Pessimism, depression, optimism, resiliency. Why is it that some children (and teenagers and adults) bounce back from hardships easily and others do not? This is a question that I have been very curious about. As a teacher, I need to be very mindful of the things I say when I am giving feedback because some students will take my feedback as a personal attack, no matter how carefully I phrase it. So, why is it that some students take feedback so crushingly and some students so constructively?
According to Martin Seligman, in his book, Learned Optimism, part of the reason is that some people see themselves and their world through a lens of permanent, pervasive, and personal pessimism. In other words, they believe they will never do better in anything because they will never get it. How do they come to believe that, though?
Within the school realm, particularly in the elementary years, part of the reason may be what students are told when they do not do well on an assignment or test. It starts with the widely accepted belief that young boys are more active and restless than girls. More girls are able to sit quietly in class and can give the illusion that they are paying attention.
In a fascinating study of third graders, Carol Dweck, a well-respected researcher into emotional development, found that when boys did not do well on a test, they were often given messages like “if they had paid attention in class” or “quit fooling around” they would have done better. Girls, if they did not do well on a test, were told things like “math may be hard for you” or “you never check your work.” The difference being that boys got the message that their condition was temporary, specific, and external. Girls got messages that their condition was permanent, pervasive, and personal. The temporary, specific, external message implies the condition can be easily overcome. The permanent, pervasive, personal message implies the condition cannot be overcome.
Dweck then gave the fourth graders unsolvable word problems and guess what? The boys reasoning for not being able to solve them were “I didn’t try very hard” or “I wasn’t paying attention.” The girls’ reasoning, however, followed the lines of “I’m not very good at word games” or “I guess I’m not very bright.” And if students get this message often enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This brings home how important it is to be mindful of our words and how we phrase successes and failures. I want to give all students, especially those who do struggle, hope and optimism for the future. I’m not foolish enough to think that this alone will make the difference between developing an optimistic or pessimistic student, but it can play a role.
What are your thoughts about how children become pessimistic or optimistic? What else could we do to help them become more optimistic?