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"The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes."

Martin Seligman


For a complete powerpoint presentation on Optimism, specifically for teachers, click here.

Teaching Optimism

People are constantly changing and can be optimistic at some points in their lives and not at others. Optimism can be learned, both unconsciously by observing people around us, or explicitly, as with other skills.

Teachers can promote optimism within the classroom by creating a supportive, successful environment and by helping to develop the mental and emotional skills of the students. Below are some useful strategies:

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Developmental Theories

A number of learning theories relate to the topic of optimism, both in the way that young people learn and in the importance of optimism as part of the learning process. These can briefly be summarised as the following:

Bandura's Social Learning Theory - we learn by modelling our behaviour from other people. Hence, if we want children to be optimistic then teachers need to demonstrate optimism within the classroom.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Individual Needs - focuses on the individual's own capabilities and personal learning needs of which optimism is a key component.

Seligman's Learned Helplessness - we can learn to become helpless if we think we have no control over our environment. There is a significant link between how we think about causes of events (explanatory style) and our levels of optimism.

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Explanatory Style

Explanatory style is a psychological trait that determines how we attribute our successes and failures to different causes. Developed throughout childhood, one's explanatory style significantly influences whether one will, in general, adopt an optimistic or pessimistic attitude towards themselves. Of course, people change, and so does our explanatory style.

Knowledge of explanatory style is important for educators, since teachers play an important role in children's development during a time when their explanatory style is being developed. Children's explanatory style will influence future learning and development, which could potentially be detrimental.

There are three dimensions to explanatory style - Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personal, summarised below with examples:

The Optimistic Child The Pessimistic Child


Does the cause of bad events exist indefinitely, or does it present itself only on occasions?

Likewise, are good events due to permanent causes, or temporary ones?

Views failure as being temporary, able to be overcome, something to work towards. For example, "My grades at math are bad, but I'm working hard this year so I hope they will get better."

An optimistic child attributes success to permanent characteristics of themselves. They don't criticise their successes as being a 'fluke', by chance, or because of external causes.

Attributes failure, setbacks, or challenges to permanent causal factors. For example, "I will never be good at math".


Is the failure or success confined to a specific event, or is it all-encompassing of the individual?

May be equally upset at failing, but accepts it, and confines the failure to a specific event. They don't give up on everything but instead move on. For example, "I'm not the best at swimming".

Upon failure, thinks 'nothing ever goes right for me', no matter how hard they try, so stops trying. That is, their failure is responsible for further failure - they give up on everything. For example, "I suck at sport".


Who is responsible for the failure or success? Internal (self) or external (others) causes?

Accepts failure when caused internally, takes responsibilty for their actions and attempts to correct or modify their behaviour to prevent further failure. If the cause was not their fault, they recognise this but still feel worthy.

Constantly blames self for failure, regardless of who was actually at fault.

Attributes success to external factors such as 'pot luck'.

So, a person who is optimistic generally explains bad events due to unstable, specific and external causes, whilst good events are viewed as resulting from permanent, global and internal causes. The inverse applies to the pessimist.

How does this impact children?

Children who adopt a pessimistic explanatory style can fall toward depression. Their physical health and general well-being may also be at risk. They are at a serious disadvantage in school, and often achieve less than they might otherwise.

What does this mean for educators?

Children learn to respond to events with a particular explanatory style. That is, they form habits that dictate how they will respond to future events in their lives, whether these be positive or negative. It is therefore important that teachers help to improve a child's explanatory style.

Visit this website to find out your explanatory style.

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Skinner's Operant Conditioning

B.F Skinner's theories of operant conditioning describe how behaviour can be modified through reinforcement and punishment. A common example is that of a rat in an isolated "Skinner Box", that is rewarded with food when it presses a lever. In pressing the lever, the rat experiences a positive outcome. This 'modified' behaviour becomes ingrained to the rat; that is, it learns how to behave in a manner that produces desired results.

Learning to be Helpless

In 1965, Seligman conducted an experiment of which the results seemed to contradict what Skinner's theories might expect. The experiment, similar to Skinner's, involved placing a dog in a 'shuttlebox' that was divided into two compartments, these being separated by a low fence. Initially, dogs were administered an electric shock in combination with an auditory stimulus. The idea was that the dogs would associate the stimulis with the electric shock that followed it, and somehow change their behaviour upon exposure to the stimulus, in order to avoid the shock.

Seligman was surprised that some dogs did nothing to try and escape the shock, even though they were in a situation where they could easily avoid it - they simply needed to jump over the fence to the other compartment. In previous experiments, Seligman had administered an electric shock to some of the dogs while they were restrained in harnesses. A surprising observation was that these dogs didn't even try to escape the shock - they simply lay there and waited to be shocked! The dogs had learned to be helpless! Previously restrained in their harnesses, they had learnt that since they had no control over their environment, nothing they could do mattered, so there was no point trying to escape the shock.

So what?

Learned helplessness has a correlation to theories of optimism, motivation, explanatory styles, and learning in general. As in Seligman's experiments, if children form the opinion that they have no control over their environment and that nothing they do matters, their learning may be adversely affected. The effects of learned helplessness are varied and significant and may include:

Shields (1997) considers learned helplessness a motivational problem. Children affected by learned helplessness generally lack instrinsic motivation; they, like the dogs, see no point in trying, since they have the opinion that their actions will never bring about positive outcomes. Instead, such children seek extrinsic motivational factors such as recognition as a 'bully', as described above.

Learned helplessness and the apparent lack of control of one's environment can be harmful to learning and development.

Teachers and parents need to recognise the blueprint of learned helplessness, particularly when responding to children's successes and failures. Teachers and parents have the capacity to cause learned helplessness if inappropriate consequences are dealt to children in response to their behaviours. If we say to a child that they are useless and incompetent, he or she may very well believe it, see no point in expending further effort and simply give up.

One way to avoid learned helplessness is to empower the child. Suppose a child fails a test, comes last in a race, or completely blunders a musical performance. Rather than blame the child for being incompetent, we should instead suggest that their failure was caused by some temporary, changeable cause - for example, that he perhaps didn't put enough effort into his attempt. This gives the child a goal to work toward - a light at the end of the tunnel. The child is now capable of achieving, worthy, and now has choice.

Learned helplessness is somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children who think they are helpless, generally do not try to break the bounds of their self-imposed limits. So, as teachers, we need to release such children from their ficticious harnesses - only then, unlike the dogs in Seligman's experiment, will they flourish and learn.

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Lesson Plans

We recommend teachers try out the three lesson plans taken from the Feed Your Optimism website. For further information visit them at http://www.feedyouroptimism.com/tguide.html

Lesson 1 - Introduction to Optimism
Lesson 2 - Optimistic Poetry
Lesson 3 - Feeding your Optimism

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