Teach Better

Glass half full or half empty?

Sarah Whyte explores the benefits of optimism and its importance to students, particularly those raised in a culture outside their parents’ culture and often experiencing frequent mobility and an international lifestyle.


Optimism is a powerful concept, either as a competency of emotional intelligence or when considered alone. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist and researcher, is largely credited as the founding father of optimism and positive psychology. He describes how psychology traditionally focused on a deficit model, on what was not working. This was mirrored in his own research which began with a focus on pessimism which then shifted to optimism instead.

Optimist or Pessimist?

So what makes someone an optimist or a pessimist? Martin Seligman’s explanation is very simple. When faced with an adversity, say an assessment score in maths which a child found disappointing, the child with a pessimistic approach will explain this as being permanent: “I’ll always be rubbish at maths.” They perceive the adversity as pervasive, meaning because they view themself as a poor mathematician, they are no good at other school subjects. They also feel powerless, believing there is little they can do to change the situation.
On the other hand, a child with an optimistic approach explains adversity as temporary, so they know it won’t last forever. They perceive the adversity to be isolated: “It’s only one disappointing score. I’m still good at other parts of maths and other subjects at school.” For an optimist, they recognise that they can change the situation with some effort. In the maths example, this might mean practising trickier concepts or approaching a teacher for a different strategy.

Encouraging Optimism 

When children create these explanations, it might be in conversation with a friend or an adult. More worryingly, and particularly when considering pessimists, this explanation might be an internal dialogue. As an educator, it’s so important to ensure children verbalise their explanations to check in on their self-talk and, where necessary, model and support them toward a more optimistic explanatory style.

The benefits of helping children achieve an optimistic outlook are explained by Carol Dweck in her work on growth mindset. In recent years, I have heard of increasing numbers of schools, particularly in an international context, drawing upon growth mindset in an academic context. In Martin Seligman’s research, he pointed to the significant benefits of optimism in a range of contexts. For example, with regard to test scores in college, he repeatedly found that pessimists drop below their potential while optimists exceed theirs1. On a wider scale, optimists enjoy a better immune system and live longer. Optimism is a powerful tool and it’s one that every teacher can—and should—be using with their students.

The International Student

1-2015-Feature-StephenElliottMy own doctoral thesis focused on the potential of using an emotional intelligence intervention to support Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Research literature points to TCKs’ experience of mobility, whether they themselves move or their close friends leave. There is mobility within the home when parents are away with work or when children leave their country of residence to visit their ‘home’ country for extended periods of time.

The transition between schools and countries can cause emotional turmoil for families, with some children floundering in the face of massive change. There is very little research on the subject of supporting TCKs with mobility, which I always find surprising given the number of students at international schools around the world. I suggest that developing children’s optimism has the power to provide children with great support in the form of an explanatory style to help them face the challenges of an international lifestyle.

Sarah Whyte

If you’re interested in finding out more about promoting optimism in your classroom and school, or supporting TCKs with the challenges of mobility, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Find out more about Sarah at sarahwhyte.com.sg, follow her on Twitter @sarahinsg or Facebook: www.facebook.com/sarahwhyteconsulting  

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