When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement

~by Sherri Fisher

Would you send your child to a school whose schedule encouraged them to become socially inept, inattentive, overweight, depressed underachievers? Probably not. But these may be unintended side effects of the focus on increasing instructional time to maximize math and reading achievement scores.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Education Act (NCLB) in the United States, school districts have scrambled to meet their annual progress goals. Entire school districts have been found underperforming, and many schools have been closed. Recently in Michigan and Rhode Island, classroom teachers have been fired en masse for failing to measure up. Meanwhile, the schedule in most schools has been lengthened in structured academic areas and shortened in unstructured free time. It seems to make sense that spending more time on academics would yield higher performance. So why isn’t this the case?

Free Play

First let’s look at what the research says about the value of free play for children.

  • It increases imagination and creativity.
  • It allows children to organize their own games and rules.
  • It encourages movement and physical well-being.
  • Children learn problem solving skills and practice leadership.
  • They develop important social emotional skills.
  • Children manage stress and become more resilient.

At school, free play, when it happens at all, takes place during recess, defined as a break during the school day of 20 minutes or more that allows children the time for unstructured, undirected active free play.

Recess, however, is a casualty of several social and educational phenomena, including the focus on high-stakes testing, teacher and administrator fear of school violence and bullying, and the fear that lower performing schools can never catch up if they don’t devote more time to academic learning.

Given the limited number of hours in a school day, subjects like creative arts and physical education occupy reduced time in the schedule, too. This is despite research that connects reduced physical and social activity to child obesity, brain studies that show the importance of movement and creative activity to learning, and the availability of unstructured break times for children linked to development of social skills and improved attention.

Who Stays in From Recess?

So who does not get recess? A 2009 Pediatrics study of about 11,000 3rd graders (8-9 years old) taken from a demographically balanced national sample found that 30% of study children did not have recess at all or had less than a total 15 minutes of break daily. Children without recess were significantly more likely

  • to be Black or Hispanic
  • to live in a large or medium sized city
  • to live in the South
  • to attend public school
  • to come from families with lower income
  • to have parents with lower education attainment
  • to have poorer focus/attention on their teacher and on assigned tasks

The trend toward reducing recess has serious consequences for our most disadvantaged children, who often live in unsafe neighborhoods and for whom supervised free play at school may be the only place they can safely engage in physical activity, social skills development, and problem solving to build the healthy foundation that leads to flourishing.

Play with Other Children Matters

Especially for elementary-aged children, engaging in active social play improves

  • physical health
  • school adjustment
  • social connection and friendship skills
  • reciprocal role taking, perspective skills and resilience
  • behavioral flexibility and negotiation skills
  • cognitive flexibility

A Gallup Poll published this year surveyed nearly 2000 school principals nationwide who overwhelmingly agreed that recess has a positive impact on the social development (96%), general well-being (97%), and listening/focus (67%) of children. Importantly, 80% of principals surveyed also believe recess has a positive effect on academic achievement. The American Academy of Pediatrics has pressed the importance of free play as an essential part of healthy physical and optimal brain development, and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education also supports school recess for at least 20 minutes per day.

In an age where bullying, school violence and youth suicide are growing concerns, especially among middle and high school students, building healthy elementary schoolers is a great place to cultivate the physical, intellectual, and emotional capital that can prevent future problems.

Physical Activity = Mental “Miracle-Gro”

John Ratey, MD, calls exercise “Mental Miracle-Gro”. Exercise encourages brain cells to grow new synapses that make the connections among neural nets the brain needs in order to learn and remember. The California Department of Education has consistently shown that students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that third and fifth grade students in an Indiana study who had higher aerobic capacity and lower body mass index had higher total academic achievement, math achievement, and reading achievement.

Physical activity is also positively correlated with cognition skills, and vigorous physical activity is positively correlated with higher school grades. Children with higher fitness levels also have more attentional resources for working memory. A test that measured children’s levels of executive functions showed that those who spent 40 minutes a day playing tag and taking part in other active games designed by researchers were significantly more capable of the cognitive processes that involve planning, organizing, abstract thinking, or self-control. In a Massachusetts study of public school 4th, 6th and 8th graders, those with higher physical fitness achievement were even found to be more likely to pass the state assessments (MCAS), among the most challenging in the nation.

So why do the neediest students go without, and what can be done about this? The good news is that clearly, a school’s academic effectiveness is about more than what happens in the classroom. In the next part of this series, you’ll learn what adults need to know about increasing their achievement.

