Improving Children’s Optimistic Thinking by Teaching them to Dream about Life Goals

We were honored to attend the American Psychological Associations 2018 annual conference to present the results of our study. This is a new analysis of our data that, essentially, says that young students perform better when they are taught the basics of socioemotional skills, like passion and goal setting, first before more academic subjects, such as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Poster for study titled, "Improving Children's Optimistic Thinking by Teaching them to Dream about Life Goals." Abstract and results.

Abstract

Optimistic thinking is a facet of social and emotional learning linked to better stress-coping and problem-solving in children; however, few educational programs are specifically designed to improve this important aspect of self-awareness. This study examined the efficacy of an educational tool used among diverse students in an afterschool setting designed to help children explore their purpose in life, identify values, and connect with emotions like passion and hope. We hypothesized that through interaction with these materials, children would improve their understanding of and ability to dream about their futures, which would increase optimistic thinking. A total of N=58 elementary and middle school students (average 4th grade) participated in the study over two semesters. The majority of participants were female (62%). Ethnicity was reported as 72% African-American, 15% Multi-racial, 11% Caucasian, and 2% another ethnicity. Pre- and post-assessments were conducted at the first and last sessions of each semester using the optimistic thinking subscale of the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA). Children who participated in the full-year program demonstrated a significant increase on the optimistic thinking scale of the DESSA during both semester one, t (21)=7.41, p<.001 (29.53% average increase), and semester two, t(21)=5.34, p<.001 (19.3% average increase). Overall, children’s optimistic thinking, a vital component of social and emotional learning, significantly increased after interacting with an educational tool developed to teach them to dream about their life goals.

Introduction

Optimistic thinking, or positive predictions about the future, is a facet of social and emotional learning associated with beneficial stress-coping strategies, problem-solving, and goal setting in children. Optimism can be conceptualized as part of self-awareness, one of the core social and emotional learning competencies. Per Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), self-awareness is: “The ability to accurately assess one’s strength and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a ‘growth mindset.’”  

Few educational tools are specifically designed to improve optimistic-thinking in an elementary education setting. Dream It! was developed to introduce children to the concepts of self-awareness and put them into action through a series of interactive, fun, thought-provoking activities to help children explore their purpose in life, identify values, and connect with emotions like passion and hope.

dream playbook activities answered like the bucket list

Aim

The current study sought to examine the efficacy of an educational tool, Dream It!, created to explore and improve self-awareness skills among diverse students in an afterschool setting. We hypothesized that through interaction with these materials, children would enhance their understanding of and ability to dream about their futures, which would increase optimistic thinking.

Method

Participants

In total, N=58 students participated; N=49 completed semester one, N=31 completed semester two. Of those, N=22 completed the full-year program. Grade level ranged from 2-8; average was 4th grade.

Graph participant gender race

Procedure

Facilitators met with children weekly for a total of eight, one-hour sessions each semester. Dream It! was delivered in two parts:

  • Semester One: Exploration of dreams, emotions, and values
  • Semester Two: Problem-solving and overcoming obstacles

Pre- and post-assessments were conducted by facilitators at the first and last sessions of each semester using the optimistic thinking subscale of the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA). Children also rated their experience with Dream It! in a single postassessment at the end of semester one.

Statistics

Children who participated in the full-year program (N=22) showed a significant increase on the optimistic thinking scale of the DESSA during both semester one, t (21)=7.41, p<.001, and semester two, t(21)=5.34, p<.001, compared to baseline assessments; however, optimistic thinking increased more during semester one compared to semester two, t(21)=2.12, p<.05.

Graph optimistic thinking percent improvement

Children who only participated in semester one (N=27) also had a significant increase in optimistic thinking compared to baseline, t(26)=9.52, p<.001. In contrast, children who only participated in semester two (N=9) did not demonstrate a significant change in optimistic thinking compared to baseline, t(8)=1.20, ns.

Graph optimistic thinking percent improvement semester 2

At the end of semester one, children responded to three questions about their experience with Dream It!:

  1. Do you think about your goals more since using “Dream It!”?
  2. Would you recommend “Dream It!” activities to classmates?
  3. Did you look forward to “Dream It!” sessions each week?
Graph percent of children responding yes

Results

Overall, children’s optimistic thinking, a vital component of social and emotional learning, significantly increased after interacting with an educational tool developed to teach them to dream about their life goals in the context of a facilitated after-school program. Key findings include:

  • Children’s optimistic thinking improved the most when engaged in activities focused on creating dreams and exploring passion (semester one content) compared to activities focused on problem-solving and overcoming obstacles (semester two content).
  • It is important to build a foundation of dreaming before moving on to higher-level thinking about implementing dreams to improve optimistic thinking.
  • Children were highly favorable in their ratings of Dream It!, including 100% of children reporting increased thinking about life goals after participating in semester one.

Conclusions

The process of how to dream can be taught to elementary and middle school children, and the results can be effectively measured by examining change in optimistic thinking. 

Educational curriculum, such as the Core Curriculum Standards, may benefit from the addition of social and emotional learning programming that teaches students how to find their passion during elementary and middle school. While not a focus of the current study, it is possible that increased optimistic thinking, and other aspects of self-awareness, may improve children’s engagement with subjects like science, technology, engineering and math which children could view as the tools to making their dreams come true. 

Future directions include an assessment of teachers’ experience and overall effectiveness and ease of implementation of Dream It! into traditional classroom instruction.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the University of Cincinnati, YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, School for Creative and Performing Arts, Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies, Faces Without Places, Sue Wilke, Chair of the Northside Education Committee, Steve Sunderland, PhD, Director of the Cancer Justice Network, and Tommy Reuff, Director of Happen Inc. 

Disclosure: Sara Williams and Scott Stoll are authors for Magination Press and receive royalties.

More stories about our original research

We have collaborated on 4 research projects so far, each one using the scientific process and building on the methods of the previous studies. We have also done some test workshops and ongoing literature reviews to make sure everything we do is evidence based.

Dream Team at Parker Woods Montessori Elementary. The authors and University of Cincinnati facilitators.

Improving socioemotional awareness using the Dream It! Playbook

Highlights from our recent study, including lots of pictures and graphs. The purpose of this research is to evaluate student and teacher perspectives on the effectiveness of the “Dream It! Playbook” to improve social-emotional learning skills of self-awareness (including optimistic thinking, growth mindset, mindfulness, hope and grit) among elementary school students.

Doctor Sara Williams at the American Psychological Association's annual conference

Improving Children’s Optimistic Thinking by Teaching them to Dream about Life Goals

We were honored to attend the American Psychological Associations 2018 annual conference to present the results of our study. This is a new analysis of our data that, essentially, says that young students perform better when they are taught the basics of socioemotional skills, like passion and goal setting, first before more academic subjects, such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dream Workshop afternoon with Faces Without Places

The Dream Club

As part of our ongoing research, we’ve tested “Dream It!” in about a dozen schools and programs. We had so much success that the facilitators starting calling it “The Dream Club” because most people thought that “The Dream Workshop” didn’t sound like any fun.

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Sara Williams

Sara Williams

Sara E. Williams, PhD, is a licensed clinical child psychologist who specializes in assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with chronic health conditions. More about me.
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