Making Lemonade: Teaching young children to think optimistically

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We were fortunate to have Derry Koralek and Laura J. Colker present a webinar based on their book Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically on April 10, 2019. Many of the participants had questions that we were unable to ask the presenters.  They were kind enough to answer them and they are posted below.  Here is a link to the recording: Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically

Click here to:  Download the PowerPoint Slides

Handout_Children’s Books that Teach Optimism

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Q.1. I would love to hear more about the optimistic gene!

A.1. Studies conducted in England in 2009 and at UCLA in 2011 identified an oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) that is linked to optimism. Each of us inherits two versions of the gene—either two short ones, two long ones, or one of each. People who have two long versions are predisposed to be optimistic.

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Q.2. In what way can optimism help with health and having a better look at life? Is it like meditation? Is it like yoga? I have a lot of stress and so how can I use it for myself

A.2. Researchers have found four ways that optimism contributes to improved health:

  1. Optimism strengthens the immune system, whereas pessimism weakens the immune system. This finding has been validated by studies conducted in Denmark and by researchers at the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville.
  2. Optimistic people are more likely to follow health regimens and seek medical advice than pessimistic people. A Danish study found that optimistic patients exercised more, adopted healthier lifestyles, and were 58% more likely to live another five years than pessimistic patients. A 2017 Harvard study found similar results.
  3. Optimists are less likely to have illnesses caused by stressors such as divorce or job loss. Optimists tend to be action oriented when facing and resolving negative events. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to be passive. They typically avoid dealing with negative life events, and they often do nothing to stop them once they have begun. As such, optimists amass fewer negative life events and avoid the illnesses caused by them.
  4. Optimists have more social support than pessimists. Isolation exac¬erbates illness, whereas engagement with others serves as a buffer against illness.

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Q.3. Is that logic now in this era that really 9 years optimistic people live longer or is it just a theory?

A.3. It’s not just theory. Research studies have shown that optimism leads to an average increased life expectancy of nine years. This statistic is cited by University of Pennsylvania researcher and pioneer in the study of optimism, Karen Reivich (2010. “Think Positive.” Fishful Thinking. Podcast. May 24. BlogTalkRadio.com/fishfulthinking/2010/05/24/think-positive). The Nun Study discussed in the webinar (Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen 2001), found that optimistic nuns outlived pessimistic nuns by an average of 10 years.

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Q.4. Are infants and toddlers in the category of optimistic or pessimistic or is this age group to young?

A.4. Yes, infants and toddlers are beginning to form an explanatory style as to whether they are optimistic or pessimistic. However, we as educators cannot change pessimistic thinking in children who are less than 2-1/2. This is because children need to be able to understand “what they are thinking in their heads”—a skill known as metacognition. Rarely are infants and toddlers developmentally capable of having this skill.

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Q.5. What is the scientist’s name that did the shocking experiment?

A.5. It was Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. He is considered the “father” of learned optimism.

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Q.6. How will you deal with younger children of all ages from grade 2 to 8 and have two optimistic children in the class?

A.6. The same ABCDE model that was introduced during the Webinar can be used with children in all grades, and for adults, too. Every time a child has a pessimistic reaction to something, sit with the child and help him or her dispute the negative thoughts and reach an optimistic conclusion.

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Q.7. In your opinion what are good activities to use with 2 year old’s for helping with optimism?

A.7. While age two is too young to try using the ABCDE model, you can adapt some of the activities that were mentioned in the webinar. For example, you can read and discuss some of the optimism-related books that are in the handout. You could also have children draw pictures of what it feels like when they are happy or what kind of music makes them feel better when they are sad or angry. Discussions about emotions will help children be able to begin identifying and self-regulating their emotions, a needed step in learning how to be optimistic.

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Q.8. Which one is on the left of the raindrop pessimist or optimist

A.8. In the graphic of optimism and pessimism, the “raindrop” on the left represents how an optimist and a pessimist react in an adverse situation. The one on the right depicts reactions to a fortunate situation. Both “raindrops” show optimism and pessimism.