(Originally published on May 5, 2010: Positive Psychology News Daily. )


References

Barros, R.M., Silver, E.J., & Stein, R.E.K. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123; 431-436.

Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C.H., Buck, S.M., Erwin, H.E. ( 2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third and fifth grade students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 239-252.

Jarrett, O.S. (2002). Recess in elementary school: What does the research say? ERIC Digest. 466331 2002-07-00.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. ( 2009). Recess — It’s indispensable!  in Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum. Reprinted from Young Children, Sept. 2009.

Pellegrini,A.D. & Bohn, C.M. (2005). (2005). The role of recess in children’s cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher. Jan/Feb 2005, 13-19.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess. (2010). Princeton: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Wolk, S. (2008). Joy in school. The Positive Classroom, 66:1, 8-15.

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Nurturing Your Creative Mindset

–by Sherri Fisher

Do you ever wish you were more creative? New research has shown that adults can be primed to become more creative simply by being asked to think like children.  There are many kinds of creativity, including flexible thinking, elaboration of existing ideas, fluency of ideas, and originality.

For the purposes of the study conducted at North Dakota State University, college students were asked to imagine and write about what they would do if school was canceled for the day. In the experimental condition, they were primed in advance of writing to imagine that they were seven years old. Merely being primed to think like a child resulted in the production of more original responses on a subsequent measure of creativity.

What Happens to Creativity as We Grow?

There are numerous benefits to being more creative. However in school, creativity is usually valued less than conventional thinking, whether you are a student or a teacher. It may be that formal education discourages divergent thinking, and that school may also coincide with a natural brain development shift in students from more impulsive and less self-conscious thought to less spontaneous and more rule-bound thought.

Since both ways of thinking are important (imagine if we were all child-like all the time), it is intriguing to think about interventions that would enable you to be more creative at least some of the time. You might try thinking like a 7-year-old right before you have to do something that requires original thinking.

Mastery Goals versus Performance Goals

Mastery goals are ones focused on helping a student see how well they are progressing when compared to their own previous achievement through learning, understanding and individual progress and knowledge, whereas performance goals focus on the importance of avoiding mistakes, outperforming other students, and meeting extrinsic objectives such as high grades, standards, and awards.  A focus on mastery goals tends to build intrinsic motivation and creativity, along with positive feelings about learning, more perseverance (think Grit), self-advocacy and curiosity, as well as higher academic engagement. A classroom with a mastery focus is also more student-centered and individualized, and its students attribute success to effort rather than just ability.

Most schools are structured around performance goals. Carol Dweck has found that everyone has one of two basic mindsets, the fixed (performance) mindset, where you believe that your talents and abilities are either something you have or don’t have, and the growth (mastery) mindset, which is characterized by knowing that abilities can develop over time with effort and practice. Many teachers and school districts say they value the very things that a mastery focus develops, yet schools are typically performance oriented, with data-driven goals for higher math and reading scores, in particular.

Are We Discouraging Love of Learning in Students?

It should not come as a surprise that classrooms with a performance goal focus have students who are more competitive with peers and less personally interested in learning, since the adults in such environments use extrinsic motivators such as grades, and they reward conventional responses. The current push to reward teachers for student performance uses the same approach. If supporting creativity encourages curiosity, and curiosity along with VIA strengths like love of learning and perseverance help to predict GPA, it would make sense to nurture more divergent creative thinking.

I would argue that the best teachers are able to think like their students, anticipating that bumps along the learning road may either cause a breakdown or instead catapult students to new heights of learning.

Can you nurture your creativity?  Many researchers believe so, and a simple writing intervention will let you try the approach for yourself.


References

Anderman, L. & Anderman, E . (2009). Oriented Towards Mastery: Promoting positive motivational goals for students. In R. Gilman, S. Huebner, & M. Furlong, Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp. 161-173). Routledge.

Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews & Kelly (2006). Grit, perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-101.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education (Educational Psychology), (pp. 37-60). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.

Friedman, T. (2007). The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Picador Press.

Kaufman, J. & Beghetto, R. (2009). Creativity in the Schools: A rapidly developing area of positive psychology. In R. Gilman, S. Huebner, & M. Furlong, Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp. 175-188). Routledge.

Zabelina, D. & Robinson, M. (2010). Child’s Play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(1), 57-65.

