Preschool Podcast

Learned Optimism In Early Childhood

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Episode 157 –Making Lemonade is a book that teaches optimistic thinking in an early learning context. We had the opportunity to chat with Laura Colker and Derry Koralek, co-authors of the book, about their belief that learned optimism is key to helping young children grow into healthy and well-rounded individuals. They share their passion for the subject and some practical activities that educators can incorporate into their routines. 


Episode Transcript


It helps immensely if the teachers are so committed to this that they make sure that they know how to be optimistic thinkers as well. It’ll change their lives outside of the classroom and it’ll also change their lives within the classroom.


Derry and Laura, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you!


Happy to be here!


So we’re lucky today to have on the show Laura Colker and Derry Koralek. They are the co-authors of the book Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically.

Sounds like a really cool subject that I’m keen to learn more about and I hope you are too. Let’s start off, Derry and Laura, learning a bit more about what was the inspiration behind this book.


Well, I’ll start off and tell you the inspiration for me started about a dozen years ago when I read a book called Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. And if you’re not familiar with Dr. Seligman, he’s one of the co-founders of positive psychology that started back in the 80s and 90s. And positive psychology basically was a reaction against traditional psychology, which used the medical model in which they looked at the deficits a person had – what’s wrong with him – and then they try to fix it.

And positive psychology took the stance of instead of looking at what’s wrong with people, let’s look at what’s right with people and try to enhance it and give them better lives. And one of those concepts was optimism. A couple others, just to put it in context, were things like gratitude and happiness and hope and grit and a growth mindset.

So anyway, going back to Seligman and his book, he describes that they were able to work with school-aged children who were depressed. And by helping them rethink their negative thinking – they were obviously having pessimistic thoughts – they were able to get them to rethink things in terms of how they were happening and the children were able to turn it around and to think optimistically. And being optimistic, one thing, they were no longer depressed and it improved the quality of their lives dramatically.

And when I looked at this, that Seligman and many people at the time were saying that you could only do this with children who were eight years old or over because it involves thinking about thinking – which is meta-cognition – and most people didn’t think that young children were capable of this.

And being in early-childhood education for a long, long time and seeing children, I just didn’t think that was true because I had seen children who could tell you what’s going on in their head and what their head’s telling them to do. And I just had this sort of epiphany that this was something I wanted to do with very young children because the sooner we start with anything the better the outcomes and the better the chances that they’re going to have a better life than this.

So I did something that I’ve never done before. I wrote to Dr. Seligman, I sent an email to him and I explained what I wanted to do and whether he thought this was something that was valuable. And much to my shock and joy he e-mailed me back immediately and said he thought it would be fine to do that.

So armed with his endorsement I went and asked my good friend Derry Koralek, who has been my writing partner and colleague for more years than we like to tell, and I was thrilled that she saw great possibilities in bringing this topic to early-childhood teachers too. And then we were delighted that Redleaf Press thought it was a great idea as well. So that’s where we are. We wrote the book on the topic and we hope that early-childhood educators are going to see the value of it and share the excitement that we have.


I’m also curious to know about the title and why you chose “making lemonade” as part of your title.


Well, it goes back to the idea of the proverb [and] probably a very well-used saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” And that’s what we wanted children and teachers and administrators and families to do, would be able to make lemonade in life. And then the subtitle is what we’re actually doing in the book, is showing educators how to teach children to make lemonade and think optimistically.


Cool. And so let’s touch on that. My understanding is that the book also provides some practical, hands-on exercises and activities for teachers and families, just some practical examples of exercises or activities that teachers and families can use to positively affect children. And if there is maybe some background or context that you want to provide before going into that, then [we’re] more than happy to hear, as well.


Okay, well, actually it’s not a complicated process. But I would say it’s not really a simple answer. So first of all I would say that you need to have a classroom climate in which the teacher is supported in encouraging and teaching optimism. And this would include that the program as a whole in their mission statement, their goals for children, their curriculum, that these are all compatible with teaching children optimistic thinking. And those things certainly make things a lot easier.

