Hope — Is It Teachable?

Dr. Delaney Ruston

Given all we are facing these days, we are all looking for things to be hopeful about. So let’s talk about hope — is it teachable?

Ten years ago, when I was at the World Health Organization (WHO) presenting a film I made on mental health, I met Kathryn Goetzke. She was also from the U.S. and visiting the WHO regarding her own advocacy work in mental health. I was immediately impressed by her dedication and creativity when it came to developing programs for change. We became fast friends. 

Soon after that, Kathryn began developing a program for elementary school kids regarding teaching them about hope. One thing I loved is that her program involved kids planting gardens of sunflowers. Since that time, Kathryn has devoted years and years to improving and expanding her program, called “Hopeful Minds.”

I asked her to share some tips about teaching the idea of hope to our kids. 

Here is what Kathryn shared: 

“It was my own struggle with hopelessness, starting in the 6th grade,  that got me interested in this topic. And now, with an incredible team of researchers, we have been teaching skills to elementary-age children. We have been teaching that a hope is not just a wish; a hope takes action. There is a lot of science around hopelessness and hope that shows hope is a skill anyone can learn.

A study published in the Journal of Personality found that one’s level of hope predicts one’s future anxiety and depression level. Yet, one’s anxiety and depression do not predict future levels of hope. So no matter where one is from a mental health standpoint, there are ways to shift one’s emotional state. I practice my hope skills daily. 

Hopelessness is a consequence of many adverse life experiences. These are critical times for focusing on what gives us hope for the future and not to get overcome by feelings of despair and helplessness, the two key ingredients of hopelessness. 

Asking kids to create a definition of hope is a good place to start engaging them in ways to find hope. My team coaches them by explaining that it is both about feelings and action. The myth about hope is that it is just a wish, but actually, it is a combination of positive feelings and inspired action. 

Part of teaching hope involves teaching youth about emotions. They like the analogy we use of the “upstairs/downstairs” brain.  The downstairs brain, or reptilian brain, is where our fight or flight or freeze response lives, and anytime we are apt to go there when we get negatively triggered by something or someone. In this state, we feel anger, worry, frustration, or sadness. We teach our kids these are not ‘bad’ feelings, yet they often have a ‘negative’ charge, so if we act when we are feeling this way, we will likely go towards unhealthy things for ourselves or at times be hurtful towards others. 

 The upstairs brain is where we are creative, problem-solving, and inspired.  Kids become very animated when they talk about how they can easily recognize when people they know are not in their “upstairs brain.”

 After this discussion of the areas of the brain, we teach kids about the skill of being able to listen to what their feelings are saying but not immediately acting upon them. From this place of pausing, what can they do to get into their  “upstair’s brain?” Can they identify their “Happy Habits” These are things like singing, drawing, dancing, exercising, eating well, talking to friends, and more. These are things we need to work extra hard to practice during challenging times.

Another main aspect of the program is helping kids to move from a state of perceived helplessness to one of action, which involves their setting small, realistic goals. We help them identify a goal that could make them feel less helpless and then “chunk down” the goal. For example, say they are feeling sad because soccer got canceled. We help them identify a goal they could create even in the face of this disappointment. Maybe they want to still try and get better at the sport? What is one small action they can do this week? Maybe it’s just 5 minutes of bouncing a soccer ball on their knee. We explain how accomplishing this one small goal literally builds up the brain’s hope mindset.

Another big focus has to do with the idea of a strong “network for hope.” It is important every child (and adult) have at least one trusted person to talk to, especially in times of stress. We make sure kids identify these people, and if they can’t identify someone, the teacher can serve as that adult. It is so important to know where to go for support, especially in times of crisis.  

A final example regarding fostering hope in kids has to do with reinforcing that “success” is so much about being on the journey of life and not only the destination.  Often kids think they will be happy if…,  yet we know that reaching goals bring only momentary satisfaction. So we teach them about presence, and the practice of wonder and awe, to stay grounded.”

The Hopeful Minds curriculum is free and downloadable to anyone who wants to use it! The website houses many other resources for parents and youth, including a hope scale. 

Something else cool about Kathryn — she is working on an initiative called “Hopeful Cities.”  Reno, Nevada, is the first city to become a member of the Hopeful Cities Campaign. Kathryn is helping Reno develop all sorts of important messaging and tools that the city is rolling out to kids and adults throughout the city. 

On a personal note, I want to share two things that have just happened in my life that have helped boost my sense of hope. One is that I received the first dose of the COVID vaccine last week — yay! Also,  today I learned my son’s college is adding a required course on citizenship. Fingers crossed that schools of kids of all ages will start to have more of such curriculums. Is this needed or what?!*@@#

Questions to get the conversation started:

  1. How would you define hope?
  2. What makes you feel hopeful these days? Not hopeful?
  3. What small goal can each of us think to do that might make us feel a bit more hopeful? 
  4. What is a way we can “chuck down” our goals?
  5. Who comes up for you when you think of your “network for hope?”