(Originally published by The Positive Psychology News Daily, Nurturing Your Creative Mindset, 4/5/2010)

From Pestering to Perspective: Applying Positive Psychology with Students


~by Sherri Fisher

Perspective

This academic year I have had several older high school and college student clients referred to me with new diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and related organizational difficulties. Imagine struggling through school for 10 or 12 or more years then finding out that there is a reason besides laziness for your procrastination, inefficiency, and forgetfulness. Just yesterday, a student who I will call James was able to articulate for perhaps the first time his new awareness of how difficult initiating and focusing on work can be for him. He announced when he came into my office that his procrastination problem has become huge and he needs to find strategies that he can actually use and that will work for him. “All they do at home and school is pester me,” he sighed. What tools from positive psychology can help James?

Perspective: Managing Your Outlook

Like most of us, James has a lot of “life” in his life right now. Some of this busyness is atypical, but other things, while expected at this time in his life, are also difficult for James. For example his family was displaced from their home after a fire there in January. They have been living in temporary housing for more than two months, and will not be back in a home of their own before summer. While that is out of the ordinary, as a senior, James is in the graduation home stretch known as senioritis and like his classmates he is expected to take on a long-term project of his own choosing that he will manage and complete alone. Feeling both hopeful and anxious, as he waits for the fat envelopes that will contain his college acceptances, James is ambivalent about leaving his family when he attends college this fall. Where James lives, the days are now appreciably longer and brighter, and warm days draw him to pleasant times outside after school rather than doing homework.

When so many life events happen simultaneously, it can be difficult to see them in perspective. Here is a diagram that James and I developed together showing some of his major life events and the way he was able to see them overlapping. Even without adding spring fever and senioritis, which are in the second diagram below, it seems pretty clear that paying attention to schoolwork would be difficult for James even if he did not have attention difficulties!

Faced with the task of self-regulating through difficult life experiences, James now realizes that he needs help to focus on the schoolwork which pales compared to  bigger things looming in the background of his life. It may seem quite clear to the adults in James’s life that he “just needs to get his work done”, because school assignments look small and doable to his teachers and parents. But to James, who has difficulty self-regulating, his everyday work is just not stimulating enough to capture his attention. It suffers from duration neglect, and as a result, nearly anything else, from having his dog present a tennis ball with the hope of playing fetch, to the smell of dinner cooking, will get James off-track.

James needs to put his responsibilities into perspective and calm the chatter that is preventing him from completing his daily work. In his diagram James has his life circumstances including the fire and anticipating leaving home as a background against which school work is imposed. Being outside spending time with his dog and driving around with his friends are the things he values most and he puts them above all else. By reframing schoolwork not as an imposition but as a window that he can see through, James can use self-determination theory, making his education about himself, instead of about his teachers and parents’ pestering.

Priming: Creating a Good Work Surface

James also needs to make it possible to accomplish his work, not just to think about it differently. While his family has been moving to different temporary housing, James has found it almost impossible to settle down and complete homework or projects. By staying after school every day and going to the library, however, he is priming himself for work. Priming, according to James, is what he does to be sure he has a “good surface” so his attention, learning and work stick. James is using his VIA strengths, especially “humor”, “perspective”, and “hope and optimism” to bolster his need for more self-regulation in the longer view of things. He’s making artificial deadlines (no short-term gain!) to increase the stimulation threshold required for him to consider daily schoolwork important. He’s rewarding himself as soon as (but not before) the work is done, with the things he values most: spending time with his friends, and playing with his dog outside. He’s also using positive psychology’s other people matter and the peak-end rule, getting his friends to support him by meeting up at 4 PM each day when the school library closes. This way the experience wraps up with a pleasurable peak.

Visual Metaphors: Keeping the Goal in View

If you look at the second diagram again, you will notice that the schoolwork bar is still transparent, allowing James to be aware that there are many other big things happening in his life but that schoolwork has to be in front of all that. Otherwise, his big goal of leaving home for college in the fall might not happen.

Deliberate and mindful practice will be necessary to keep James on track as he builds better habits. Knowing what he’s doing, why it’s working and becoming independent in applying positive psychology strategies now will be a great foundation for James, for college and beyond.

Author’s invitation:

Want to dig deeper? Read and follow the links to other articles that give even more information about the empirical basis for the Positive Psychology applications discussed above!

(This article originally appeared in the Positive Psychology News Daily and is used with permission.)

Not Good Enough? Not Smart Enough? Not Pretty Enough?