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Q.9. doesn’t disputing their thoughts tell them that they are wrong for thinking that way?

A.9. Good question. You don’t want to deny the child’s right to think and feel any way they want. In fact, you want to validate those feelings and then help the child calm down so that she or he can focus on what is happening. Disputation involves GENTLY pointing out to the child how his or her negative thoughts are not rooted in fact. By offering examples that go against the child’s pessimistic feelings, you help the child see a more optimistic—and realistic– solution. It takes a number of uses of the ABCDE model before children will learn to eventually dispute their pessimistic thoughts by themselves.

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Q.10. What is the benefit of weaving the optimism steps into the daily activities vs. planning an activity specific to cultivating optimism?

A.10. Optimism is not a skill that can be introduced and then forgotten about. Our explanatory styles affect everything we perceive. They permeate all that we do. In order to change a child’s thinking style, you need to have lots of conversations using the ABCDE model. These conversations are best when they occur naturally during the day, not at a specified time set aside to discuss optimism. Like teaching children how to solve problems or negotiate conflicts, optimism is a skill learned over time utilizing real life events.

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Q.11. How do we address needs of older children who are savvy to the social story and don’t want to listen to it? (Age 7-10)

A.11. The activities presented in the Webinar are intended for 3-6 year olds. You would need to adapt these activities to meet the developmental needs of older children.

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Q.12. what if they say I don’t know?

A.12. Experts have found that you can help children to understand their beliefs about an adverse or fortunate situation by asking questions such as “What is your head telling you?” or “What are you saying to yourself?” or “What are you thinking inside your head?”

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Q.13. What if the children answer the questions in a “negative” way? How do you encourage optimistic answers?

A.13. This is where the ABCDE model comes in. In step D, you gently re-frame children’s negative thoughts by disputing their conclusions. Your goal is to substitute negative interpretations with positive ones.

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Q.14. Is there a way to support optimism even when children do not have the nine needed skills?

A.14. The nine skills (i.e., how to identify and regulate emotions, use executive functions, possess confidence and self-efficacy, be independent, take risks, persevere, solve problems, be empathic, and self-calm) set the stage for optimism. While they are not requirements for teaching optimism, they will make the process easier and more successful. These nine skills are also indicators of high-quality early childhood practices, so they are skills that you will want to incorporate in your program anyway. It’s important to have a curriculum that supports optimism so that children are receiving consistent messages. You will find that most curricula that are consistent with teaching optimism will also promote development of these nine skills.

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Q.15. How about helping model optimism for parents and caregivers?

A.15. As we noted in the webinar, teaching optimism is most successful when everyone in the program—including staff and families—practices optimism. Children, of course, learn best when they receive consistent messages about the importance of optimism. In the book Making Lemonade, there are handouts for families and guidance on making your own explanatory style optimistic so that you can be a positive role model. Being optimistic will also improve your own life.
Fran commented during the webinar: “I would like to direct you to Life is Good Kids Foundation Playmakers. They work with early educators to build their resilience and optimism. They offer ongoing programs and I love them! Steve Gross who runs the program spoke for us and he wrote the forward to Making Lemonade.”

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Q.16. Was there information found out about the scientist and if any animals were harmed?

A.16. While animals were lightly shocked, they were not permanently harmed. Remember these experiments took place in the 1960’s, before there were regulations concerning the ethical treatment of animals in experiments. While exposing animals to electric shock was standard practice at the time, it is of course no longer done.

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Q.17. How do you handle resistance from staff

A.17. As with anything else, you need staff to buy into a concept before they will support it. With optimism, it’s important that everyone in the school is supportive of teaching optimism, so that adults become optimistic role models. One good way to begin is to share the benefits of optimism with staff. Once they see the research on how optimism dramatically helps children in school and life, they are likely to be more favorable towards it. You can also point out that teaching optimism doesn’t require a lot of paperwork or effort on their part. It is something that can easily be integrated into the ongoing curriculum. Also, make sure that staff realize that by becoming optimistic themselves, their lives will improve, too.