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Reframing the role of educators: five ways to maintain childlike optimism

Multicoloured mural of happy child; blue sky; childlike optimism.

Teaching young people skills that maintain their optimism over the course of their lives could help them to make a more positive impact on the world. Image: Unsplash / @ardentlysarah

Asheesh Advani
President and Chief Executive Officer, JA Worldwide
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  • Research shows optimism tends to peak in late youth before declining over most people’s lifetimes in some countries.
  • Teaching young people skills such as reframing, taking action, gratitude and mindfulness could help them to maintain a valuable childlike sense of optimism as they age.
  • Educational experiences that encourage optimism, innovation and empowerment encourage students to work harder and make a difference in the world, according to NGO JA Worldwide.

The best educational experiences not only build skillsets but also develop a mindset that encourages optimism, innovation, and empowerment. In such a learning environment:

· Students discover that failure is a natural part of the learning process, not an embarrassment to avoid;

· Youth learn that consistent practice and hard work—rather than innate talent only—lead to positive outcomes;

· Thanks to role models from similar backgrounds, young people envision a future in which they have the agency to make a positive impact on their families, communities, and the broader world.

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In spite of educational institutions and youth-serving non-governmental organizations (NGOs) demonstrating success in building this mindset, research shows us that optimism peaks in late youth and diminishes for the rest of our lives. In particular, UNICEF’s recently published The Changing Childhood Project, highlights this finding:

Graphic showing decline in optimism levels over the course of a lifetime.
In most countries young people become less optimistic with age, according to research. Image: JA Worldwide, based on research from The Changing Childhood Project, UNICEF

Does fading optimism come naturally from life experiences? Do frustrations with life’s challenges overpower the optimism of youth? Given the number of adults who maintain their optimistic mindset in spite of life’s frustrations and failures, it’s far more likely that optimism is a practice that some people choose to maintain.

As the CEO of one of the world’s largest youth-serving NGOs, I’m eager to test whether we can design learning experiences that not only build an optimistic mindset but also teach a practice of optimism for students to hone and develop throughout their lives. Here are five topics that such a curriculum might offer:

1) Learned optimism without toxic positivity

In the 1960s, Martin Seligman coined the terms “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism”. Applied in the context of schools, young people who believe their adversity or failure is: temporary and fleeting (“I made a mistake, but this problem won’t last forever”), specific (“I made a mistake in this project” versus “I’m too incompetent to manage projects of this scale”), and the result of a number of factors (“The problem is because of multiple factors, not just me”) are far less likely to develop learned helplessness about their abilities and prospects.

Tools for moving away from learned helplessness—and toward learned optimism—are just as important in students’ lives and careers as, say, trigonometry.

Building the muscle of learned optimism can be achieved without lapsing into the trap of breeding toxic positivity – but how? By focusing on immersive, experiential learning, through which young people have the opportunity to test their skills, learn from failures, and try again, all in a supportive environment.

"Tools for moving away from learned helplessness—and toward learned optimism—are just as important in students’ lives and careers as, say, trigonometry."

Asheesh Advani, JA Worldwide

2) Reframing

Cognitive reframing focuses on skill-building instead of self-worth. “I’m terrible at public speaking so I’ll never get financing for my startup” becomes "I haven't prioritized public speaking so far in my life, but now that it’s something I want to master for my growing business, I have no doubt that I'll learn this new skill in the same way I've learned so many others.”

Two speech bubbles illustrating the act of reframing a pessimistic thought.
Cognitive reframing focuses on skill-building instead of self-worth. Image: JA Worldwide

Just as young people can master a musical instrument with the help of a good teacher and plenty of practice, students can also master reframing. Imagine a classroom in which educators are empowered to teach a practice of reframing so that, when a student proclaims: “I’m hopeless at mathematics”, the teacher immediately begins the reframing process. This could bypass a lifetime belief in mathematics ineptitude on the part of the student.

3) Moving from vision to action

How many times have you daydreamed about a different life, job, or situation? Nothing wrong with that! No one is born knowing how to move from vision to action, however. That’s why all students would benefit from instruction in how to pluck their vision out of the clouds, make it so concrete that it would rival a business plan for specificity, and then begin to turn it into small, actionable steps.

At JA, we’ve introduced a micro-credential for high school students to demonstrate competence in starting a business — not just in a pitch deck or business plan, but a real business with revenue and shareholders. It has now been earned by high school students in more than 45 countries across Europe, the Middle East, South America and Africa.

A recent JA/EY survey of young people aged 16-24 years old – also known as Generation Z – showed that, although Gen Z has confidence in a number of skillsets, the ability to problem-solve—that is, to act in support of a solution—isn’t one of them. This is simply because they haven’t had enough practice. Let’s update school curriculums to include projects with a bias for action, not just for analysis.

"If we can teach young people how to write a powerful thesis statement for a term paper, we can teach them how to journal daily gratitude and practice mindfulness."

Asheesh Advani, JA Worldwide

4) Developing a practice of gratitude, mindfulness, and journaling

Research shows that regularly writing down what we’re grateful for significantly increases life satisfaction. In particular: “gratitude in youth is associated with positivity, optimism, satisfaction with social relationships, and lower levels of symptomatology”.

How does journalizing gratitude work? Recent research not only looked at the positive effects of journaling gratitude on mental health but also examined the factors behind this improvement. Firstly, the journaling activity removed negative-emotion words from the practitioner’s vocabulary. And secondly, gratitude actually changes how the brain processes information. In difficult times, practising gratitude and mindfulness together helps maintain perspective, avoiding traps that lead to pessimism.

If we can teach young people how to write a powerful thesis statement for a term paper, we can teach them how to journal daily gratitude and practice mindfulness.


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5) Maintaining a sense of child-like optimism

Starting early matters. Gregory Buchanan and Martin Seligman pioneered the concept of human “explanatory style”, which they defined as “our tendency to offer similar explanations for different events” or, in layperson’s terms, whether we explain events from an optimistic or pessimistic point of view.

Their research in the mid-1990s showed that explanatory style is quite fluid in pre-school and early kindergarten, but is largely fixed by about age eight. After that, only an intentional decision to rework one’s explanatory style will cause it to change; it will not happen naturally. And young peoples’ explanatory style is directly linked to their ability to unlearn learned helplessness, reframe, and more.

Graphic showing explanatory style differences between optimistic and pessimistic thoughts.
Young children tend to be more likely to explain events from an optimistic rather than a pessimistic point of view. Image: JA Worldwide

Optimism doesn’t have to decline with age. We can halt the decline for the next generation by building optimism muscles at an early age.

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