Round & Round & Round It Goes
The voices in our heads can be real buzz-kills. “I’m not whatever enough.” I should be (doing) X, I should be (doing) Y, I should be (doing) Z.
WinterSome call this voice “the gremlin” or saboteur. Others look at it is as a radio station that plays recurring tunes of self-limiting beliefs embedded into our subconscious minds.  Whatever you call it, these voices have harmful effects.  Positive psychologists sometimes suggest that it is our own, self-deprecating mind chatter which holds us in the bonds of ordinance. Our thoughts and belief systems can become our realities.
Summer   Limiting beliefs lead to procrastination and laziness, dampen and destroy dreams, and bring down morale. Successful people who exhibit high levels of grit have learned to combat these limiting beliefs by changing the hardwired thinking patterns – replacing them with more constructive and positive ones. This takes attention, intention, and will.
How Do People Stop The Voices in Their Heads?
Journal1) Journaling.  Students in seventh grade were asked to write about an important value—like being smart (or an unimportant value in the control group) for just 15-minutes several times throughout the year. The intervention improved the end-of-semester grades for the African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40% in the experimental group, presumably by lowering the self-threat associated with confirming the negative “not good/smart enough” belief systems associated with stereotype vulnerability (see work by Claude Steele). Just this week, researchers noted that improvements continue through eighth grade. The students who benefited had nearly a half-point higher grade point average than struggling peers in the control group.
This middle-school intervention study was run by researchers Geoffrey Cohen (University of Colorado), Julio Garcia (Colorado), Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (Columbia University) and Nancy Apfel and Patricia Brzustoski (Yale) and focused on journaling.
2) Focusing on Mindset and Learned Optimism.  Anther answer to stopping the voices is to actively focus on your growth mindset, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would suggest (see Got Grit? Start with Mindset by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya and “Brainset” – Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory by Nicholas Hall).  At an even more basic level, people can counter the voices by self-training themselves in learned optimism self-talk as founder of positive psychology and University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman would suggest (see Learning Optimism by Doug Turner and Is feeling better as easy as ABC? by Nicholas Hall).
Microphone3) Focusing on Positive Self Thoughts. Psychologists Shelley Taylor and David Sherman suggest in a paper last year that the processes surrounding self-enhancement and self-affirmation are the key to how psychological health is maintained, or restored, after a threat. It is also key in fueling the ability to set and maintain energy around goals.
4) Activating Hope. Believing that you have positive strengths and talents allows you to feel good about yourself, even through stressful times, because you can pull from a bank of resources that make you uniquely you. A heightened mindfulness of your general attributes may facilitate performance by boosting your sense of self-worth—what Diane McDermott and C.R. Snyder (1999) call mental willpower. This can start simply by making a list of accomplishments you have had in your life.
Specific Techniques
While you are probably way past middle school, some of your internal gremlins may have lingered in one form or another since then. Ready for them to be gone?
I work with clients all the time to change their belief systems. Just the other day I was speaking with a woman who says she wants to meet the man of her dreams. When I asked her if she thought it what possible, the silence was deafening. It all starts with the belief.
Saying “Could.” Another client of mine is going through career transition. He has all of these belief systems that tell him what he should be doing. One way to easy some of that “should” anxiety is, according to mainstream author Louise Hay, to make a list of them.  For example, “I should be making over 6 figures, I should be working in finance, I should be wearing a suit and tie to work everyday.” Then, reread the list, but this time replace “should” with “could” and then ask yourself, “So why don’t I?” Usually, the responses are “because I don’t want to” and then viola! Some of the self-inflected stress is removed and space is cleared to proceed in creating the life you most want to live.
Reframing in the Moment.  There’s also the work of Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte (The Resilience Factor) on reframing using real-time resilience. Whenever you’re in a situation where you want to feel better, you can work through some mental calisthenics, like these (see The A.P.E. Method to Get Out of a Bad Mood by Senia Maymin):
    “A more accurate way of seeing this is …” (Look for alternatives.)
    “That’s not true because…” (Look at the evidence.)
    “A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.” (Consider the implications and perspective.)
Be bold and be daring as you experiment with your life—be open and willing to see what works best for you. And perhaps even ask your friends and coworkers for some help and accountability.
References:
Carson, R. (2003). Taming Your Gremlin (Revised Edition): A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. Collins Living; Rev Sub edition.
Cohen GL, Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, N., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324, 400-403.
Hay, Louise, L. (1999). You Can Heal Your Life (Gift Edition). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
McDermott, D. & Snyder, C.R. (1999). Making Hope Happen: A Workbook for Turning Possibilities into Reality. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
Taylor, S. & Sherman, D. (2008). Self enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self thoughts for motivation and health. In Shah, J. & Gardner W. (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation Science (pp. 58-70). New York: Guilford.

