What is "learned optimism" and why might it be important for your child?

03rd Oct 2017

For many of us being cut up in traffic is infuriating. We want to rail against the idiotic driver who senselessly drove in front of us and almost hit the side of our car in the process.

He or she clearly wasn't thinking and so you start to question why they are even on the road, better still let's make them realise that the dual carriageway is no place for them by shouting some profanity and trying out the new horn.

For many this is a natural reaction to a typical scenario. For a psychologist called Marin Seligman it is the ABC of one's natural response.

Adversity - someone has done something against you, in this case driven in front of you. Belief - you can't believe someone could be so stupid, were they not looking, they could easily have hit the car or injured me. And finally, Consequence - you start shouting from inside the car, you get angry and give them a piece of your mind.

For children this is a natural mechanism for dealing with many of life's injustices, I witnessed several from my own children this morning on the journey in. "Why did you steal my seat?" "You are messing up my homework." "That's my milk!"

Dealing with life's challenges are what makes us human but for Seligman he draws conclusions from how we respond to these events. For some, they see this chain of events as outside their control, they may blame others for allowing it to happen (me, mostly if you were in the car this morning!) or they may start to blame themselves. For some this leads to "learned pessimism" or the idea that bad things are always likely to happen and we have very little control over them.

Others, he found, managed to somehow fight this belief with what he called "learned optimism" or an ability to always see the silver lining on every cloud. To the ABC above Seligman adds D and E for his "learned optimism" model. Disputation means identifying alternative facts and theories to what just happened. Perhaps the driver was having a bad day, perhaps he or she was late for work, perhaps they were rushing to hospital? For my children, disputation might involve them saying, "You must be thirsty, I'll get another glass", or "Actually the homework is not that bad, I can still hand it in." (All perhaps slightly unlikely if you know my kids!) E stands for Energisation and this is when we turn the disputation and feelings of frustration (adversity) into positive energy and ultimately learned optimism.

Life is not always quite so simple and some event will simply overwhelm us but I am regularly surprised by the variety of responses we see from children to very similar situations. A lost bag, for example, can completely topple some kids whilst others think through the problem and always manage to come out the other end (whether they find it or not) with a smile on their face.

The weight of exams can be hugely burdensome but some seem to handle the pressure better than others, why? I'm exploring ideas of mental toughness at Radnor presently and how we can create more opportunities for children to learn the techniques to help them chart a more positive and optimistic path.

The ABCDE model above is an interesting one to throw into the mix as a useful means of teaching children how to deal with some of life's challenges.