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Cultivating Practical Optimism: A Key to Getting the Best from Your Brain

Dr. Donna Wilson

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

Neuroscientists recently discovered that optimism is associated with brain pathways connecting the left prefrontal region to the amygdala. Further research has demonstrated that optimism, traditionally considered to be an unchangeable trait, is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced. People with a positive viewpoint have less stress, better creative problem-solving skills, and better health outcomes than less optimistic people. In addition, optimistic learners are more likely to persist in the sometimes-hard work of learning, motivated by the belief that they can accomplish their learning goals.

Many teachers realize that as students become more optimistic, they are motivated to progress through learning difficulties and to attain higher levels of achievement. More optimistic students also have greater resistance to depression and the negative effects of stress. Over the years, we have taught many educators a toolbox of implementation strategies to increase practical optimism and other keys to learning in the classroom.

We use the term practical optimism to describe an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action to increase the likelihood of successful results. Emphasizing positive emotions helps students become more resilient and more likely to persevere with learning tasks. Their persistence is fueled by the belief that they will triumph over difficulty, learn from their mistakes, overcome plateaus in their performance, and progress. The mantra "I think I can! I think I can!" from an all-time favorite story, The Little Engine That Could, illustrates practical optimistic thinking.

Trash or Treasure?

One of our strategies that can be used to develop positive classrooms features six steps for easy implementation, including a read-aloud story (Wilson & Conyers, 2011, p. 243). This strategy has been used by teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to promote practical optimism in schools:

1. Introduce practical optimism and its benefits. Ask students if they would like to learn a way to more consistently sustain practical optimism.

2. Read aloud the following story:

Treasure Hunters and Trash Collectors
It seems that in life there are two types of people. The first are treasure hunters. Every day they seek out what is useful and positive. They focus on it, talk about it, and think about it. Each of these moments is treasured like a bright, shining jewel that they store in their treasure chest forever.
And then there are trash collectors who spend their lives looking for what is wrong, unfair, and not working. They focus their energy, time, and thoughts on the trash, and every day they put that trash into a big trashcan.
The treasure hunters proudly carry their treasure into the future, while the trash collectors drag their heavy, smelly trashcan from one day to the next. The question is: When they get to the end of the year, what does each person have -- a treasure chest filled with useful, positive memories, or a trash can full of things they didn't like?
The choice is yours. You get to decide.

3. Ask students to think of five things they like or can feel good about.

4. Ask students to write, draw, or create a concept map of these five things.

5. Tell students to approach five people and share with them their five things.

6. Continue to use this process once a week or once a month, encouraging students to find and add more things to their practical optimism list.

Once learners understand that they have the capacity to increase their levels of practical optimism by the choices they make, many are highly motivated to do so. They become more likely to think of setbacks as temporary. They recognize that by using more effective learning strategies or investing more study time, they can overcome obstacles and turn setbacks into triumphs. This progress in turn can lead to more academic success and enhance optimism even further. Practical optimism is a means for getting the best from your brain and your life.


Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

You'll never see me teach a class without teaching responsibility, optimism and other life skills. Children 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 keep away from trouble. They have the fortitude to persevere, and they know how to get things accomplished with optimism even in the face of obstacles.

Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


Thank you for your post on the benefits of teaching practical optimism. We couldn't agree more! Keep up the good work.


Mark31's picture

I like the emphasis on combining optimism with effort and perseverance during learning. They seem to reinforce each other, predisposing the student to ever-greater work and achievement. Without perseverance and effort, optimism may rest on a shaky foundation, and then it is more like wishful thinking. On the other hand, perseverance and effort without the light of optimism, seem rather grim - all work and no play.

This self-reinforcing loop is described by the late mathematician George Polya, in his classic book "How to Solve It": confidence may be "jump-started", if the teacher allows the student (after the student supplies at least some initial effort) to achieve a measure of success, even if this success is, objectively, of a symbolic value. However, this initial success should be channeled to promote the belief that the next, more substantial effort, will likewise be successful - and so on. I think the umbrella words "practical optimism" fit this process very well.

Somewhere on this road the student is also likely to encounter failure, and that's when they may need the teacher the most - to explain, encourage, and help rally around optimism. This may be a good lesson in the value of resilience - we eventually succeeded, because we didn't give up.

I would also like to add this - fostering optimism should be combined with helping the student develop friendly humor. In my experience, nothing relieves the stresses of effort better than a funny, self-deprecating line, or a well timed quip.

Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Mark31,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments following our blog post. Indeed, partnering practical optimism with effort and perseverance is a winning combination. We agree and also believe it is important to explicitly teach students about the concept of neuroplasticity (See our post: Engaging Brains: How to Enhance Learning by Teaching Kids About Neuroplasticity) and how we become smarter through effort, rather than only genetics. Alongside practical optimism we also teach how to facilitate higher order thinking through the use of many cognitive and metacognitive strategies (e.g. our post Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving). These strategies help students with perseverance during learning and help them to be able to problem solve more successfully in school as well as life. I appreciate your comment about the importance of humor, and agree with you wholeheartedly! Keep up the good work!


Mark31's picture

Thank you, Doctor Wilson, for your reply.

I certainly do intend to tell my future students about brain plasticity, much more than once. I think this knowledge should accomplish several things: encourage greater effort, take away the excuses (as in: "I just don't have any abilities in this area"), and as a "post-effort" reflection on how much can be gained, if one produces the effort.

Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


You are very welcome. I like your ideas! Also, there are some nice graphics online and fairly inexpensive brain models our graduates have enjoyed using too. And, yes the post-effort reflection is a good idea. Often I think this step is missed, yet is so important.

Keep in touch and let Marcus and me know as you use this work in your classroom.


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