Telling a student to focus on their strengths when they just failed another math test or forgot to turn in an assignment isn’t going to feel very good either. Not to mention that it would be entirely ineffective at bringing about any change. So how do we walk the line between healthy and toxic positivity? In this episode, I’ll tell you how kids can learn a healthier perspective to help them succeed in school.
- The School Without Suffering Toolkit
- Leave a review
The title of this episode is “Why positivity is not THE solution to school stress,”
Now you may be thinking, “But Laura, in the last episode you told us how important focusing on the positive is for student success.”And you’re right. I did. So which is it??
In the last episode, we talked about how negativity bias can get in the way of your child’s success and what actions you can take to help mitigate that.
Those actions without question involve taking a positive approach to school, assignments, and your child’s skillsets.
I want to underline that kids need to put energy and intention into focusing on the positive to perform their best in school, but I also want to be clear that I am not advocating for toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity believes that people should maintain a positive mindset no matter what. And it can be harmful to kids who are struggling in school.
Think back to the last time you got some negative feedback at work, and one of your colleagues or friends told you to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.”
As well-intentioned as those comments may have been, they probably didn’t make you feel better.
Telling a student to focus on their strengths when they just failed another math test or forgot to turn in an assignment isn’t going to feel very good either. Not to mention that it would be entirely ineffective at bringing about any change.
Toxic positivity doesn’t work because:
It’s shaming: Toxic positivity tells students that their emotions about their school struggles are unacceptable and need to be changed immediately. When students are suffering, they need to know that they can find relief and love in their friends, family, teachers, and coaches.
It causes guilt: It sends a message that if students aren’t being positive, it’s one more thing they’re doing wrong, at a time when they already feel like a failure.
It avoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. Discounting, dismissing, or denying negative feelings about their school performance robs students of the opportunity to recognize an authentic problem and find a solution.
It prevents growth: Only when students face their challenging feelings about school can they gain deeper insight into what is causing their struggles and grow through those struggles.
Okay, so how do we walk the line between healthy and toxic positivity? After the break, I’ll tell you how kids can learn a healthier perspective to help them succeed in school.
* * *
Imagine your teen or tween getting a handle on their school-related anxiety (and no longer adding to yours).
We see it all the time: Procrastination, Staying up way too late doing homework last-minute, Falling grades due to missed assignments, School-related meltdowns…These behaviors are often directly related to anxiety. And I can confidently tell you that these DO NOT have to be a part of your life this school year.
The School Without Suffering Toolkit equips students with concrete strategies and exercises that they can learn step by step and then revisit whenever they need to during the school year.
With the Toolkit, your child will be able to re-evaluate stress that’s negatively affecting them, initiate and execute academic tasks with ease, foster a growth mindset, manage their time effectively and healthfully, and complete their most anxiety-inducing homework with confidence.
AND, with the option to meet with an expert, empathetic School Without Suffering academic coach when they need some extra support, students will always be able to use the tools in their toolkits how they need to, when they need to to do and feel better.
Visit schoolwithoutsuffering.com/toolkit and use discount code PODCAST at check out for 10 percent off your purchase.
* * *
Welcome back. Today we’re talking about how we can make sure negativity doesn’t become a barrier to kids’ success while also making sure that we don’t stray into toxic positivity.
We’re going to get into how we can walk this line right now.
I ground my thinking about this in the idea that our thoughts create our reality.
I really like how Dr. Jennice Vilhauer explains this on her blog Living Forward.
I’m going to quote from her post “How Your Thinking Creates Your Reality: What Cognitive Science Has to Say about How We Experience Life.”
She says, “There are a lot of people who are offended by the idea that “we create our reality.” They see it as a version of blaming the victim. Nobody asks for bad things to happen to them. I couldn’t agree more. But as someone who has been helping people change their thinking and behavior using cognitive therapy for over 15 years, I can also say that I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we do indeed create much of our reality. Denying this denies your power.
What I explain to my patients is that there are three buckets in life—things we control, things we influence, and things over which we have no control.
