The Optimistic Child – Part 2
“There’s only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve; the fear of failure”
Paulo Coelho de Souza
What protects a child from fear of failure? It’s being able to see the way ahead with realistic optimism, building the sense of security that comes from meeting challenges on the way and overcoming them, knowing that they’ll happen and knowing they’ll be temporary.
What builds a child’s optimism? Experiencing their own power of agency, that they can change the world their entering, a little bit at a time. A baby calling for food and to be dry and warm, speaking their first words, taking their first steps, the child is learning by building on their successes, seeing failures as manageable interruptions. Exploring the world is inherently risky, because what comes next is not fully knowable and things can go both right and wrong. Inevitably failures are interwoven with successes, but its the successes and the anticipation of success that build skills to open up the world around the child.
How does the Solution Focused approach contribute to all the actions we take in schools to build children’s optimism? When something is clearly going wrong the common response is to try to find out more about it in order to pin down the cause. Solutions Focused Coaching has a simple structure designed for this purpose. For example in “Finding the project”, taking what the child says seriously in response to the question “What might change a bit of things to go better for you – what might you be doing a bit differently?” we can set out the goal for learning and change in the child’s terms, freeing up their sense of agency. In “Problem-free talk” we ask “What’s your best thing” and “What’s going well?”, moving the conversation away from failure and towards achievement and success.
This shift from negative to positive has been underway since the 1980s, with Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology, Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg’s development of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and Mihailyi Czickzentmihalyi’s conception of Flow among others.
“Simply experiencing a negative event is not sufficient for learning. ….The event alone is not enough to change behavior. That can only change when individuals choose to learn from an event. This learning requires individuals to change their beliefs and attitudes so that, in turn, their behavior is altered.” Sitkin, S. B. (1996). Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses.
The negative event, the behaviour management ‘consequences’ of sanctions and punishments in schools, can interrupt existing behaviour but doesn’t necessarily lead to new learning. If it did we wouldn’t have some children receiving repeated isolation, detentions and exclusions for their unwanted behaviour. But the positive event of Solutions Focused Coaching can and does lead to new learning by growing a child’s sense of reflective self-control, self-management and optimism.
And it makes for a strong relationship based on shared understanding between the child and solution focused adults.
What could be better?