What happens when Hope meets Optimism in schools?

What happens when Hope meets Optimism in schools?

I’ve often been asked to work with a child in school when the adults around them have tried everything they can think of without success and everyone feels stuck. It might seem like I’m walking into a hopeless situation, skilled professionals using what’s available; rewards and punishments and kindness and understanding. And still the child refuses or fights, isn’t coming into school or doesn’t stay in class when they’re there. 

Where Government approves of exclusion as the last resort, I’ve been called on as the last resort but one, called on to do something, anything, to move this struggling child towards a better, happier, healthier, more productive life in school. What do I actually do to  be hopeful, stay optimistic and provide something useful and effective? 

Solutions Focused Coaching.  

I’m currently working with a child in primary school, meeting online for Solutions Focused Coaching. The child’s school is currently developing Solutions Focused Coaching as a school response, through my Professional Development programme. As a part of the offer I can provide direct support for children at the highest level of need, the ones who seem to be stuck, while staff are in the process of building up their own skills. 

The child was attending school part-time, leaving before lunch break. They had one to one support, taught out of the classroom. I started work with them at the beginning of this Autumn term. At the outset the school’s best hope was for the child to be taught in the classroom, attending school full-time. The child’s best hope was to “stay in class”. We’ve seen steady progress with the child now staying in school over lunch time, working in class most of the time and moving to full school days in the coming week. In the New Year they tell me they’ll be attending full time.

I’m also working with another child, with a very high level of need of support. Last school year and starting this term they were attending part-time, highly anxious, becoming very unmanageable and putting themself and others at risk of injury. There was no evidence of a learning disability. There had been a referral for mental health assessment but little prospect of this happening soon. Meanwhile staff and parent were doing everything possible to maintain inclusion. When we started SFC work the school’s best hope was for full-time attendance. The child’s best hope was to ‘stay in class’. We met online for Solutions Focused Coaching sessions with positive changes being noticed, but the pattern of their need to maintain control caused us to rethink our strategy, passing the SFC sessions over to the staff member, recently trained in SFC, with whom they had a strong relationship.

I messaged the headteacher to let them know about our new strategy. They responded like this: 

“Thanks for your email; I agree that would be the best plan going forward.  The child has definitely made huge progress since the start of the year.  They are in lessons more often and refuse work less.  They’ve even managed to apologise to someone they had accidentally hurt today!”

So in both cases there’s movement towards the best hopes, driven by realistic optimism on the part of the school staff.

What do we know about the importance of realistic optimism in children’s lives? 

Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology said this:   

“Pessimism of our children isn’t inborn, not does it come directly from reality. Many people living in grim realities …. remain optimistic. Pessimism is a theory of reality. Children learn this theory from parents, teachers, coaches, and the media, and they in turn recycle it to their children.”  

Seligman’s research suggests that optimists do better than pessimists in three ways: 

They get depressed less often

They achieve more at school, in work and on the playing field. 

Their physical health is better.  

“Pessimism in a child can become a lifelong self-fulfilling template for looking at setbacks and losses. The good news is that children can, with your help, learn optimism.” ( Seligman (2007) ’The optimistic child’)

What realistic optimism isn’t……

Optimism is sometimes written off as little more than positive thinking, the boosterism encapsulated in like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better” or “The entire universe is conspiring to give you everything that you want.” And it follows that if we don’t believe it, it’s our loss, our weakness, just not doing enough to make our own wellness happen, searching the web, finding and app, buying another book.

…… and what it is 

So it’s important to be clear about the type of optimism I’m talking about here, a worldview that doesn’t shatter when it comes into contact with the inevitable reversals, shocks and traumas that come out of clear blue skies. 

Together with Seligman I’m talking about realistic optimism, holding on to hope and knowledge of our own strengths to see us through the tough times to find we’ve survived and learnt something new about ourselves in the process. 

“The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory but in the way you think about causes. Each of us has habits of thinking about causes, a personality train I call “explanatory style”. This develops in childhood and without specific intervention is lifelong.” (Seligman 2007) 

Seligman proposed three dimensions of how people explain what causes good or bad things to happen to them: 1 permanence, 2 pervasiveness and 3 personalisation  


Pessimistic children, at highest risk of depression, believe bad events have permanent causes and will keep on happening to them regardless of what they do. ‘No-one will ever want to be friends with me, so there’s no point in trying.’ Even when they do get a success, they feel that it is a one-off fluke and won’t happen again. 

In contrast the optimistic child, at lowest risk of depression, sees a failure as a temporary loss, and will try again, believing their successes have permanent causes, they have the resources to succeed and will keep on trying. “It takes time to make new friends, so maybe if I keep trying …” 

Pervasiveness is seeing the causes of events are universal, acting everywhere. 

Pessimistic children feel hopeless and helpless because they’ll fail at everything they try to do; “No matter how hard I try I’ll never get it right.” They believe bad things will happen in every area of their life. “Nobody likes me”, “I’m useless at sport.” When they fail they lose their sense of happiness and connection, they’re unwilling to do the things they love and might withdraw for days.  

In contrast the optimistic child feels that successes in one aspect of their life are likely to happen in others. They build a sense of their own global strengths and resources which they can use to overcome challenges and build their best life. When something bad happens they see it as a single event, to be treated as a one-off, not colouring everything else in their life. 


Pessimistic children think they are the cause of their own failure; they have low self-esteem, blame themselves and feel guilty and ashamed. 

Optimists see failures as caused by factors outside themselves including other people; they feel less guilt and shame but may complain about unfairness.

Seligman’s model doesn’t suggest we promote self-esteem by blaming others, but teach children to accept responsibility for things that are of their own doing and to work on how to do better in future. The keyword here is ‘teach’.

This needs a carefully balanced approach, defending children’s mental health and teaching self-discipline, building their resources both to avoid self-blaming and to accept responsibility for their actions as appropriate.  Restoring this balance is essential in our school system, where external control exercised through the coercive system of rewards and punishments is liable to tip the balance away from the high-quality teaching that enable children’s optimism to flourish.

Seligman, writing fifteen years ago about his Penn Resiliency Programme, suggested Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) as the means of building children’s optimism, coming out of his long relationship with Aaron Beck, the originator of CBT as a combination of Behaviourism and cognitive thinking strategies. 

More recently the foregrounding of relationship as a key to learning and change, based on realistic optimism as the starting point for social emotional learning, is growing in pastoral practice in the UK. Where the ‘strict discipline’ approach has its adherents despite its risks to children in many minority groups, my research and practice places Solutions Focused Coaching as the preferred approach in providing support for children and young people’s mental wellbeing, engagement and achievement, in combination with consistent but lower level ‘rules and reminders’.

This is justified by neuroscientific findings over the last three decades and makes practical sense to a child or young person in real life, supporting the growth of their own sense of realistic optimism. 


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