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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Developing a sense of the possible

Alan M. Blankstein and Eleanor Guetzloe

From Alan

I remember lying in my bed in Queens, New York, one Sunday afternoon, feeling depressed about the stark contrast between the sunny day outside and my inner sense of dark despair. Why bother going out? I wondered. I don’t know anyone here and feel worthless anyway!

My new placement in this group home for boys provided a clear and tangible reflection of an internal sense of being unwanted and unable to control my own destiny. Once again, familial rejection and its inherent commentary on my personal worth found form in a new neighborhood, a new set of strangers, and a new life in New York.

From Eleanor

This spring has not been a good time for me to co-edit an issue on hope. The year began with a series of difficult events. Our older son had a heart attack on New Year’s Eve. I underwent three eye operations that left me temporarily legally blind and a much worse typist than usual, and the sudden appearance of a skin cancer required immediate surgery. As we send this issue to press, my husband has just survived a life-threatening case of staphylococcus pneumonia. I am reminded of the punch line to a very old joke, "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

In each of the personal examples cited above, we had ample opportunity to feel overwhelmed, and, in fact, did—for a time. What enabled us—and so many other individuals—to cope with potentially crushing life experiences? A sense of hope was certainly among the most important factors.

The meaning of hope

What is hope, exactly? How do we learn to hope? How can we foster, enhance, and sustain a sense of hope when our lives seem to be out of control? How can we provide a road map for others who may be lost in a morass of emotional and psychological despair? Can we teach hope to children and youth?

What we have learned from people like Victor Frankl, who survived years in Auschwitz during the holocaust, and Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s president after 27 years of imprisonment, is that even the most traumatic life events can be interpreted in ways that sustain life, rather than threaten it. Seligman (1991) refers to this interpretation of events as "explanatory style."

The concept of hope is powerful, timeless, and life-sustaining. When General Eisenhower visited troops as they were preparing to invade Normandy—facing unfavorable weather and uncertain fates—he reminded them that they had the very best leaders and equipment (Ambrose, 1983). The best thing he could do for his men was to maintain a sense of optimism.

In a discussion of personality factors of dying patients, medical doctor Arnold Hutschnecker (1981) noted that cancer patients tended to be passive people who (a) could not express hostility and (b) suffered depression and hopelessness. He suggested that hope sustains life, while hopelessness causes death. Similarly, Erich Fromm (1968) has stated that "psychologically speaking, destructiveness is the alternative to hope" (p. 22). Fromm has suggested that violent acts are a common outcome of a sense of hopelessness and that a "hardened heart" (or lack of willingness to hope) is an outgrowth of protecting oneself from being hurt.

Both Fromm and Hutschnecker distinguish between active and passive forms of hope. The former is described by Hutschnecker as "an inner mental force that triggers the human will into action" (p. 16); both see the passive form as a guise of positivism or adventurism whose underpinnings are actually an inert dreaminess, sense of impotence, or depression.

Martin Seligman (1991, 1995) suggests that hope is tied to an optimistic explanatory style: the tendency or ability to explain misfortune in temporary and specific terms. Jonas Salk has referred to optimism as "psychological immunization" (cited in Seliginan, 1995, p. 5). Snyder (1994) identifies the two components of hope as the will or energy to reach one’s goals (willpower) and the ability to generate routes to achieving them (waypower).

Michael Fullan defines hope as "irrational optimism," because it requires more than logic alone (personal communication with Alan, April 22, 1998).

For the purpose of this discussion, we will define hope as a sustaining life-force that provides meaning, reason, and direction for one’s existence. Having hope is an essential part of one’s social, emotional, and spiritual sustenance. It gives us strength to live and continually move forward, even when conditions seem hopeless. A key factor in working successfully with young people is the development of a sense of the possible, as well as the faith, courage, and means to pursue it.

A look at the research

In comparison to the enormous body of literature about problems associated with the lack or loss of hope, there is a relative paucity of research on the topic of hope itself. For many years, authorities have suggested that a positive mind-set is powerful medicine in the battle against serious disease. A growing body of statistical evidence supports this assumption. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently completed a follow-up survey on patients who had been classified 30 years earlier as optimists or pessimists ("Look at the Bright Side," 2000). The researchers compared the patients’ expected and actual survival rates and found that the optimistic group’s survival rate was significantly better than expected. They also found a 19% increase in risk of death among the pessimistic group.

Seligman (1991) has offered several reasons for the apparent link between explanatory style and the immune system, basing his thoughts on studies of both animals and humans. First, preventing feelings of helplessness apparently helps to maintain immune systems. Second, optimists are more likely to take action that prevents illness (to stick to health regimens and seek medical advice when illness strikes). Third, optimists are more likely to avoid bad events, which can often lead to illness. Finally, optimists tend to have more social supports—deep friendships and love—that are important for physical health. Based on such findings, the Mayo Clinic researchers have suggested that certain clinical interventions might make patients more optimistic, thus improving their responses to medical treatment.

