Creating a Ripple Effect of Hope With Your Students

by Kathleen Nelson-Simley

In last week’s blog, I shared the good news that hope is something that can be cultivated with all of your students – even those who are at risk for losing it or have already lost it.

First, it’s important to be on the same page in our understanding of what hope is. Hope doesn’t mean wishful thinking, as in “I hope I win the lottery!”. Instead a person who is high in hope knows how to do the following things:

  • Set clear and attainable goals.
  • Develop multiple strategies to reach those goals.
  • Stay motivated to use the strategies to attain the goals – even when the going gets tough.

Developing hope is a process. Hopeless students can learn to be hopeful. Here are practical and proven research-based strategies you can use to instill hope with your kids:

  • Build a future focus with your students. Talk often with your students about their possible futures. What do they want to achieve, be, do or have in their future? And, why? Encourage dreaming. Have them imagine their potential best selves. Let kids know that nothing is “off limits” for them to imagine for themselves in their future. Have them visualize a “big picture” for themselves and their future. Allow kids to draw pictures or write words that describe what they are visualizing. Have you ever heard that phrase, “If you can imagine it, then you can achieve it?” So, let them imagine.
  • Students should then rank what they want or are visualizing for their future in order of importance. Researchers have found that this is particularly vital for students with little hope as they often attempt anything that comes to mind. This can distract their energy and focus from the things that are the most important to them and that can have the greatest impact on their overall well-being.
  • Teach them how to create a goal by taking the most important thing they want in their future and writing a goal for it that is both specific and takes a positive, solutions-oriented approach. Their goal needs to focus on accomplishing something in the future, rather than avoiding something now. For instance, “I want to play on the basketball team” is a more effective, motivating goal than “I will stop drinking soda.”
  • Have students create plans or pathways to achieve their goal. When a student says, “I want to be a veternarian”, be encouraging and then ask them, “What do you need to do to make that happen?” Discuss pathways, options and possibilities to make the goal happen. Breakdown the goal, especially if it’s long-term, into steps. Research has suggested that students with low hope frequently think goals have to be accomplished all-at-once. Teaching them how to see their goals as a series of steps will give them reasons to celebrate their successes along the way and keep their motivation high.
  • Teach students there is more than one way to reach a goal. Studies show that one of the greatest challenges for students with low hope is their inability to move past obstacles. They often lack key problem-solving skills causing them to abandon the quest for their goals. Teaching them to visualize different paths to their goals will help them get beyond insurmountable barriers. Most importantly, help them see that barriers to reaching goals is inevitable. Let them know that everyone faces obstacles. Knowing this ahead of time won’t surprise or throw them off course when an obstacle appears. And, if they are prepared for an obstacle they are more likely going to know what to do when faced with it.
  • When students face a challenge and get stuck, ask them, “What do you think is the next best thing to do? Don’t be quick to give them an answer or offer a solution. We don’t want them to rely on us for all the answers. Teach them how to rely on themselves and their own intuition, resourcefulness and initiative.
  • Keep it light and positive. It’s important to teach students to enjoy the process of attaining their goals. Laughing at themselves when they face obstacles and make mistakes is healthy! Above all, do not allow self pity! Research has found that students who use positive self-talk, rather than beating themselves up, are more likely to reach their goals. Saying things like, “I can do this,” and “I am not going to let this stop me” can move them forward instead of throwing in the towel and giving up.
  • Tell stories of success. Scientists have found that hopeful students draw on memories of their successes when they face an obstacle. However, students with low hope often don’t have these kinds of memories. That’s why it’s vital to read stories, watch movies or share stories of people, especially kids, who have overcome adversity to reach their goals. (One of my favorite movies about someone who had a goal in their life and faced many adversities to achieve it is the movie, Rudy!)
  • Remind students they can always ask an adult for help. Research shows the importance of having at least one positive adult in a student’s life that can cheer, guide, coach, support and challenge them towards their future goals. While it is important for you to always be this kind of an adult in your work with kids, do not assume the sole responsibility with each of your students. Your kids need to have an adult in their life who will be there for them long-term. You are in their life today, but will you be one year, five years or ten years from now when your students are still working on achieving their life goal(s)? Taking the time to talk with students one-on-one to determine who that one adult might be for them is crucial. And, remember, it can be any adult!
  • Monitor and celebrate. Make time to have students review their progress towards their goals. Are they on track with their original plan of action? Do they need to do something different than originally planned? What have they accomplished? Celebrate their achievements, no matter how big or small they are. Find ways to privately and publicly acknowledge and celebrate student successes!

Keep in mind, that through this entire process the goals students are working towards must be what they want and not what their parents or you want for them. Students will only summon the energy and willpower to work on goals and persevere the challenges and barriers if the goals are ones important to them.

Helping every student have just one positive experience in achieving a goal important to them can create a ripple effect of more positive experiences. This ripple effect over a lifetime can have a profound impact on your kids’ lives. And, this ripple effect starts with you!

In next week’s blog I will share specific research-based activities you can do to teach hope with your students and integrates many of the research-based strategies mentioned in this article.