 

Round & Round & Round It Goes

                                                                       ~By Louis Alloro, MAPP, M.Ed.

The voices in our heads can be real buzz-kills. “I’m not whatever enough.” I should be (doing) X, I should be (doing) Y, I should be (doing) Z.

Some call this voice “the gremlin” or saboteur. Others look at it is as a radio station that plays recurring tunes of self-limiting beliefs embedded into our subconscious minds.  Whatever you call it, these voices have harmful effects.  Positive psychologists sometimes suggest that it is our own, self-deprecating mind chatter which holds us in the bonds of ordinance. Our thoughts and belief systems can become our realities.

Limiting beliefs lead to procrastination and laziness, dampen and destroy dreams, and bring down morale. Successful people who exhibit high levels of grit have learned to combat these limiting beliefs by changing the hardwired thinking patterns – replacing them with more constructive and positive ones. This takes attention, intention, and will.

How Do People Stop The Voices in Their Heads?

1) Journaling.  Students in seventh grade were asked to write about an important value—like being smart (or an unimportant value in the control group) for just 15-minutes several times throughout the year. The intervention improved the end-of-semester grades for the African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40% in the experimental group, presumably by lowering the self-threat associated with confirming the negative “not good/smart enough” belief systems associated with stereotype vulnerability (see work by Claude Steele). Just this week, researchers noted that improvements continue through eighth grade. The students who benefited had nearly a half-point higher grade point average than struggling peers in the control group.

This middle-school intervention study was run by researchers Geoffrey Cohen (University of Colorado), Julio Garcia (Colorado), Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (Columbia University) and Nancy Apfel and Patricia Brzustoski (Yale) and focused on journaling.

2) Focusing on Mindset and Learned Optimism.  Anther answer to stopping the voices is to actively focus on your growth mindset, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would suggest.

At an even more basic level, people can counter the voices by self-training themselves in learned optimism self-talk as founder of positive psychology and University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman would suggest.

3) Focusing on Positive Self Thoughts. Psychologists Shelley Taylor and David Sherman suggest in a paper last year that the processes surrounding self-enhancement and self-affirmation are the key to how psychological health is maintained, or restored, after a threat. It is also key in fueling the ability to set and maintain energy around goals.

4) Activating Hope. Believing that you have positive strengths and talents allows you to feel good about yourself, even through stressful times, because you can pull from a bank of resources that make you uniquely you. A heightened mindfulness of your general attributes may facilitate performance by boosting your sense of self-worth—what Diane McDermott and C.R. Snyder (1999) call mental willpower. This can start simply by making a list of accomplishments you have had in your life.

Specific Techniques

While you are probably way past middle school, some of your internal gremlins may have lingered in one form or another since then. Ready for them to be gone?

I work with clients all the time to change their belief systems. Just the other day I was speaking with a woman who says she wants to meet the man of her dreams. When I asked her if she thought it what possible, the silence was deafening. It all starts with the belief.

Saying “Could.” Another client of mine is going through career transition. He has all of these belief systems that tell him what he should be doing. One way to easy some of that “should” anxiety is, according to mainstream author Louise Hay, to make a list of them.  For example, “I should be making over 6 figures, I should be working in finance, I should be wearing a suit and tie to work everyday.” Then, reread the list, but this time replace “should” with “could” and then ask yourself, “So why don’t I?” Usually, the responses are “because I don’t want to” and then viola! Some of the self-inflected stress is removed and space is cleared to proceed in creating the life you most want to live.

Reframing in the Moment.  There’s also the work of Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte (The Resilience Factor) on reframing using real-time resilience. Whenever you’re in a situation where you want to feel better, you can work through some mental calisthenics, like these:

    “A more accurate way of seeing this is …” (Look for alternatives.)

    “That’s not true because…” (Look at the evidence.)

    “A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.” (Consider the implications and perspective.)

Be bold and be daring as you experiment with your life—be open and willing to see what works best for you. And perhaps even ask your friends and coworkers for some help and accountability.

Originally Published on http://www.Pos-Psych.com

References:

Carson, R. (2003). Taming Your Gremlin (Revised Edition): A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. Collins Living; Rev Sub edition.

Cohen GL, Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, N., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324, 400-403.

Hay, Louise, L. (1999). You Can Heal Your Life (Gift Edition). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

McDermott, D. & Snyder, C.R. (1999). Making Hope Happen: A Workbook for Turning Possibilities into Reality. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Taylor, S. & Sherman, D. (2008). Self enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self thoughts for motivation and health. In Shah, J. & Gardner W. (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation Science (pp. 58-70). New York: Guilford.

