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Learned Helplessness & Optimism: How teachers can transform pessimists into optimists

Learn how the science of “optimism“ can help your students achieve more, be generally more healthy and enjoy their lives.

Aviva Education | @avivaed
October 16,  2019

What do you do with the chronically pessimistic student? You know, the one that gets a bad grade on a minor quiz and automatically believes that they will fail the course, that this will undermine everything they want to accomplish, and that it is their own fault because they think they are not good at…(fill in the blank).

Learned Helplessness

This is what is called learned helplessness. Children that have learned helplessness tend to perform low in academics, relationships, health, and overall happiness. Unfortunately, the one area that they perform high is depression. Researchers conducted an experiment using 2 dogs and 2 cages. The cages were equipped with a mild electrical shock. One of the cages had a trick latch that the dog could use to escape. The other cage was impossible to escape. Both dogs tried to get out of the cage to be free from the shock. The dog in the trick latch cage was able to escape. The other dog eventually gave up trying to get out and accepted his situation.

Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania initiated research on learned helplessness, which was later expanded upon by other researchers.
Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania initiated research on learned helplessness, which was later expanded upon by other researchers.

Next, they took the same two dogs and placed them into 2 new cages. Each cage had a trick latch and the dogs could escape. However, the dog that gave up in the previous cage did not even TRY to escape the second cage? This dog had learned to be helpless.

This happens to humans and students as well. Our beliefs and past experiences can dictate our mindset to be pessimistic or optimistic. This experiment led researchers to explore how we can learn optimism.

Defining Optimism

In this short video, Dr. Martin Seligman defines optimism.

“Optimism … is not the simple glasses half-full verses glasses half-empty, rather it consists of the way that you think about setbacks and the way you think about victories.  The optimistic person, when they have a setback, believes that it’s temporary. ‘I can change it and it’s just this one situation.’ The pessimistic person, when they have a setback, believes it’s going to last forever. ‘It’s going to  undermine everything I do.’ Conversely when a victory occurs (when you win, when a good thing occurs), the optimistic person believes it’s going to last forever. ‘I did it and it’s going to help me in every circumstance.”

How a pessimist and an optimist explains good and bad events that happen to them.
How a pessimist and an optimist explains good and bad events that happen to them.

It all has to do with how we explain our successes and setbacks. For example, if a Pessimist goes on a job interview and does not get the position, the pessimists internal dialogue goes like this: “Another rejection! I have been denied so many times, I will never get a good job (Permanent). I am such a failure at work, it is just a matter of time that my family and friends abandon me. I’m no good at anything (Pervasive). They didn’t pick me because I am too old and I don’t have the right kind of experience – of course they wouldn’t pick me (Personal).

On the other hand if an Optimist does not get chosen, their dialogue goes like this: “ Ok.. well.. I trust that this job was not for me and a better one is going to come along soon (Temporary). I  may not have a job, but I have a great family and supportive friends (Local). Obviously, they were looking for something very specific and I did not fit their profile. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I have a lot of good qualities that an employer will be happy to have me (External).


Some of the researched benefits of choosing an optimistic mindset are…

  • Superior health
  • Greater achievement
  • Persistence
  • Longevity
  • Emotional health
  • Happier
  • Better coping skills

Cultivating Optimism in Your Students

There are several ways one can cultivate optimism. Since optimism and pessimism are cognitive functions we can choose how we think and what we think about. It is possible to become an optimist. Here are some proven methods to turn your pessimists into optimists.

  1. Provide safe opportunities for “failing.” Much has been written on Growth Mindset. One of the key ingredients is to normalize and sometimes celebrate failures as learning experiences. Accepting mistakes and modeling how to learn from them is crucial in providing a safe environment.
  2. Teach, Model, and Use  the ABCDE method outlined by Dr. Seligman in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
    • Adversity: Identify the situation or event that triggers the pessimistic thinking.
    • Belief: Record how you interpret the adversity, making sure to separate beliefs from feelings. Feelings fall under consequences.
    • Consequences: Record what you did, how you acted,  and your feelings about the adversity.
    • Disputation: Make an effort to argue against your beliefs and interrupt the patterns of emotions around the adversity.
    • Energization: Redirect your thoughts and energy away from the adversity.
  3. Model the explanatory style of optimistic thinking. For example, have you ever had a piece of technology not work just as you are about to start a lesson? The next time this happens be sure to use statements that explain the adversity in a way that is optimistic, rather than pessimistic. “This is just temporary. We will have this fixed in a jiffy (Temporary). “I am excited about this lesson and we won’t let the technology problem get in the way of our learning (Local). Technology problems happen to everyone and I will use this opportunity to learn more about how this technology works. (External)

Practical Optimism

Research does NOT say we should never be pessimistic. In fact, there are very specific times to have healthy pessimism. When the stakes are high, it is important to identify possible problems and risks. If you are investing a large sum of money into a business idea, due diligence is essential before handing over your money. Another example is an airline pilot. They have a huge responsibility to fly the plane safely. If an emergency light comes on in the cockpit telling them that something is wrong with the engine, they will focus on that problem and determine the source. They wouldn’t just put on their “rose colored glasses” on and hope for the best. Thinking positively that it will “work itself out” is very dangerous. Therefore, it is important to have healthy skepticism. In the book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Wilson and Conyers define Practical Optimism, “…as an approach to learning and life that focuses on taking practical positive action to increase the probability of successful outcomes. Note that this definition emphasizes the need for action in support of one’s positive beliefs that success is possible. Practical optimism is not just about thinking happy thoughts and expecting good things to happen (Wilson & Conyers, 2011b).”

More Classroom Resources

Written by Eric Hamilton, the CEO of Aviva Education, a non-profit international organization dedicated to creating a more mindful and thriving world through education. Eric has served the global education community for over 25 years as a mathematics teacher, curriculum coordinator, principal and director of schools in the United States, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Contact:

Aviva Education is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and our vision is to cultivate a mindful and thriving world through education. With several decades of experience in positive education, mindfulness, educational leadership and curriculum design the Aviva team deeply understands the dynamics of the modern classroom. We have seen firsthand that traditional student wellbeing models have fallen short in cultivating the whole child. Empowered with recent research findings in the budding field of positive psychology, we at Aviva believe it’s time to revolutionize schools with a new evidence-based approach to cultivating authentic happiness in teachers and students.


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