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Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes


Cup Half Full, Half Empty or Neither?

There’s a lot to be pessimistic about right now. We have an election taking place that has tapped into the most negative values in our society – name calling, unsubstantiated claims tossed around, arrogance, and a lot of anger and hostility. Throw in the random shootings that pop up every few weeks in the news, the march of ISIS and the like across whole lawless regions of the world, and the connections that some are making between this election and pre-World War II Germany. Pessimists will spend their days worrying about what will happen. They will busy themselves looking for causes, shake their heads in despair and many will be immobilized by fear.

The optimist will look at these same facts, and balance the negativity with positive events happening at the same time, and they will work for solutions to the seemingly intractable problems. Psychologists who study optimism and pessimism (i.e. Dr. Martin Seligman The Optimistic Child or Angela Duckworth of the Character Lab) note that optimism is not a Pollyanna “glass half full” disposition. Instead, they note that optimism is a hopeful stance about the future combined with the agency to shape that future. Optimists recognize horrible events but, unlike the pessimist, they see those events very differently in terms of their causes, pervasiveness and duration.

These scholars also note that optimism and pessimism are not personality traits but rather they are learned dispositions that serve as a person’s explanatory style. Pessimists tend to assign blame to bad events. They believe that these events will last a long time, and that the resulting consequences will impact everything subsequently. Optimists see multiple causes for bad events. They assume that bad events are temporary, and that the effects are limited to a particular sphere of their life.

How, then, do we help children develop an optimistic stance? First, we challenge any tendencies to “catastrophize” all negative moments. This means that we learn to separate trivial problems from more significant ones. Every negative event that occurs to a child – a friend who calls them a name once, a broken arm, a poor grade on a test – should not be given more attention than necessary. Each of these negative experiences should be discussed with an eye to how to learn from them and how to move on.

We also should strive to avoid negative feedback. The child who does poorly on homework or a test, should not be chastised for his/her struggle. His/her successes must be emphasized. Not only should the negative feedback to the child be minimized, but also we need to keep our negativity about other people and family members in check as well. Children do learn from the behavior we model.

Finally, in choosing books to read to children and news articles to share, we should emphasize narratives of hope, stories of people who have inspired change and those portraying people who have overcome obstacles.

The growth mindset that we teach and encourage at Wornick aligns nicely with this perspective on teaching optimism. Many of our literature selections and social studies units do so as well. The emphasis on social action adds that dimension of “taking control of the future” that is characteristic of optimists. For a Wornick student, the cup is neither half full nor half empty – it is an entirely different cup that expands with hope.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday February, 26, 2016

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