Support students by focusing on the positive!

Negativity bias, our innate tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts and experiences, thereby distorting their importance, is at play in different facets of teaching and learning.  In working with students and adults, how often have we witnessed a situation like: 

  • An administrator who has had a number of parent conversations in a given week, often perseverates on the one challenging conversation instead of many positive ones.
  • A faculty meeting, in which a vocal, resistant colleague grabs the attention while those who are supportive sit in waiting.
  • A student earns 90 percent on a science test, yet broods about the 10 percent he missed, rather than focus on the 90% that he mastered?

The reason why these types of situations dominate our mental landscape can be attributed to negativity bias.  In the Psychology Today article, Our Brain’s Negative Bias, the author, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:

Our brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.

She goes on to explain the evolutionary significance of our bias towards negative input.  We were hypersensitive to the input as a protective mechanism to the danger it often foreshadowed.

Seph Fontane Pennock, co-founder of Positive Psychology Program, shared a piece on the website entitled, 3 Simple Steps to Overcome Your Negativity Bias.  The recommendations for handling negativity bias are:

  • Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.
  • Savor the experience.
  • Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.

He suggests shifting our frame of reference to focus on the positive in situations we encounter so our perspective is more balanced.

In Douglas Abrams’ book, The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, we learn a great deal about how to work with our negativity biases.  The Dalai Lama discusses in the book the importance of working on our “mental immunity.”  He refers to mental immunity as:

learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones.

Harboring feelingS of frustration that students struggle learning, and translating those feelings into a fixed mindset that “students can’t learn,” is harmful and even toxic to our efforts to support students.  We can develop mental immunity if we focus on the positive feelings supported by evidence that every student understands some part of what we teach them.  How do we help them learn the parts they’re struggling with?

Desmond Tutu builds on the Dalai Lama’s explanation:

Basically, I think we have to accept ourselves as we are.  Getting to know the things that trigger us.  There are things that you can train, you can change.

The two spiritual leaders reveal that there is a clear path towards working with our emotions to balance our negativity bias with a more joyful or positive outlook on situations or people we encounter.

In Chapter 6, Gratitude: I am fortunate to be alive, they discuss their thoughts about gratitude, a state-of-mind that allows us to shift our perspective.  The expression of gratitude moves us away from the negative to a wider perspective of goodness, abundance, and compassion.  In Buddhist teachings, it’s taught:

that the best way to create good karma with the least amount of effort is to rejoice in your good deeds and those of others.

Because of negativity bias we are conditioned to look upon gratitude with some skepticism; however, research has shown that grateful people are not oblivious to the negative aspects of life, they merely appreciate the positive, have empathy for others, and are able to walk in others’ shoes.  Gratitude helps relieve stress and make us available to connect with others in meaningful ways.

For the teacher who is frustrated by students not learning what was taught, the suggestion would be to not let your negativity bias impact how you think about your students’ potential.  In the Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss the eight pillars of joy broken down into four qualities of the mind and four qualities of the heart.

Qualities of Mind Qualities of the Heart
Perspective Forgiveness
Humility Gratitude
Acceptance Generosity
Humor Compassion

The goal would be to accept the reality of the circumstance, focus your perspective on what they have learned and their continued improvement, be grateful for their efforts thus far, demonstrate empathy for the challenges they face, and encourage them to strive for further improvement.  The encouragement we demonstrate to our students is part of the generosity that is a quality of the heart.  In my observations of strong teachers, these are the typical behaviors demonstrated by caring and thoughtful teachers.  With a little bit of self-reflection, we can embody these qualities of mind and heart in all our classrooms.  If so, we will see students achieve to their greatest potential.