Against All Odds: Broadening and Building Resilience Across the Life Span

~by Sherri W. Fisher, MAPP, M.Ed.                      

We often categorize students by what they will have to overcome in order to be successful,  instead of appreciating what they already have.  What is success made of? It may not be what you think, and you may be measuring it without really knowing how today’s 6th grader might look as an adult.

In my work with children and families, people often tell me their secrets. This is the story of someone who knew nothing about Positive Psychology,  but who transformed a life of risk-factors into a life of success by using what we know to be empirically sound approaches to living a flourishing life.

The message of his life is summarized through research later in this post.

j0185265Timothy was born into a family of ten children, at the beginning of the Great Depression. His mother had been married three times; his parents were both alcoholics. Their family occupied a series of apartments in the poorest neighborhoods of Newark, NJ. From vacant lots the children collected milkweed stems that their mother boiled into a broth for their dinner. They regularly heard that they would never amount to anything.

 Beatings and other abuse were part of Timothy’s everyday life, and while he attended school, he was not considered a good student by any means. He learned to keep secrets about his life, and developed great skill at listening to and observing people. When he was 15, Timothy left home and never returned. He connected with a charity organization where a kindly man became a caring adult in his life. Timothy eventually graduated high school in a distant city. When his family did come looking for him, it was much, much later, and they were not coming to invite him home; they wanted money.

While still in high school, Timothy went to work in a leather-tanning factory where he found the long hours a great diversion from angry thoughts about the family he had left behind, the nine siblings he expected—and hoped—he would never see again.  When still underaged, he enlisted in the Navy where he was guaranteed a berth, consistent rules and expectations, and three square meals a day. 

Timothy met his future wife hitchhiking while on leave, and they eloped their way to beginning a 52-year marriage. The BW SailorNavy was Timothy’s permanent address for years. His work there, during nearly 30 years and in several countries, remains classified, as he kept secret the work he did behind the closed doors of highest level security clearance. Timothy, his wife and their four children all graduated from college, and two of them even earned master’s degrees.

In his fifties, Timothy was diagnosed with incurable cancer and underwent an extreme operation and experimental treatments in hopes of prolonging his life for up to two years. He lived on for 19 years, despite each follow-up test being positive for spreading cancer, to see his eight grandchildren join the family, and to see the eldest one graduate from high school. For more than 15 years, he was also a Sunday school superintendent and youth group leader, and he mentored future military officers. These things he did even when living out of the country. When he retired from the military, Timothy even had two more successful careers ahead of him.

Timothy died a few days before his 77th birthday, having beaten the odds that he would be a failure in numerous quarters of his life, and that he would die in his prime. (This is him on the slide below, with one of his grandkids.) Instead, he passed away quietly with his family close by, in his multimillion-dollar home, with no mortgage. He had paid for this himself.  Hundreds of mourners at his funeral—many of them who had been children and young adults he mentored—recalled  Timothy’s quiet strength, steadfast faith, and steady moral compass. He kept the secret of his childhood from nearly all of them, and they would never have guessed.

Timothy Slide BWTimothy (not his real name) was a real person. Early on he had the presence of mind to leave his family and turn his life in a different way. Two longitudinal resilience studies indicate important reasons why Timothy may have been successful in his bid for a flourishing life. The first, by Emily Werner and Ruth Smith, looked at a cohort of nearly 700 male and female individuals across their age-span from perinatal to age 40. It was conducted on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. The second, conducted by George Vaillant, followed more than 450 men from poor, high crime neighborhoods in Boston, MA and more than 260 Harvard men, for more than 50 years. 

Here are some of the important findings of both these studies that predict resilience and recovery from high-risk childhood, and success as adults:

1)      Resilient siblings of dysfunctional families withdraw from family members meshed in problems. In this case, only Timothy escaped the patterns which led seven other siblings (two others died in childhood) to repeat the sins of the parents.

2)      Resilient people have a caring adult in their lives. This person does not have to be related to the young person. Timothy accepted charity and met a trustworthy, caring adult.

3)      Resilient people develop and value personal competence and determination. In fact, this is considered one of their most effective resources by resilient adults looking back to their at-risk childhood. Timothy made a plan to leave and did not look back.

4)      Resilient people show a strong capacity to work, even in childhood. This is a strong predictor of career success and out-predicts the negatives of poverty or a multi-problem family. Capacity to work also predicts satisfying interpersonal relationships and good mental health in adulthood. Timothy was never without work from the time he was 15 years old.