And those are also things that would affect all of the children in the classroom, as opposed to what you might do when you are intervening with one child. So let me talk a little bit about the intervening with one child to use something we call the “ABCDE model”. And this came from the work of Seligman, also. So if you have an individual child who is really struggling with pessimistic thinking, you would want to intervene on a one-on-one level.

And it’s going to take time. This isn’t something with a distinct beginning and end date or a beginning and end time. It takes as long as it takes, and for some children this is relatively fast and for others if they’re not quite there it takes quite a while.

So when you describe this model, the A is for Adversity. So this would be the event or the problem, something that’s causing the angst or the behavior that’s upsetting to the child and to the teacher and to the group. It could be something as simple as not being able to do a puzzle and turning it upside down. Or a walk to the park has been postponed because there’s a thunderstorm going [on] outside. And a lot of children just roll with it but a lot of children can’t necessarily grasp it.

So the next one, the B, is for the child’s Beliefs about what happened and why it happened. And this Why, from the child’s perspective, can be quite confused and inaccurate. And it will lead to C, the Consequences. So as a result they end up crying or having some kind of an outburst or just giving up. At this point a teacher would intervene. Also the coach – that would see kind of the role that the teacher was taking.

And this is the D: Disputation of the pessimistic belief. So the teacher would help the child look for another explanation for what happened and why and provide some factual information. Rather than just it just being based on feelings the teacher is presenting facts, saying, “Well, I hear what you’re saying. Last week Rowan played with you every day. So I think he must be your friend, even though you feel like he isn’t. But here are some other examples of times when you and Rowan played together.”

And then the E is for Energization. So once the negative thoughts have been disputed and the child has accepted that they’re sort of overcome, laid to rest, they’re able to put this event behind them and they’re energized to go back to implement a solution or try another strategy, find something else to do.

And going through this process from A to E repeatedly, as needed, eventually lets the child’s brain seem almost reset for optimism. And I think Laura is probably going to talk about this some more, but one of the beauties of optimistic thinking is you can learn it. You don’t have to be born with it. You may have a tendency to be a pessimistic thinker but you don’t have to stay that way. And if you want to you can change this. If you’re a child you do it with help. As an adult you can probably do it for yourself. And over time children will learn to do it themselves.

So that’s kind of the basic model. And I think Laura has some basic activities she wanted to share that… they’re very much things you could embed in the curriculum. They’re not like you have to have a separate optimism time of the day where you have to have a separate unit on optimism. These are just things that are very matter-of-fact parts of a typical day in a young children’s classroom. So Laura, did you want to do those now?


Sure, I guess this is a good time. And as Derry was saying, the model is the main thing that happens. It happens naturally whenever a child is having a problem. You would step in and help them rethink the negative thoughts so that they’re positive. And ultimately the goal is for the child to be able to do it themselves.

We have in the book, we have actually 12 activities that we gave to teachers and had field-tested. And these are things again, as Derry said, that are just embedded in the curriculum. They’re not things that you have to do, like, stand-alone. Some of the things are, building on this model, we have children come up with optimistic endings to stories. And some of the stories are on a tape that they listen to them and then they come up with the endings. Or they do a puppet show or dramatic play scenarios and skits.

And we also use persona dolls. And if people aren’t familiar with personas dolls, they’re dolls that are designed by the children to become members of the classroom. The children come up with deciding if it’s a boy or if it’s a girl and its ethnicity and if it has any special needs. And the doll sits with them and they interact with them and they can get the doll to… give the doll optimistic thoughts, or they can actually work with changing the doll’s thinking.

Some of the other activities, of course we use books. And there’s many wonderful, wonderful books on optimism out there and the teacher can go through the book and discuss it and ask questions. And we have sample questions that help children discuss why the characters are doing what they’re doing and how that leads to optimism and if they change the endings of the book. And we also have the children writing and illustrating their own books about optimistic thinking.

We suggest that teachers take photos of the children and use those as a springboard for the children telling stories that have optimism. Book illustrations… We also have the teachers building optimism when they work with children on planning for success and doing conflict resolution so that it will have an optimistic outcome.

