During these uncertain times, all of us are confronted by a number of competing feelings, with anxiety, fear, and a loss of control being top contenders. You may be feeling that optimism is out of place in today’s “new normal.” I, however, would like to propose that optimism is exactly what we need.
Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen—to you, to others, and the world. It is not, however, a Pollyannaish belief that life is all rainbows, unicorns, and heart emoji. True optimism is constrained by reality. Realistic optimism is about the ability to acknowledge problems and still maintain a positive outlook. It is the backbone of resilience.
Choosing to be optimistic can be an invaluable tool during this period when resilience is what all of us need and crave. Hundreds of research studies have shown that optimism improves both our health and quality of life. Optimists, as compared to pessimists, are less likely to become ill. Should they become ill, they are more likely to recover. Overall, optimists live nine years longer than pessimists. They also have richer and more rewarding relationships and careers. Children who think optimistically do better in both school and sports. There is no downside to choosing to be optimistic.
Even if you weren’t born that way (only 25% of us are), you can learn to be optimistic. You can also teach children as young as 2-1/2 to learn to think optimistically. The chief tool for doing this is learning to reframe negative thinking.
Every time your mind heads towards the worst case scenario, use self-talk to guide yourself to an optimistic perspective. Instead of seeing yourself “trapped at home, going stir crazy” focus on the benefits—time to spend with family, catch up on needed sleep, and recharge yourself as an educator. Learning how to provide effective distance learning demands you be creative, learn new technologies, and hone your skills. You can’t fall back on complacency when the stakes are this high.
For young children who easily fall into pessimistic thinking traps, the key is to gently dispute their negative thinking and turn it around, much as you need to do with your own negative thoughts:
Four-year-old David, talking to his teacher via Zoom: “I don’t want to go back to school. Nobody is going to want to play with me. Nobody likes me. I’m staying home forever.”
Teacher: “David, I understand that you are scared. All of us are a bit scared these days. I know it’s been a while since either of us was at school. Can you remember, though, how you and Brian used to build giant constructions out of blocks? And you and Mary used to go down the slide together every day. Can you remember those times?
David nods his head.
Teacher: “When we get back to school I’ll make sure that we have time every day to build with blocks and play outside. That way you can play with your buddies. Does that sound like a good plan?”
David: “I like playing with Brian.”
Teacher: “I bet Brian will be happy to see you, too. We are going to see all of our old friends and be able to meet some new ones when we return to school.”
Obviously, it takes more than one or two times to be able to reframe negative thoughts. But with practice, the children and you will get to the point where you automatically start interpreting events positively rather than negatively.
Here are a few other ideas for bringing optimism into your life and that of the children you teach:
Read about positivity. Try to shield yourself from all of the negative news that bombards us daily. Intentionally seek out positive stories of human kindness and triumph—chefs with closed restaurants making meals for food kitchens, heroic doctors and nurses working tirelessly to save lives, teenagers sewing masks to give to those who need them. For children, read aloud and discuss books with an optimism theme such as The Hyena Who Lost Her Laugh by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro or Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly And James Dean. Encourage children to come up with their own optimistic ending to storybooks.
Seek out joy and beauty in nature.
Even while social distancing, you can take a walk and see nature in bloom. Just inhaling the fresh air—which is considerably cleaner these days with people sheltering at home—can invigorate the soul. If you have access to trees, all the better. Forest bathing, or what the Japanese call Shinrin-yoku, has documented benefits such as reducing the stress hormone cortisol and improving the body’s immunity system. Discuss with the children’s families how they might be able to partake in being outdoors every day. Even if it is just to be on a balcony or sidewalk, research confirms that the experience increases positivity.
Try mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. These practices that stem from Eastern religions have made their way into modern education because of their documented ability to help reduce stress, refocus the mind, regulate emotions, lower negative emotional reactivity, decrease depression, and help children better connect to their educators and peers. Children from ages three on up can find comfort in these practices. It’s also a major self-care technique for educators who experience burnout and secondary stress.
Make gratitude a constant presence. Appreciating what you have received, both tangible and not, helps you focus on what you have—not what you lack. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis is linked to enhanced optimism, better sleep, fewer physical ailments, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Encourage the children you teach to come up with three things they are grateful for every day, be it as simple as “getting to play a video game” or “having fish and chips for dinner.”
Try sharing gratitudes with the children while having a group distance learning chat. And don’t forget to share what you are grateful for, which may be as basic and profound as “having a way of being together when everyone is in their home.”
Thinking optimistically will help get you through this crisis with the certainty that there are better times ahead.
If you want to know more about how to teach children to think optimistically, I have written a book with Derry Koralek entitled Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically. It is available in Europe at this website: https://www.eurospanbookstore.com/making-lemonade.html. In the U.S. it can be purchased at Amazon.com or through Redleaf Press.
Laura J. Colker, Ed.D., is an international author, lecturer, and trainer with 40 years of experience. She has written or contributed to over 150 publications, educational videos, and public television programs. Laura is most widely known as a co-author of The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, now in its sixth edition, which is the most widely used early childhood curriculum in the U.S. She has also been a consultant to numerous education-related institutions and organizations and was a founder of the U.S. military’s Sure Start program, now being implemented at 63 sites in Europe and Asia.