From hopelessness to hope

Long before becoming this issue’s guest editor, I became interested in the effects of hope as an outcome of studying suicidal behavior. I had been asked to write a book about youth suicide (Guetzloe, 1989). Given the stakes involved, I agonized over the need for accuracy.

Hopelessness was among the most important factors associated with suicidal behavior in young people. According to Frederick (1985), suicidal youngsters suffer from haplessness (suffering from problems that were not of their own doing), helplessness (having no control over the outcomes), and hopelessness (thinking that things will never get any better—and that suicide is the only answer). Several other researchers had documented a significant relationship between hopelessness and suicide (Beck. Steer, Kovacs, & Garrison, 1985; Dyer & Kreitman, 1984; Kazdin, French, Unis, Esveldt-Dawson, & Sherick, 1983).

In an attempt to make positive suggestions for primary prevention, I had listed all the risk factors known to be associated with youth suicide and suggested potential skill development to address each. For example, if a student suffers from unrealistic expectations or over-programming, then goal-setting, self-evaluation, and self-monitoring would be valuable individual study topics. If social isolation is a problem, then training in assertiveness, communication, and social skills would be advisable. Problems of stress could be addressed by teaching self-control, coping skills, problem solving, time management, and relaxation exercises (Guetzloe, 1989, p. 175).

I had trouble, however, with hope. Hope was known to be a factor in resilience, the focus of a relatively new and very exciting field of research, but well-designed studies on the nature, origins, or development of a sense of hope did not exist. The following section presents the best of what we know.

Practical strategies for teaching hope

We believe that children can be taught to hope in the same ways that we teach anything in the home, school, and community. The instructional methods used must be both humane and effective and include

Specific strategies include the following:

Providing a positive school and classroom climate. All students learn better and more in a motivating environment—one that meets their physical, psychological, social, and educational needs. In such an environment, punishment will be avoided and positive experiences will be readily available. Risk taking, a necessary component in attempting difficult tasks, will be encouraged, in the presence of an "emotional safety net".

Ensuring physical and psychological safety. It is absolutely essential that students feel physically and psychologically safe in the school—from intruders, from the faculty and staff, and from one another. They must not be subjected to harsh punishment, ridicule, or humiliation. School must be welcoming.

Providing appropriate faculty and staff. Teachers of hope must be optimistic themselves. They will model high expectations, faith, courage, creativity, and tenacity for achieving their goals. Most importantly, they must believe in their students!

Providing other positive models in the classroom. In addition to the teacher, other positive and appropriate models can be invited to school to share their experiences. It is particularly important to select models from the same cultural backgrounds as those of the students with whom they will speak (people who have "been there"). Mentors may also be used and must be responsible individuals who will (a) take this obligation seriously, (b) be present at the appointed times, and (c) agree to serve as a mentor over an extended period—often for more than a year. If living models are not available, videos, excerpts from television programs, filmstrips, records, and pictures that portray hope can be substituted.

"Setting children up" for success. When teachers begin to plan for a special event, a "setup" for practicing hope could begin with a discussion about the possibility of the event and how fun it would be if the class could do it. Eventually, a student will ask, "Can we do this? Can we go?" Rather than just saying "yes," the answer can be, "We don’t know yet, but we hope so." Teachers would, of course, ensure in advance that the event will be approved. Students are then involved in the hope that it will occur, the planning and implementation of the activity, and the feelings of personal success when it comes to be.

Using the "language of hope." First, teachers can simply plan to use words of hope more often in the classroom. Stories selected for reading aloud to students can include such messages as (a) being hopeful, (b) striving to meet goals, (c) attempting difficult tasks, (d) achieving goals or overcoming setbacks (e.g., "The Little Engine That Could"). Songs can focus on hope and other positive messages (e.g., "High Hopes," "Always," or "A Cockeyed Optimist"). Another strategy for teaching the language of hope, as well as other skills necessary to foster a sense of optimism (e.g., optimistic self-talk), is role playing in the classroom, involving students, teachers, instructional assistants, and trained volunteers.

Using positive materials. Instructional materials that show the heroic or virtuous side of human beings and society should be selected. Special assignments can challenge students to find (a) stories that exemplify triumph over misfortune and (b) poems, songs, and jokes that are not only positive and funny, but are also suitable for sharing at school.

Modifying explanatory style. Seligman (1991, 1995) has developed specific techniques for teaching optimism to young people (see this issue, page 9). His program for fostering and practicing optimistic explanatory styles has been successfully included in many K-12 school programs.

Including special topics in the curriculum. Units, modules, and activities that address specific issues of interest or concern to individual students or the whole group can be integrated into existing course or content areas. Examples include assertiveness training, juvenile law, grooming and dress, outlets for creativity (art, music, writing, dance, and drama), prescriptive physical education (e.g., weight loss, weight gain, or bodybuilding programs), and life sports (golf, tennis, handball, running, and use of leisure time) (Guetzloe, 1989).

