Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More Thoughts on The Optimistic Child

I've continued my read through the book The Optimistic Child by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD.  I have felt excitement and motivation as I have read and sometimes re-read the content of this book.  I have found it as an extremely helpful guide in encouraging healthy thinking and perception in situations that occur for our children. I know this upcoming year for us with Zachary in kindergarten will provide even more practice of the activities/discussion situations. The information shared from his research makes very logical sense when I look back on my own life and think about what has given me confidence in my own development.  Most of the activities in the book involve listening to example situations and discussing appropriate perceptions or responses to each.  It may possibly be something to start introducing in early elementary but for some maybe late elementary.

The last couple of chapters of the book discuss helpful ways to begin healthy thinking with babies.  These techniques are obviously very different from the techniques given for older children because "very young children do not yet have the cognitive skills to recognize and dispute their own thoughts" (Seligman, 278). He also explains that there are three crucial principles for giving very young children the skills for optimism and these principles come from research on learned helplessness.  The principles are mastery, positivity and explanatory style.  Today's post will focus on Mastery


Dr. Seligman explains that babies can learn the skill of mastery by experiencing control or outcomes that are contingent on their actions. Babies that shake a rattle laugh maybe because they like the sound but even more so because they are the ones making the sound happen.  They realize when they shake it makes a noise and when they stop it stops also.  This is mastery of an object and is the first building block to self confidence.

On the contrary, "helplessness results from noncontingency, a situation in which the probability of an outcome is the same whether or not a response is made" (Seligman).  Dr. Seligman gives an example of an early experiment with rats.  If a rat gets an electric shock and there is nothing the rat can do to make it stop the rat becomes helpless.  If a rattle or some type of electronic toy made a sound intermittently on its own with no response to the baby pressing a button or shaking it, the baby is helpless over what the rattle does.

It is also important to set the children up for success.  Dr. Seligman suggests this but this is also something that was ingrained in us during our therapy training classes.  If you are helping the child master a fear of the sandbox it would not be suggested to plop them in the middle of a sand pile.  Let them feel a few pieces in their hand.  If you are working towards modifying a behavior work towards a goal that is achievable such as giving a reward to a child for using gentle hands 3 times in a morning rather than requiring that the reward be given only if there have been no mistakes all day.

Dr. Seligman also gives examples of what kinds of toys or activities encourage mastery.  Choices in general encourage mastery because it gives the child a sense of control and accomplishment.

  • Echoing babies actions such as banging a cup on a table.  This reinforces their motor skill development as well as mastery of being able to do so. 
  • Echoing babies sounds/speech.  This reinforces the idea that you think their sounds are good and encourages them to continue the sounds.  These sounds are the first steps to speech. 
  • Blocks, mobiles within reach, tricycles, walkers, crayons and paper, pull pencils, dress up dolls, boxes, baby gyms, books, toys that make sounds when buttons are pressed, trucks, musical instruments, etc.  
An example of something that is NOT a building block for mastery is TV.  In once sense TV is good because it can have very educational lessons.  There is no mastery unless the child practices what the TV has taught.  Excessive TV all day long means no practice for mastery.  Dr. Seligman states that stuffed animals are not a mastery item however I do remember as a kid coming up with many pretend stories with stuffed animals. Perhaps his thoughts are on babies and not the older children in this example. 

Of course this does not mean that we give our kids unlimited options and no structure. Sometimes picking from 1 or 2 things is appropriate and other times when something is unsafe we obviously need to say "no".  

We also know that sometimes we fail and our children will too. This may cause less interest in exploration and an unwillingness to try again.  Our job comes in again here perhaps with assistance and always with positive feedback. 

I hope this has been insightful on giving young children opportunities to build self confidence or mastery.  I will be learning right along with everyone else.

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