What is not under our control are the many random events of life. The families we were born into, earthquakes, pandemics, illness, job layoffs, the death of loved ones, fires, and car accidents, to name a few. These are circumstances that we experience and events that we are aware of.
We influence other living things with our actions. If you walk into a room, see a stranger sitting there, and decide to slap them in the face, that person will surely respond differently than if you had instead smiled. But you don’t determine how that person responds. That person could decide to run away, turn the other cheek, or slap you back.
What we control, and where we really start to create our reality, is in how we perceive/interpret/think about the events in our life that generate our feelings about those events, and how we subsequently respond with our behavior. No one can choose your thoughts or actions; those are yours alone.”
Now, here is where the creating part gets really serious. Your thoughts, if you think them over and over, and assign truth to them, become beliefs. Beliefs create a cognitive lens through which you interpret the events of your world and this lens serves as a selective filter through which you sift the environment for evidence that matches up with what you believe to be true.
What you take in from the environment through your belief filter becomes your self-concept. Your self-concept is made up of I am beliefs about who you are presently, and I can beliefs about who you are capable of being in the future. From these I am and I can statements you create stories and narratives about who you are, that you tell yourself and other people all day long. I am not good enough, I am not lovable, I can not do it, I am smart, I am capable, I can achieve my goals. You are the main character in your story and you write the script based on your self-concept that is largely self-created.
You write the story of what you think is likely and/or possible based on what you believe is true and then you take actions consistent with those expectations. When you act on what you expect will happen before it actually happens, you participate in creating the experience.
Alright, that’s the end of the quote.
My takeaway is that it is important to avoid toxic positivity, AND we can’t deny that our thoughts create much of our reality, and a rosier outlook will lead to a more positive reality.
Let’s think about the example of a math test.
No student has control over what grade they get on this math test. They can influence their score by using their class and study time effectively or ineffectively. But the actual score they earn is not under their direct control.
What is in students’ control is what they think in response to their grades.
To illustrate, we’ll say that two students each earn a failing grade on this math test.
Student A thinks, “Ugh, I am so bad at math! I hate this class. I am just not a math person.”
Student B used to think that way but has now learned to think, “Ugh, I’m so disappointed in this test grade. I want to talk to my teacher to figure out what I did wrong so I can do better next time.”
I probably don’t have to point out how the immediate reality of each of these students will differ. One will get help with their math skills right away; the other won’t. But how these students’ thoughts will create their reality is even more serious than that immediate difference.
Think about how each of these students’ recurring thoughts become beliefs and how those beliefs shape each of their self-concept.
Remember from Dr. Villhauer, a student’s self-concept is made up of beliefs about who they are presently and who they can be in the future. From these beliefs, students create stories and narratives about who they are, which they tell themselves and other people all day long.
Student A’s stories could become: “I am not good enough.” and “I cannot do it.”
Student B’s stories could become: “I am smart.” “I can figure this out.” “I can achieve my goals.”
This math test example shows how students can feel their authentic feelings (in other words, avoid toxic positivity) without getting mired in negativity.
When Student B thinks, “I want to talk to my teacher to figure out what I did wrong so I can do better next time,” they focus their thoughts on 1) the fact that they have a supportive teacher they can go to for help and 2) their optimism about the next math test. Both of these are positive thoughts.
They also acknowledge that they did not earn the grade they wanted and will have to take additional action to reach their goal in the future. So it’s not ignoring their genuine disappointment and feelings about their test.
Both parts of the thought are necessary for success. As you might guess, this is how we teach students to think at School Without Suffering.
Students learn basic neuroscience behind how their thoughts create their reality from the first week they’re with us. They acknowledged their authentic feelings about school and their capabilities as students. And they plan to think thoughts that will help change their performance in school.
They practice forming those thoughts with their coach as they work on their school work, taking action to make their study time more effective.
And before they know it, their reality in school has changed right along with their thoughts about it. Their grades are up, they feel better, have more energy, and are overall healthier and happier kids.
No toxic positivity in sight.
Next episode, we’re going to run with this thread I just pulled about responding to grades, and we’ll talk about how your response to your child’s grades can have major impact on how they feel and perform in school.
I’ll see you there!