Features » Sunday Magazine

Updated: February 6, 2010 17:20 IST

The glass is always half-full

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Photo: A.M. Faruqui
Photo: A.M. Faruqui

In these days of pressure-cooker environment in schools, when failure is a reality, children can be taught to handle setbacks and adopt a positive frame of mind.

As the mercury soars in summer, suicide rates peak. The anguish when Board exam results are announced compels some children to contemplate this drastic step. Some form of mental illness afflicts one in five youth in the age group of 18 to 24. Teachers complain of decreasing attention spans. Kids have easy and ready access to “inappropriate content” on the Internet. Police-and-robber games of yesteryear are replaced by terrorist threats and suicide bombers. Exposed to unrelenting visuals of violence and gore on television, the average Indian child is undoubtedly witnessing greater forms of stress and strain than previous generations. Being a “cool teenager” nowadays entails affecting a cynical and derisive attitude. Despite government regulations, ragging crosses unacceptable limits in some hostels. Moreover, changing family dynamics, with double-income households, strenuous commutes and Blackberries that blur work-life boundaries further take their toll on familial well-being.

No easy answers

In these increasingly tumultuous times, a barrage of doubts clouds our minds. As parents and educators, should we remain passive and hope for the best or do we let our paranoia get the better of us? While we can't shield our children from the troughs of life forever, should we handhold them for longer? Many parents give their teenagers cell phones, not to empower them, but to keep tabs on their whereabouts. However, remote monitoring is not a stress-proof buffer. Moreover, overprotecting our wards may actually harm them in the long haul as we may deprive them of opportunities for developing essential life skills. Thus, when children are more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of our times, how can we equip them to handle these pressures on an even keel?

The science of positive psychology can inform us of tried-and-tested programmes and practices to maximise human potential, in all its myriad forms. Until the 1990s, psychology focused on causes, diagnoses and treatment of various forms of mental illness. As researchers mainly studied problems like depression, inattention and obsessions, psychology as a field was perceived as dealing with mental ill-health.

This notion was turned on its head in 1998 when Martin Seligman proposed that psychology should also focus on mental health and well-being. What factors boost happiness and longevity? How does one find meaning in life? As psychologists began to grapple with these issues, a vast body of knowledge has grown that can be of immense benefit to parents and teachers.

Teaching resilience

For example, Seligman and his colleagues devised a programme to make children more resilient and optimistic. When a child faces a setback, she may either succumb to its pressures or rise above it, depending on how she perceives and interprets the problem to herself. For example, when Tanya fails her math exam, she exclaims, “I am such a loser. If I didn't pass my half-yearly, how will I cope in the final with its vast portions? I may not get promoted and everyone will think I am dumb.” Rajiv, on the other hand, consoles himself saying, “The exam was really tough. Even the highest mark was lower than usual. Now, I know that this teacher gives hard exams and I have to prepare even harder for the finals.” Tanya perceives the problem through a pessimistic lens: she takes her failure personally (“I am a loser”), feels that the exam will impact her entire academic performance (“I may not get promoted”) and views academics as permanently challenging. In contrast, Rajiv feels that his failure was due to external circumstances and he can make a proactive effort to study harder. Thus, by systematically teaching children ways to challenge their pessimistic thoughts, we can help them function more optimally.

Another path-breaking programme, developed by Mark Greenberg of Penn State University, attempts to promote children's social-emotional intelligence. Through stories, role-plays and cartoons, the programme fosters self-awareness of emotions in children. Many children, especially those with attention problems, are usually unable to curb their “gut reactions”. By learning how to identify and label feelings and use self-calming techniques, a child can conquer the “impulse of the moment” and react in a more measured manner.

Different approach

Indian schools typically emphasise cognitive tasks over other aspects of a child's personality. Catherine Lewis describes the refreshingly different outlook of Japanese elementary education. In stark contrast to the intense pressure-cooker environment of higher grades in Japan, primary education focuses on children's social and emotional development. A typical five-year-old spends only five per cent of the school day in direct academic instruction. Children are given a lot of time for free, unstructured play so that they may forge bonds and learn how to cooperate with one another. An integral component of Japanese schooling is asking children engage in hanseior reflection after a group activity. Fighting and crying episodes serve as catalysts to promote self-awareness. Misbehaviour is typically met with questions and discussions to promote understanding rather than evoking blind compliance. Teachers ask children to focus on feelings of others when viewing consequences of their actions. The three pivots of Japanese elementary education are fun, participation of all members and a focus on a group's growth as opposed to individual achievements.

CBSE schools are poised for change. With Class X Board exams being abolished and schools adopting a more holistic approach with their continuous assessment, education is likely to acquire a qualitatively different feel. While many teachers and parents are apprehensive about this transition, educators may draw upon findings from concrete, evidence-based positive psychology programmes when trying to promote children's social and emotional intelligence. The shift in emphasis from purely cognitive tasks may, thus, usher a truly positive change in our children.

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