Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tips for Teaching Realistic Optimism

Some simple strategies can help students reframe challenges as opportunities for growth.

March 19, 2019

Optimism is more than positive thinking; it’s a way to combat learned helplessness that is created when one approaches a challenge with a defeated mindset. 

Students manifesting learned helplessness refuse to engage in any effort that could lead to improved outcomes, even if these ways are available, obvious, and easy. Learned helplessness may lead to action paralysis. In contrast, optimism frames negative events as springboards to favorable outcomes.  

Realistic optimism should be the educator’s goal. Realistic optimists recognize reality constraints and aspire to probable outcomes. They see the path to success as full of twists and turns. Consequently, they are not risk-averse. Teaching students about optimism can help them see unpleasant events as learning opportunities. 

Teaching realistic optimism

The term negativity bias refers to a human brain’s attunement to negative, unpleasant events. At the end of a school day, if a teacher is focused on the singular instance that did not go so well compared with the many events that did go well, they are exhibiting this bias. Modeling optimism is the best way to combat negativity bias, but there are several other things a teacher can do as well.

Positive reframing. Challenge students to seek positive ways of evaluating an event. A student who failed to win in the spelling bee may feel let down. Capitalize on this opportunity by promoting the perspective that contest participation is actually great preparation for better future performance. Any failure or unpleasant event can be reframed as a positive, or, as the famous quote says, “an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Selective focus. Teach students to focus primarily on thoughts and events that lead to action-oriented solutions. I remember a time when I was teaching a lesson and the electricity went out. I was so disappointed because I had prepared a great lesson that it seemed would not happen. As I was inwardly bemoaning this unkind fate, I looked outside. It was a beautiful day. I asked my students to drag their chairs outside, and we conducted the lesson underneath a big tree. It turned out to be a memorable day and a positive learning experience.

Averting catastrophizing. Do you have students who are able to arrive at the worst possible conclusion for a negative event? A student who receives a B in middle school math declares she won’t be able to go to the university of her choice. This is called catastrophization or unproductive self-talk. Educators can dole out empathy first, then help the student get unstuck by finding proactive, little steps to solve the problem.  

Using humor. Humor can be a great antidote to the negativity bias. There was a time when I taught a science lesson incorrectly and it took me 30 minutes to realize the error. I did an exaggerated shrug, looked at my class, and began erasing everything. I humbly admitted that I was wrong, apologized, and then asked, “Aren’t you glad I’m not a plastic surgeon?” My students laughed, and no one complained! Humor is a good strategy to help arrest rumination in its tracks. Allow laughter to take the sting out of a failure. Often, the worst possible scenario is laughably ludicrous.  

Teaching an optimistic explanatory style. The negativity bias is associated with a pessimistic explanatory style, or the way an individual explains the reason for an event. Psychologist Martin Seligman describes how individuals differ in their explanatory styles across three dimensions: 

  • Personalization: Is the cause perceived to be internal or external?
  • Permanence: Is the event specific (a one-time event) or eternal?
  • Pervasiveness: Is the event applicable only to a specific situation, or is it global?

Teach students to examine common negative narratives with an optimistic explanatory style. A student who fails a math test may say, “I’m bad at math.” In contrast, a student with a more optimistic explanatory style may engage in the self-talk in this pattern: 

  • Personalization: “I didn’t study—that’s why I failed the test.”
  • Permanence: “This is just the first test. I have to work on practice problems every day. I’ll ace that second test!”
  • Pervasiveness: “I’m doing well in other subjects!”

A student manifesting learned helplessness will adopt an attribution that is internal, eternal, and global. This explanatory style can manifest in early childhood. Because self-talk often becomes automatic and habitual, there should be a place for teaching optimism in the classroom.  

Teachers also need to practice optimistic explanatory thinking. For example, at the end of a poorly executed lesson a teacher may lament, “This always happens. I’ll definitely get a poor evaluation.” Using a more optimistic explanatory style, the same teacher might think, “That didn’t go as well as I had hoped for. I’ll find a better way of presenting this topic.”

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