Q: My daughter, Karina, a second-grader, is a grump! Her kindergarten-age sister is Miss Sunshine, but Karina is increasingly disorganized or helpless, always finding something wrong, even though she has good grades. Any little thing sets her off. Her teacher says we need to work to improve her outlook. Any thoughts?
A: Assuming no extraordinary factors are affecting Karina's life, it sounds like she is learning pessimism and developing a way of thinking that isn't healthy, says youth counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom) consulting.
"No second-grader should get up every morning and see the glass half empty," Gehley says. "You can teach her to use the empowering energy of optimism and learn to stay positive."
Researchers have shown that students who have a bright outlook are more resilient and do better in school. They are physically healthier, more self-confident, outgoing, and able to deal with adversity and setbacks because they don't take them personally. They can also stand up to bullies more effectively and advocate on their own behalf with peers and adults.
When Gehley works with young people, no matter how dire their circumstances, she draws from the work of Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the "granddaddy of the science of positive psychology," says Gehley. "The guy is a genius, and the good news is that educators and parents are beginning to incorporate elements of this science into their teaching and parenting."
Positive psychology posits that optimism and resilience are learned, and that we control our attitudes. Optimists bounce back from glitches and failures.
"They see bad events as more temporary than permanent," says Gehley. "They don't let one failure color their attitude about everything. Conversely, optimists also tend to let good events and positive happenings influence their overall outlook.
"An optimistic girl who kicks the winning goal in soccer sees it as the result of the team's hard work and practice, not some fluke. She internalizes the positive energy and spreads it around to others."
Gehley gives parents copies of Seligman's book, "The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience" (Mariner Books, 2007), and she refers them to Seligman's TED Talk online (www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html).
"When parents use the tools to help kids learn the skills of optimism," Gehley says, "they see right away that they're boosting kids' self-reliance and self-esteem and giving them a strong foundation to approach the teenage years."
To keep young kids looking forward to positive aspects of each day at school, corporate leadership guru Jon Gordon wrote a children's book based on his best-selling book, "The Energy Bus." In parable format, "The Energy Bus for Kids" (Wiley, 2012) shows readers how to overcome everyday challenges. The book explores five rules for "The Ride of Your Life": create a positive vision; fuel your ride with positive energy; don't allow bullies on the bus; love your passengers; and enjoy the ride!
"Negativity is part of life, but teaching children to overcome it is one of the most important things we can do," says Gordon.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)