Providing integrated and meaningful experiences. Experiences that help to foster hope include helping others, meeting community leaders and other important individuals, participating in positive events in the school and community, and receiving favorable publicity in the media. Children (and adults) need to know what they might be able to accomplish in order to establish appropriately high but achievable goals for themselves. Being exposed to the community in a positive way and receiving positive recognition for their involvement enhances their dignity and promotes self-esteem.

Providing opportunities for altruistic experiences. Curwin (1992, 1993) lists guidelines for creating helping opportunities for the school and classroom (e.g., tutoring younger students, raising money for school programs or a charity, and assisting students with disabilities). Woerhle (1993) suggests school-coordinated activities for specific age groups that are developmentally appropriate and successful—from preschool (e.g., feeding birds) to 12th grade (participating in Habitat for Humanity efforts).

Believe that you can make a difference! Finally, Seligman (1995) suggests that one single, crucial, transforming event can markedly change a young person’s thinking about who he is and what he is worth. The moral of this discussion is obvious: Such an event could occur on any day and at any time, in the home or school.

Many of the authors in this issue have experienced such transforming events and share their stories in the hope of helping others. The first section, Elements of Hope, provides insights on why youth lose hope and how hope can be developed through accurate optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy. The authors in the second section, Creating Communities of Hope, focus on ways to develop environments in which hope can thrive. The final section, Building a Bridge to Hope, includes a wide array of strategies for helping children and youth become more hopeful.

Maintaining a sense of hope when surrounded by discouraging circumstances is not easy, as Jonathan Kozol (2000) describes:

A child is telling you about the bus ride that she takes to see her father, far from New York City, in one of the huge state prisons. She speaks of the mixture of emotion she feels—for him, herself, her mother. Then Shentasha, who is sitting there beside you, lowers her defenses and describes the ride that she takes to see her father as well. Then another child adds her contribution, and an older boy adds his; you realize with dismay that this is the one thing all the children at this table have in common.

They speak of being searched by prison guards and being stamped with an electric imprint before they can go through the metal gates .... They also speak of the anxiety they feel when they are told it is time to leave, and of the sad leave-takings, and the grimness of the long ride all the way back to the Bronx.

I try to counter these discouraging reflections. I think of all the good work being done by teachers that I know at this school ... by doctors in the area.. . by Elsie and Katrice and Nancy and the other people at the church. I think of people working hard at all the other churches in the Bronx. I look continually for reasons to be hopeful. I just want them to be genuine. (pp. 153—155)

To those of you who have searched for the light of hope in the midst of darkness, and for the children, mothers, fathers, and entire communities for whom hope is a precious and often elusive whisper in the wind, we dedicate this issue of Reaching Today’s Youth. May the pages that follow re-ignite and strengthen in you a sense of the possible.


Ambrose, S. (1983). Eisenhower 1890-1962 (vol.1). New York. Simon and Schuster.

Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., Kovacs, M., & Garrison, B. (1985). Hopelessness and eventual suicide: A 10-year prospective study of patients hospitalized with suicidal ideation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142, 5. pp. 559-563.

Curwin, R. (1992). Rediscovering hope: Our greatest teaching strategy. Bloomington, IN. National Educational Service.

Curwin, R. (1993). The healing power of altruism. Educational Leadership, 51, 3. pp. 36—39.

Dyer, I. A., & Kreilman, N. (1984). Hopelessness, depression, and suicidal intent. British Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 2. pp. 127—133.

Frederick, C. 1. (1985). An introduction and overview of youth suicide. In M. L. Peck, N. L. Farberow, & R. E. Litman (Eds.), Youth Suicide. New York. Springer. pp. 1-16

Fromm, E. (1968). The revolution of hope. New York. Harper Row.

Guetzloe, E. C. (1989). Youth suicide: What the educator needs to know. Reston, VA. The Council for Exceptional Children.

Hutschnecker, A. (1981). Hope, the dynamics of self-fulfillment. New York. Putnam.

Kazdin, A. E., French, A. S., Unis, A. S., Esveldt-Dawson, K, & Sherick, R. B. (1983). Hopelessness, depression, and suicidal intent among psychiatrically disturbed inpatient children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 4. pp. 504—510.

Kozol, J. (2000). Ordinary resurrections: Children in the years of hope. New York. Crown.

Look at the bright side! It could help you live longer. (2000, March/April). The Mayo Checkup, 7, 2. pp. 1 & 5.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.

Seigman, M. E. P. (1995). The optimistic child. New York. HarperCoilins.

Snyder, C. It. (1994). The psychology of hope. New York. Free Press

Woebrle, T. (1993). Growing up responsible. Educational Leadership, 51, 3. pp. 40-43.

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