We have posters that we suggest they hang that have optimistic positive messages. And we have children creating their own art, which is optimistic, and you can see that on the cover and throughout the book. And we also end up with an activity that brings in gratitude because gratitude is closely related to optimism. And we suggest that every day the teachers and the children think about three optimistic things that they’re thankful for and write them and put them in a box and then they can all be read together at the end.

So all of these activities are infused into the program. And if they go on throughout the year and not just a one-week course it really will get everybody thinking optimistically. And from feedback that we had from teachers, that really changed the way children were thinking and they would tell them what was going on in their head and they were sharing better and the whole class seemed to be on an optimistic roll.

This just reminded me that not too long ago we got an e-mail from one of the teachers who had field-tested materials. And she said that a colleague of hers wanted to know why everybody in the class was so happy all the time and nobody seemed to be worrying about things. And the teacher said, “Well, that’s because [I teach] them to be optimistic.” And so the colleague said, “Well, could you give me some of that kumbaya stuff, too, so that my class can be optimistic?” So that’s sort of the gist of it.


It’s interesting, and certainly it brings out that theme you pointed out about infusing and embedding all those activities into the curriculum through the environment, through activities that the children are doing so it’s not just one specific activity that you do at a specific time. And certainly a lot of those examples help to highlight that and were helpful to make that more clear.

Where do programs perhaps struggle to be successful with implementing something like this? So you talked a bit about the model, you talked a bit about some specific exercises and activities. What are the keys to successfully executing this?


I think that one of the first things that’s really, really important is I think it has to be sort of part of the framework of the program. But it helps immensely if the teachers are so committed to this that they make sure that they know how to be optimistic thinkers as well. It’ll change their lives outside of the classroom and it’ll also change the lives in the classroom.

But the example I’ve been using is that if you’re an enthusiastic cook and you’re teaching children about cooking they’re likely to join in and become enthusiastic chefs themselves. But this is equally important for teaching optimism. If you are not an optimistic thinker and you struggle with it, you need to be committed enough to to try and change that so that you can be a role model for the children in the classroom. I think that’s super, super important. Do you want to add anything there, Laura?


I just think that the modeling is so important for children because they take up all these cues from their teacher. And if the teacher isn’t acting optimistically they’re not going to see the importance to their own lives.


Teachers can literally talk out loud while they’re going through this process. This ABCDE model, they can use it themselves. And they can talk out loud to the children, to the persona dolls, whatever, as they go through this process. And I know that sounds possibly a little bit corny that this is how children learn. They’re modeling and you’re pointing out what you’re doing. And so that children can actually see and hear your thinking process.


Yeah, and it’s funny because actually when you were saying that I was thinking that going through that ABCDE model, even as an adult you can certainly see how you could learn from that and apply it no matter who you are.




And for children, self-talk is how they learn. So hearing adults do that is very important. One other thing I wanted to add is that it’s good to get the administration on the bandwagon, too, and have administrators that believe in this and are also being models. You need the whole school kind of commitment to really do it right.


Yeah, and that makes so much sense to have the buy-in from the administrators and teachers. And it has to be the genuine and authentic buy-in that we can change optimism and be optimistic thinkers. And it kind of goes back to the point of that possible misconception that you’re born with either being pessimistic or optimistic. And so I think the first hurdle is really getting over that misconception. And certainly it sounds like you’ve seen the results and it’s so cool to hear more from both of you directly about the book and this really interesting topic about optimism which you mentioned, even amongst the adult community, as well, with the growth mindset and grit. [It] is a very trending and important topic for life.

So thank you both so much for coming on the show. If I’m listening here today and I want to learn more about thinking optimistically in my classrooms, or maybe I want to get a copy of the book, where can I go to do that?


You can get the talk either from the publisher, which is Redleaf Press, and their website is And it’s also available on Amazon.

And I’d also like to say, if you’d like to learn more about optimism general there are many YouTube videos of Martin Seligman – and other people – explaining the concept and providing deep strategies adults can use to become more optimistic.


Very cool. And so as a reminder, the book is called Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically. Thank you both so much, Laura and Derry, for coming on the show. We’re lucky to have such respected and accomplished people joining us on the Podcast. It’s been an honor having you.


Thank you so much.


It was our honour being here, thank you.

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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