5)      Resilient people set goals for their adult life, even when they are children. They focus on career or job success, self-development and self-fulfillment. They strive for a happy marriage to a spouse who is a source of support and with whom they will have children, and aspire to owning a home. Timothy and his wife were married for 52 years, and owned several homes of increasing value during this time.

6)      Resilient people set high expectations for their children. These include school achievement, higher education attainment, happy families of their own, and the clear expectation that they will do things the right way, not the easy way. All of Timothy’s children were expected to perform well in school, acquire a post-secondary education, and marry and have families, which they did, happily.

7)      Resilient people believe that failures will happen, but that you can always try again. Note that in the language of explanatory style, resilient people are not optimists—they don’t expect good things—but they do have high self-efficacy and take a long view when bad things do occur. That long view may have resulted in Timothy’s 52-year marriage and 19-year cancer survival.

8)      Resilient people are active in community service. Timothy gave back for years and years to support youth and young adults in areas that mattered deeply to him—the military and the church.

In George Vaillant’s model of adult development, Timothy successfully negotiated the “six sequential tasks”. These are

ü  Identity—separate from parents

ü  Intimacy—psychologically healthy involvement with a partner

ü  Career Consolidation—find work valuable to society, and both valuable and enjoyable to self

ü  Generativity—broadening social circle, providing care for the next generation

ü  Become Keeper of the Meaning—pass on traditions that link the past to the future

ü  Integrity—achieving peace and unity with one’s self and the world

Each of these broad categories is likely supported by applications we know and love in the Positive Psychology toolbox, such as good decision-making, building of habits, goal-setting, grit, deliberate practice, active constructive responding, learning your ABC’s, a strong social circle, a connection to something larger than oneself, and the like.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Timothy’s life is that we are not doomed from birth to live out lives of failure. Quality longitudinal research shows us that by middle age, most people, regardless of their beginnings in life, have turned out.

 **Portions originally published at www.pos-psych.com

REFERENCES

 

Vaillant, G.E., Aging Well. New York, NY: Little Brown; 2002

 

Werner E.E., Smith RS. Journeys From Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience

and Recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 2001

 

Werner E.E., Looking for trouble in paradise: some lessons learned from

the Kauai Longitudinal Study. In Phelps E, Furstenberg FF, Colby A.

Looking at Lives: American Longitudinal Studies in the Twentieth Century.

New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation; 2002:297–314

Reflection: Key to Moral Growth

~by David N. Shearon, JD, MAPP

A new study by the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California reinforces the need to help students learn to reflect and practice reflection so they can eye-the-compassion-by-carffigure out the kind of persons they want to be and focus on becoming those persons.

Researchers used brain imaging to watch the activation of different areas of the brain as subjects read compelling, real-life stories designed  to induce either admiration for virtue or skill or compassion for physical or social pain.  The brain images revealed that it took longer for the subjects to react to stories of virtue or of social pain than to stories of physical pain.  However, once awakened, the emotions of admiration for virtue or compassion for social pain lasted much longer.  No wonder the folk saying for comapssion is “walk a mile in their shoes” not walk two steps!

The researchers speculate on the impact of quick-changing media such as television news, but there’s no speculation about the impact of the positive emotions of admiration and compassion.  Consistent with other research, this study found that these emotions launched the subjects on upward spirals.  One of the researchers noted that many expressed a desire to lead better lives and some even refused the customary  payment for participation. 

Part of positive education is helping adults, teenagers, and children learn to be mindful, including awareness and acceptance of their emotional reactions as information about the world around them.  Resilience training, for example, includes learning when and how to listen to our “inner commentator.”  This learned habit of keeping a light touch on thoughts and feelings can bloom into a habit of reflection that allows us to fully experience our emotions, including the positive ones.  Further, positive education provides tools for choosing our pathways forward from our current thoughts and feelings, thus promoting hope, autonomy, and competence — key components of the good life!

Image: “Eye the compassion” by carf 

Short-term Gain: Could You Please Pass the Blame?

Short-term Gain: Could You Please Pass the Blame?

                                                                                    ~by Sherri Fisher, MAPP, M.Ed. 

hear_see_speak_no_evil_hg_whtRemember the game “hot potato” that you played as a kid? Blame is like that. No one wants to be left holding it, since you might get burned. As a result, we develop explanations for the innocence someone else will hopefully connect to us. You or a child you work with may have “reasons” for not having an assignment completed. “The dog ate my homework” comes to mind.

