​A guide to optimism and how to develop it among your students (hint: it's got nothing to do with how full your glass is)


Optimism: it's all about whether the glass half full or half empty, right? Wrong. It turns out that most people have the wrong idea of optimism. So what exactly is it? How important is it? And, most crucially, can you learn to be optimistic?

Let's start with a quick test. You can choose only one answer per question.

1) You get lost driving to a friends house. Is this because:

a. You missed your turn

b. Your friend gave you bad directions.

2) You run for election and win. Is this because:

a. You devoted a lot of time and energy to campaigning

b. You work hard at everything you do.

3) You fail an important exam. Is this because:

a. You are not as smart as other people taking the exam

b. You didn't prepare well for it.

The above questions are taken from a questionnaire by Dr Martin Seligman, a leading authority on optimism who has spent many years researching the subject.

Optimism, contrary to popular belief, is not how positive or confident you are. Optimism is actually about how you explain past events that have happened to you – whether you view them as permanent or temporary, whether you see yourself or others as the cause of your success or failure, and whether you think failure in one environment is likely to lead to you fail in another.

Seligman's book Learned Helplessness is a must-read for teachers. It details the many benefits of optimism that have been uncovered by research, as well as offering advice on how to develop an optimistic mindset.

We may be born with differing natural optimism levels, but evidence suggests that this way of thinking that can be taught, learned and developed. So what does it look like, for you and your students?

Treat setbacks as temporary

Failure is inevitable. To err is human, after all. But can we help students to fail better? Research shows that viewing setbacks as permanent makes people more likely to give up quickly. This is known as "learned helplessness" and it leads to disengagement from tasks as people believe that what they do won't make a difference. Instead, encourage your students to view setbacks as part of a learning curve. This will help them gain from the experience and become better because of it.

Be solution-focused

Asking 'what can I do to improve this particular situation?' helps people to stop focusing on previous mistakes or dwelling on factors they can't control. This leads to a more solution-focused approach, which promotes persistence instead of ruminating on the barriers they have come up against.

Acknowledge contributions

A pessimistic mindset tends to attribute success to luck or other people performing badly – this can lead to Impostor Syndrome. You can help build optimism and confidence in your students by getting them to reflect on what they did well and how they actively contributed to the success of a task.

Watch for negative words

The way that we talk to ourselves has a big impact on how we think, feel and behave – self-talk is linked to creativity, persistence and our ability to perform under pressure. Teach your students to steer clear of phrases like "I will never..." and "This always happens". Instead, try to use phrases like "I might be able to..." and "I could try...". For more advice on helpful self-talk sentences, see our blog on the language of a growth mindset'.

Shift the focus

Researchers have found that saying "stop" straight after a negative thought has helped people to manage frustration, overcome nerves, sleep better and stop dwelling on worst-case scenarios. Your students may not be able to control the first thing that pops into their heads, but you can help them to control the second with this strategy, which allows them to proceed with more helpful thoughts.

Take a balanced approach

Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, there are always things that you did well and things that you could improve – teach students to recognise this, and avoid getting too low after a defeat or too high after a success. Having a consistent debriefing process helps, providing a stable base from which to learn. This blog on 'how to fail better' offers a handy starting point.

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