Why “Think Positive” Isn’t Always Enough (For Teachers or for Kids)

Optimism isn’t always the answer.

Donuts are cruel—possibly the most cruel creations on earth. They are soft and crunchy, salty and sweet. They come in all varieties. And they are cheap. They are, in other words, my healthful-eating downfall.

More cruel than the fact that donuts are legal is the fact that the gas station next to my school makes these delicious demons on the daily. I have tried all kinds of techniques to avoid becoming prey to these pastries. I’ve rallied my will as I passed the station in the morning—and sure enough, there is a student fund-raiser selling donuts at school. I’ve tried visualizing the calories I’ll consume—and sure enough, I just end up visualizing the beautiful sugary glaze melting in my mouth.

I have tried positive thinking. Holy crap, have I tried positive thinking. Y’know, believing in my own greatness, repeating motivational mantras, concentrating on my willpower. But positive thoughts are no match for sprinkled cake donuts. In fact, positive thoughts are no match for any goal that requires effort and dedication.

Unfortunately, we are in a culture saturated with the belief that more positive thinking = more success. As a positive-psychology teacher, I understand the value of positive thinking. And I also understand its limitations. Positivity without a plan can yield disappointment.

Thankfully though, there has been some solid research as of late on methods that can balance the encouragement of positive thinking with the critical planning of realism. For those who geek research and sources, I cannot recommend more highly Gabriele Oettingen’s Rethinking Positive Thinking, which not only shows the limitations of positive thinking but also lays out research-tested plans for better goal setting.

So, to help defend my diet against donuts, and to help my students better achieve their own goals, I have turned to Oettingen’s powerful strategy called WOOP (geeky term: mental contrasting with implementation intentions).

First, we’ll see the strategy in action before labeling it.

Let’s say you have a goal of not procrastinating on grading student papers (doesn’t the very thought of that make you want to crawl under your bed sheets and sleep until summer break?). Now, your inner pessimist is saying, “There’s no way I’ll grade tonight; Netflix is just too powerful.” Tell that voice to chill for a minute. We need to channel your inner optimist first—the one that believes in you and knows the value of succeeding.

Use your positive voice to do two things:

Step 1: Clearly define what your wish or goal is.

Example: “I want to finish grading this stack of papers before I get my leisure on.”

Step 2: Focus your thoughts on the benefit(s). Be specific and vivid with your visualization.

Example: “By grading these essays, I’ll have less stress tomorrow and I won’t stay up late feeling guilty. Oh, and my students will get more immediate feedback, which is cool too.”

Normally, we’d call it good here, give ourselves a good ol’ pep talk, and hope for the best. But there’s this thing called “reality” that presents obstacles. And you know which voice is good at identifying obstacles? Your doubting, negative voice. Rather than drown that voice with some sugar-coated happy talk, listen to it for a minute.

Step 3: List out the typical or anticipated obstacles.

Example: “By the time I get home, I usually am so tired that I just sink into the couch and hit up those Grey’s Anatomy reruns.”

If we stopped here, your pessimist would have the last word. But who wants defeating last words?

Step 4: Prepare a plan for overcoming the obstacle in advance.


“If I’ll be too tired when I get home, I am going to lock my classroom door after school and leave after I’m done grading.”

“If the couch will destroy my motivation, then I will sit down in the kitchen right when I get home and start grading immediately.”

Simple concept, right? Although it’s simple, it’s not just fluff: The process is based on the research of Gabriele Oettingen and her team, who have found consistent benefits in a variety of participants trained in this strategy. Oettingen and her peeps use WOOP as an acronym:

Wish – What your goal is.

Outcome – What personal benefits you’ll gain by accomplishing your goal.

Obstacle – What factors may get in the way of your goal.

Plan – How you will anticipate and overcome the obstacles, written as an “If (obstacle)/then (plan)” statement.

I highly recommend you check out more on the research behind WOOP. Go to WoopMyLife.org. And if you’re wondering if there is an app for that, the answer is yes! You can also check out CharacterLab’s tool kit on using WOOP in the classroom here.

Beyond using it personally to battle my donut addiction, I’ve found a lot of great applications in the classroom. Here are some other ideas:

1. Homework Planning

Before students leave the room, have them design a quick WOOP for their homework. Check in the next day to hear how the plans went and rework plans for the future if needed.

2. Classroom Management

If a student has been a particular pain on the classroom management front, do a pre-brief before class starts and have him/her WOOP what success will look like.

3. Front-Load Independent Work

If students are about to engage in a challenging task or problem, do a class WOOP to anticipate challenges and plan for problem-solving in advance.

4. Activate Accountability Partners

Modify the “WOOP” acronym to be “WHOOP.” The “H” stands for “Help,” as in, “Who can help hold me accountable?” Pair students up to check in with one another’s plans.

How could you use WOOP to help you and your students achieve more? Post your comments and ideas below.

Chase Mielke is a learning junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. A book addict by night and a teacher and instructional coach by day, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers. His obsessions with psychology, well-being and cognition often live on his blog, affectiveliving.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chasemielke.

Posted by Chase Mielke

Chase Mielke, author of "What Students Really Need to Hear, is a learning junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. His obsessions with psychology, well-being and cognition often live on his blog, affectiveliving.com, where you can download a free ebook, "G-Words: 20 Strategies for Fostering Grit and Growth Mindset" Follow him on Twitter @chasemielke.

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