Today's children are living in fear-based times — terrorism, lockdown drills, climate change, TSA screenings, and pandemics are the new normal. We try to shield them, but these kids are digital natives with instant access to viewing disturbing news, and it can take a toll. One out of three children aged 6 to 11 fears that Earth won't exist when they grow up. Girls worry more.
I talked with a group of middle school students at an elite Dallas school to hear their views about the world and scary news. A seventh-grade boy began: "It's not one thing, but a lot of bad stuff that keeps happening, and it makes us think that the world is mean and scary."
An eighth grader chimed in: "There's bunches of worries: climate change, viruses, bullying, domestic violence, racism, and shootings."
"We're more negative because bad news is so accessible," another boy explained. "Parents try to hide scary stuff, but it comes straight to our cell phones."
The kids continued sharing dismal stories, and then one quiet boy spoke up. "My friends and I were just saying that parents are too scared to let their kids play outside. It's sad. We kind of lost our childhoods." They all agreed. Pessimism about their world was the common theme.
I left them realizing that kids desperately need optimism. Educators agree, and I've made a practice over the past several years of searching out those teachers who are doing a great job of instilling optimism in their students. That's how I found myself in Mrs. Sandler's second-grade classroom on Long Island, New York, one snowy February day a few months later.
She found herself worried, just as I was, about her students' unfounded concerns about everyday issues and their propensity to often go to the most extreme, most negative outcomes. "Their pessimistic thinking really derails their performance," she said. She'd recently done some research into the issue, and when she invited me to watch her lesson, I eagerly took her up on the invitation.
The concept Sandler was focusing on with the children that day was the idea that worries can grow, but "we can also shrink them." Then she asked, "Who has a big worry they want to share?" A girl with long pigtails immediately raised her hand. "I'm afraid of sleepovers."
The teacher put a cardboard box on the table, about the size of a large computer screen. "Okay, let's all help Chloe. Pretend this box is your biggest worry about the sleepover, and we'll help you shrink it. All you have to do is tell us why you're worried."
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