Student Wellness

Optimism Is a Learnable Skill

Understanding the differences between pessimism and optimism can help students improve the way they respond to challenges.

Young schoolboy works with his teacher at school
©iStock/Steve Debenport

It’s a busy morning in Ms. B’s kindergarten class. Students work independently counting collections of shells, marbles, and other small objects. Susana chooses a collection of colorful cotton balls and starts placing each ball on a blank one-to-100 chart. Once the chart is full, she starts counting: “One, two, three....”

Suddenly, Ms. B calls the students’ attention: “Please remember to record the total number of objects in your collection. If you need help writing that number, use the resources in the room. You have two more minutes.”

When Susana goes back to her collection, she can’t remember where she was in her count. Frustrated, she throws away the cotton balls she had placed on the chart. Ms. B approaches Susana and asks her what happened. “I’m not good at math. I’ll never be able to finish counting this collection. This is a horrible school!” she responds and walks away.

Does this situation sound familiar?

Students, and adults too, create explanations for the things that happen in their daily lives. In this situation, when Susana gets frustrated and gives up on the task, she explains the cause of this situation in a pessimistic way—she blames herself (“I’m not good at math”), believes that the event will persist forever (“I’ll never be able to finish counting this collection”), and generalizes this situation to her overall experience in school (“This is a horrible school”).

Pessimism and Optimism

Although these explanations may seem harmless, researcher Martin Seligman has found that people who explain their experiences in pessimistic ways have a higher risk for depression, lower academic and professional achievement, and lower physical health than those who hold optimistic views.

The good news, according to Seligman, is that we are not born pessimistic or optimistic—these are ways of thinking that we learn from our families and teachers, the media, and our social context. Think about a recent event in your life, either good or bad—what did you tell yourself about the causes of the event? Were they more pessimistic or optimistic?

Pessimistic explanations include the ideas that causes are permanent, pervasive, and personal, while optimistic ones are that causes are temporary, specific, and changeable with effort.

As with other social and emotional competencies, optimism is a learnable skill. Students and adults can increase their optimism and improve the way they respond to small and big challenges. As educators, we cannot always anticipate when students will face stressful events in their lives, but we can work to provide them with the necessary skills to navigate successfully through life.

Optimism is a protective factor—it can help students respond to problems with a sense of confidence and a belief in their personal ability, even when they’re under stress.

Three Strategies for Nurturing Optimism in Students

1. Increase students’ awareness of multiple choices: An important part of developing an optimistic perspective is realizing that there are different ways to view a situation. You can increase students’ awareness of their range of choices in content areas by having them, for example, explore different ways to solve math problems or analyze character actions in stories.

During your morning meeting or advisory period, you can help students identify different perspectives to their daily challenges. For example, discuss these questions with students: What do you think when you get a bad grade? How do you explain it to yourself? Is there another way to look at the situation?

2. Help students identify their pessimistic explanations: When students explain the causes of events in their lives to themselves, they might not realize whether their views are optimistic or pessimistic. You can support students by helping them identify words and language that express pessimism and optimism.

For example, discuss with students: What are some of your common responses to a challenge or difficult situation? Using the pessimistic and optimistic explanations discussed above (permanent, pervasive, and personal vs. temporary, specific, and changeable with effort), help students differentiate between their pessimistic and optimistic views.

This strategy can be incorporated in your English language arts or social science class: How did a character in a story or a historical figure respond to a challenge? Did she have an optimistic or pessimistic perspective?

3. Increase students’ capacities to reframe pessimistic explanations with optimistic ones: Once students can identify their own pessimistic explanations, they can learn to reframe them by looking at challenges as temporary, specific, and possible to change with effort.

Use common stressful situations for students such as finals, trouble with friendships, or sport competitions, and ask them to write down optimistic explanations to these challenges. What could they tell themselves if they were more optimistic?

When students develop more optimistic views of their daily challenges, they’re building resilience for the future and creating expectations for positive outcomes in their lives. Optimism is a learnable skill that can be developed in schools by caring and supportive educators.