Keep hope alive

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” So said Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago, and yet it has taken a very long time for schools to consider student engagement in a serious way.

The school system in my community has just announced that they will partner with the Gallup polling organization to measure hope, engagement and well-being in its students. They are the biggest of many school systems that are measuring well-being and putting social/emotional learning into practice. Taking a more holistic approach to student achievement isn’t just some feel good strategy. Social and emotional wellness has been found to be directly linked to student achievement and long-term success in life. The ability of a student to set goals and work toward them requires that he or she have a sense of hope – the belief that the work will lead to something good – and a feeling of being engaged in the process.

While there seems to be some hesitation on the part of some local politicians to fully embrace the idea – they don’t want to seem “silly” – the science backs it up. A 2011 study showed that students demonstrate academic gains when social emotional learning (SEL) is emphasized in school; and Daniel Goleman cites neuroscience research on how the emotional center of the brain is linked to the areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.IMG

How do schools nurture hope and increase engagement and well-being? Developing self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills usually figure prominently in SEL goals. Achieving them entails nothing less than changing the climate of the school. SEL activities might include role-playing stressful situations such as bullying, working on anger management and teaching children the language of expressing emotions.

The president of Emotionally Intelligent Schools, Marc Bracket, uses an acronym to describe social/emotional learning: RULER. It stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating” emotion. Having the words to describe feelings, and being encouraged to express them, is a necessary step to being able to manage emotions better, and the teacher’s role is key in that process. As Daniel Goleman has said, “Teachers need to be comfortable talking about feelings.”

One of the measures on the Gallup survey being used in my district is “There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.” Whether that adult is a parent, a teacher or another mentor, the presence of someone who exhibits concern and empathy for a child is an important backstop for them, and makes it more likely that they will ask for help when they need it.  When I think back on my school years, I remember the teachers who truly cared for me as bright spots in a not-always-happy environment. Those were the teachers I really wanted to please, and I like to believe that I learned more from them than from the teachers who did not inspire me to commit to myself.hope

Holding a positive view of oneself, having a hopeful outlook and being goal-directed are all qualities that relate to resilience – the ability to adapt and bounce back from stress and adversity. Resilience doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems, but it makes you more able to see beyond them – to be happy in spite of them and to take steps to improve your situation

The American Psychological Association says that it’s not success that makes people happy; rather, it is happy people who “work toward goals, find resources they need and attract others with their energy and optimism” who become successful.

Discovering what’s here

“È tutto qua” says the little note taped to my computer monitor. It is an Italian phrase meaning “it’s all here”. I first saw it in San Francisco, where it’s the name of an Italian restaurant. I looked up the meaning and was so taken with it that I have kept it in front of me ever since.

Besides my love for all things Italian, the note reminds me to keep life simple. Don’t confuse wants with needs, don’t overcomplicate things. It’s all here already.

Whenever I start thinking that someone else has a nicer house, or a better car, or more success, I remind myself that it’s all here.

Whenever I start fretting about how I look, or stressing over little things that go wrong, I try to remember: it’s all here.

The idea of è tutto qua for me is partially about gratitude, but it’s also about knowing how little we really need to make us happy. The Gallup polling organization surveyed over 130,000 people in 130 countries not long ago, and identified two things that are the biggest predictors of whether people enjoyed their day. The two things were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday”. That’s it.

Once our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) are met, it’s not the extra gadgets and extravagant trips that increase our happiness. It’s as simple as knowing that someone has your back, and that you’re continuing to grow. It’s all here.

The sister I can call for emotional support or advice; the neighbor I can ask to borrow an egg; the friend I can rely on in an emergency: it’s all here.

The ability to read, to listen, to see; to take up skiing when you’re over 40; or to learn (as I did yesterday) that the resveratrol in red wine can protect against hearing loss: it’s all here. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The question is, on how many days can you say, “It’s all here”?  The Gallup people also have something called the Well-Being Index, where they measure the mood of a sample of people every single day. It shows the percentage that had “a lot of happiness/enjoyment without a lot of stress/worry” and the percentage that had “a lot of stress/worry without a lot of enjoyment”. So, for instance, on February 19, 43% said they had a lot of enjoyment without stress, and 14% said they had a lot of stress without enjoyment.

Leo Rosten said, “Happiness comes only when we push our brains and hearts to the farthest reaches of which we are capable.” Maybe the two determinants of enjoyment are dependent on each other. Can we actually be free to learn and grow to our full potential if we don’t have the support of others? And can we have healthy, mutually beneficial relationships if we don’t continue to grow and change?

Are you going to enjoy today? What will you learn? Who will you support, and who supports you?