Learned Optimism at Home

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School Psychologist

Learned Optimism is the key to student success

The publications, Inside Higher Education and Education Week report upon studies finding that hope is a strong predictor of student success outside of educational history. How might one define hope? The Webster’s dictionary says, hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” This human emotion is so powerful that researchers have found that it can predict the following:

  1. The number of semesters enrolled in college,
  2. Whether college students will return to college after their freshman year,
  3. The number of semesters enrolled,
  4. Whether college students will graduate in 4 years, and
  5. Student grade point average (GPA).

So, in the midst of school and university closures on account of the Coronavirus, is it possible for us to apply what we’ve learned from academic research to real world settings? When you think about it, the fundamental principle of this research is not new. It represents the key tenets of learned optimism according to Martin Seligman who is considered the father of positive psychology. He argues that those who focus on the positives in life experience these benefits:

  1. Are higher achievers and have better overall health than their more pessimistic colleagues,
  2. Believe setbacks present temporary and not reflective of permanent status, and
  3. Can identify specific events rather than generalizations for negative occurrences and outcomes.

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Prior to the coronavirus or Black Swan event, many parents have tried so hard to make sure that their children were given the necessary tools they need to succeed in college, the workforce and career market place.  Helicopter, Black Hawk piloting was the norm. We may have consciously refrained from being overly critical, verbally abusive or acerbic in our tone and manners based upon peer reviewed research that this parenting style, incidentally according to research, makes teens more prone to depression and defiance. By the way, If you’d like to take a look at some learning resources and activity ideas to help your child stay on track during the Coronavirus Pandemic, please visit my Amazon store. All of the products listed have been expertly curated by a School Psychologist.

Parental yelling increases teen conduct and depression

Unfortunately, we may have erred by swinging the pendulum too far toward unrealistic positivity, or toxic positivity. Now that we have summarized the benefits of instilling learned optimism traits in our kids and the detrimental effects of parental over criticism as well as over positivity, let’s try to thread the needle to pinpoint exactly the attributes of individuals who practice learned optimism (or ego resilience).

Characteristics of an ego resilient individual

  1. “Adapts to fluctuating situational demands reconfigures mental resources,
  2. Shifts perspectives, and
  3. Balances competing desires, needs and life domains.”(Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010)

Well, now that we have learned this valuable information in support of our end goal, how do we get there? Please see below, the five steps to effective criticism.

Five steps to effective (not ego bursting) criticism to setbacks versus ego building praise and support
The absolute first rule of criticism is to refrain from excessive criticism. Instead praise, reward or recognize desirable behaviors. If you must criticize, follow these guidelines:

  1. Frame setbacks as time specific; temporary, not permanent. Steer clear of these words: ever, never, always. Replace with sometimes, this time, or lately.
  2. Attribute good events, outcomes and accomplishments to permanent character traits and abilities. Your child should think of himself as always hard working, lovable or likeable.
  3. Translate failures as specific (golf or English Literature) to a particular task; not global (all sports) or generalizable (“I’m a total dunce.”) to other situations.
  4. Ensure that your child and spouse accept responsibility for temporary failures.
  5. 5.Model to your child and spouse ways to properly assign self blame for temporary setbacks. For instance, “I got a C on the test because I didn’t study hard enough.” Or, “ I didn’t get that promotion because I didn’t do enough face time.” Contrast those healthy responses to generalized self blame. “I got a C on the test because I am stupid.” And, “I didn’t get that promotion because I am a bad person.”

Great! But, what does this have to do with Coronavirus?

Children, teens and even young adults are keen observers of their parent’s behaviors and often take on the beliefs, mannerisms as their parents. This is called Social Learning Theory espoused by Albert Bandura. This is particularly evident during governmental mandating of home-based schooling, remote learning and the temporary return home from college. So, in addition to adjusting the way in which we provide positive and negative feedback to our children; we must also be mindful of our general approach and overall outlook to life and the current predicament in which we find ourselves. For if we fail to see the good in the chaos and the challenges that exist all around us we will fail in our goal to instill hope within our children. Hope and the belief in a better future will provide the fuel necessary to meet the challenges introduced by the Coronavirus.

Once again, don’t forget to visit my Amazon store. All of the products listed have been expertly curated by a School Psychologist.

Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA http://www.ishareknowldge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com