Inflating the Truth

Some reasons are somewhat “true”, at least in the eyes of the beholder. In the 1995 film, Clueless, here’s how one of the characters, Travis, passes the blame for being late: “Tardiness is not something you can do on your own. Many, many people contributed to my tardiness. I would like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, the LA city bus driver who took a chance on an unknown kid and last but not least, the wonderful crew from McDonalds who spend hours making those Egg McMuffins without which I’d never be tardy.” Cher, the main character in the film, goes further when she fails to admit that she has run a stop sign. She uses reframing to put a positive spin on her faux pas when she says, “I totally paused” and then backs this up with an oblique explanation: “You try driving in platforms!”

The Passive Voice: Not-me, Always, Everything

All of us have times when we are clueless, and we, too, pass the blame to keep from feeling shame or embarrassment. Have you ever been late and blamed the traffic?  Your children?  Your spouse? Had a particularly tough day in the classroom and blamed the students? Their parents? Administrators? The economy? Do you find yourself using the passive voice, saying, “Well, yes, mistakes were made.” But by whom?

A key aspect of excuse-making is assigning control of the situation to extrinsic factors, thus shifting blame and, sometimes as a bonus, reframing oneself as a victim. This is short-term gain: It appears to solve a problem now, but does not deal with the actual one(s), or it creates new ones.

A teacher who says, “The students didn’t follow the directions” has passed the blame as adeptly as the student who says, “We weren’t warned that there would be short answer questions mixed in with the multiple choice.”  The teacher has missed the opportunity to examine the way directions are worded and the student has missed the chance to reflect on study strategies and comprehension of content. In this way it is possible to pass both the blame and the guilt with no resulting gain.

Why You May Need to Disbar Your Internal Lawyer

While reframing is often the best way to get out of your own way, the blame “reflex” may be preventing you from a necessary change.  Stop defending yourself; failing to accept responsibility keeps us from being able to change habits that impede our personal, academic and professional growth. Whether you are trying to change yourself or someone else (see Part I of this series, Turning around the Hidden Power of Blame), you already know that it’s very difficult. According to William James, three things need to be engaged for us to change: attention, habit and will. In other words, you need to notice what you are doing in order to stop doing it so much; you need to develop an alternate and more effective habit; and you need to develop staying power (often “won’t” as opposed to “will” power).

Cultivating Mental Balance

If you’re ready to swap blame for attention, habit and will, here are some Positive Psychology tools to help you.

 

  • First, notice how often you find that you blame “circumstances” like the weather, as opposed to other people, for your inability to have more of what you want. You can’t change some things in your life, but you can nearly always change your response to them, whether things or people.
  • Next, you need to attend to the habits of mind that are reinforcing your resistance to change and create new ones.
  • Finally, you will need to have the will to stick with an empirically-based coaching program. Note that you may want the nudge of someone besides the face you see in the mirror.

 

 Sometimes you will need to stick with a program much longer than the six weeks it was tested and shown to have correlations to improved well-being. For example, I have been meditating for about seven years, preceding my MAPP program by a few years. Meditation in combination with other tools from Positive Psychology (Tell Me Something Good, Strengths Buttons, Mood Repair Tool Kit) has been more powerful and transformative than meditation alone in my experience.

 

According to Wallace and Shapiro (2006), there are four processes underlying mental balance. These are conative (becoming aware of and setting intentions, goals and priorities) attentional (mediating inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity as cultivated through mindfulness), cognitive (viewing the world without imbalances of thought or attention—See Penn Resiliency Program), and affective balance (cultivating loving-kindness, empathetic joy), equanimity and gratitude).

 

Making Change

Are you “totally pausing” through the stop signs of life? After she totally pauses, Cher goes on to side-swipe several parked cars and later fails her driver’s test which she then blames on the man testing her. It’s easy for us to see how she is clueless as she stands before her mirror.

But making changes of any kind is a balancing act. All behaviors, even ones with undesirable outcomes, often have a hidden benefit. Blaming, for example, has the benefit of letting one look into the “rose colored mirror” where you are the fairest one of all. Perhaps to receive this message you may pass the blame quite a lot, but not end up getting more of what you really want. Think about what you’d like more of, and how you can change your contribution.

 

References

Wallace, B.A. and Shapiro, S.L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between  Buddhism and western psychology. American Psychologist, vol. 61, no. 7, 609-701.

 

Originally published as Short-term Gain: Could You Please Pass the Blame?  at www.pos-psych.com