how and why their actions are helpful, even if they don’t see the results directly. Consider using the analogy of throwing a rock in water and noting the ripple effect that keeps going and going beyond where the rock landed. Particularly for children whose lives are beset by trauma, knowing their actions can create some good in the world is a more powerful source of optimism than most of us realize. It can be a lifeline for some students.
Notice strengths: Help students see themselves in the most positive way possible. Often, children in difficult environments lose track of their own strengths. A good diagnostic for this is to ask students to complete the sentence, “I am someone who...” 10 times on one sheet of paper, each time writing something positive about themselves. A similar idea is to have students draw “The Best Things About Me” or to write an essay on that topic or a related one, “What I Can Contribute to the Class, School, Community, or World.”
Teach respectful debate: One model that we have developed is a friendly debate in which one group of students argues in favor of one of two quotes inspired by the work of child advocate Marian Wright Edelman, and the other group argues against it. The quotes are:
- “Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, to make mistakes, or to speak up. Communicate well and proudly.”
- “When you have been wronged by others, don’t hold a grudge. Show compassionate forgiveness. You will feel much better than if you focus on revenge.”
- To guide the debate, randomly divide the participants into a pro group and a con group (or two pro and two con groups, depending on class size; you also can start with half of the class participating and half observing and reflecting on the debrief).
Each side should work together to compose an argument. First the pro side should share their argument, and then the con side should summarize the pro side, check for understanding, and, after that, share their argument.
Then the two groups should switch positions and argue the other point of view.
Finally, the whole group should gather to reflect: What did they see happening? What did they learn? What were the strongest arguments? What, if anything, made them think differently?
Many teachers introduce this debate with a simple practice topic, such as “Students should be allowed to chew gum in school” or “Nothing can be done to improve cafeteria food in our school.”
Remind students to use their empathy, social problem-solving, and communication skills to develop their position, and to listen carefully and respond respectfully to what the other group says, even if they disagree.
You can watch a video of students doing this exercise.
This exercise opens a path to greater participation in civic life, in the school, and in students’ communities. That in turn can boost their optimism—and it’s our hope that boosting students’ optimism will help them see a path to a bright future.