During these uncertain times, all of us are confronted by a number of competing feelings—anxiety, fear, and a loss of control being top contenders. You may be leading in-person classes, unsure of how you can teach when so many of your guiding strategies have to be rethought in terms of health and safety. No longer can your room design promote the kind of interaction and sharing that is basic to early childhood philosophy. And what will happen if you or one of the children tests positive or was exposed to someone with COVID-19 and suddenly have to go into quarantine?
With all of these unknowns, it may seem that optimism is out of place in today’s “new normal.” However, we would like to propose that optimism is exactly what we need.
Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen—to you, to others, and the world. It is not, however, a Pollyannaish belief that life is all rainbows, unicorns, and heart emoji. True optimism is constrained by reality. Realistic optimism is about the ability to acknowledge problems and still maintain a positive outlook. It is the backbone of resilience. Choosing to be optimistic can be an invaluable tool during this period when resilience is what we need and crave.
Hundreds of research studies have shown that optimism improves both our health and quality of life. Optimists, as compared to pessimists, are less likely to become ill. Should they become ill, they are more likely to recover. Overall, optimists live nine years longer than pessimists. They also have richer and more rewarding relationships and careers. In addition, optimists are better able to cope with stressful experiences, which is how most everyone would describe daily life in 2020.
Even if you weren’t born that way (only 25% of us are), you can learn to be optimistic. The chief tool for this is developing an explanatory style that allows you to reframe negative thinking. An explanatory style can be described as the stories people use to explain the cause of any event—good or bad. It is the prism through which we experience life, and leads us to feel either hopeless (lacking control and a belief in change) or hopeful (able to solve problems and plan alternatives).
To upend your own negative thoughts takes practice, but is very achievable. You might try using a journal. Each time you experience a problem or adversity, describe what happened as factually as possible. Next, record how you interpreted the situation. Finally, write down what you felt about the situation and how you reacted to it. Afterwards, review these entries as objectively as possible. If, for example, only three of the five children who were supposed to participate in an online science experiment you conducted were present for the session, did you spend valuable time trying to track the missing families down? Did you write the event off as a failure because of poor attendance? Or, did you see how involved the three participating children were as they related the experiment to earlier learnings and asked questions that showed they were absorbing the intended content?
As you work on moving away from a negative thinking style, it can be helpful to remember that there are behaviors—we call them thinking traps—that we all can avoid:
- Jumping to conclusions: assuming something is true based on little or no evidence
- Mind reading: assuming we know what the other person is thinking or that they know our thoughts
- Emotional reasoning: drawing a conclusion based on feelings or intuition, not facts
- Overgeneralizing: making assumptions based on one or two experiences
- Magnifying/Minimizing: overemphasizing negative events and seeing positive events as unimportant
- Catastrophizing: assuming the worst case scenario is in place; exaggerating how bad things will be.
Every time your mind heads towards one of these thinking traps, use self-talk to guide yourself to an optimistic perspective. For example, instead of seeing yourself as “trapped at home, away from colleagues” focus on the benefits—time to get to know individual children and families better and to recharge yourself as an educator.
Here are a few other ideas for bringing optimism into your life and that of the children you teach:
Work on being resilient. Bouncing back from adversity doesn’t typically happen without effort. Experts have pinpointed six critical abilities in addition to thinking optimistically that lead to resilience:
- Stay calm under pressure and express emotions in a helpful way: “I am so sorry to hear that your abuela is in the hospital, Eduardo. Would you like to make her a card that you can send to her?”
- Delay gratification: “Children, there wasn’t time today for us to talk about what treat you’d like us to learn to cook. So first thing tomorrow, let’s discuss what to make and why you think everyone would enjoy learning how to make it.”
- Analyze the causes of a problem: “Now that our program has reopened some families are becoming lax about mask wearing and social distancing. Others are constantly expressing their worries. Let’s have a virtual meeting with all families to review how we are implementing CDC policies to keep children safe while they are learning.”
- Have empathy for others: “There’s no money in the budget to make sure every child has a tablet to use at home. I am going to apply for a grant to subsidize the costs.”
- Believe in your ability to persevere: “Even though I am not always comfortable using Zoom, I know the more that I do it the better I get and the more ideas I pick up for improving my online teaching.”
- Connect with others: “I am going to suggest that we have weekly Zoom calls so we can share our concerns that are not just program-related. We all have our own worries that we can help each other with.”
Derry Koralek is the President of DGK & Company, providing early childhood educational consulting to a variety of clients. She authors early childhood resources including two recent books co-written with Laura J. Colker, High-Quality Early Childhood Education, the What, Why, and How (2018) and Making Lemonade, Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically (2019), and an NAEYC publication, Families and Educators Together: Building Great Relationships that Support Young Children (2019), with Karen Nemeth and Kelly Ramsey.
Other recent work includes the development of training materials for Early Head Start staff, through Zero to Three and a major revision of the textbook, Essentials for Working with Young Children, for the Council for Professional Recognition.
For 14 years, she wrote, edited, and managed publications for the National Association for the Education. She joined NAEYC as the Editor in Chief of Young Children, the association’s award-winning, peer-reviewed professional journal. While at NAEYC, Koralek also served as creator and Editor in Chief of Teaching Young Children, a magazine for preschool educators.
While continuing to edit periodicals, Koralek became Chief Publishing Officer. She directed all publishing activities for the Association including print and digital content, and related resources.Before joining NAEYC, Koralek completed numerous projects through DGK & Company in support of early childhood teachers and family child care providers.
Laura J. Colker
Laura J. Colker, Ed.D., is an international author, lecturer, and trainer in early childhood education. She is the author or co-author of over 100 publications and has contributed to the development of more than 40 educational videos and PBS series. Dr. Colker co-authored the widely used The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, now in its sixth edition.
In addition, she is also one of the founders and developers of the Department of Defense Education Activity’s Sure Start program operating at over 60 military installations in Europe and Asia.