Life is Good Kids Foundation Ignites the Power of Optimism at ERB Conference
Attendees of the 90th ERB Conference in Boston in October discovered that the Life is Good movement is much more than an uplifting t-shirt or sticker. Most of the300-plus educators and administrators attending the ERB Conference were familiar with the t-shirts adorned with a simple, black-and-white drawing of a face with sunglasses, a black beret, wide grin and the words: Life is Good.
At the conference, they learned of the transformative Life is Good Kids Foundation through a humorous, humbling and inspiring Opening Keynote presentation by Steve Gross, Chief Playmaker, Life is Good Kids Foundation.
The Life is Good organization is an integrated company with both a for-profit division – think t-shirts and other merchandise touting the message of optimism – and a nonprofit foundation focused on spreading the power of optimism to help kids heal. “We do this by partnering with front-line men and women, educators, coaches, healthcare workers and social workers,” Gross explained. “Programs don’t heal. People do.”
Gross’s message to a roomful of teachers and educational administrators was simple: The little things are really the big things. Stressing the need for human connection and peppering his presentation with funny, poignant anecdotes and brain research, Gross shared what he called Five Pearls of Wisdom – advice that is relevant in and out of the classroom.
#1. Optimism is the most important trait that a person can have.
“You can’t effectively educate without optimism,” noted Gross, admitting that Life is Good’s definition is a little different from Webster’s. He defined it as the capacity to see the good.
Using the analogy of a seven-year-old Little League right-fielder (or part-time grass-picker/bird-watcher/day-dreamer) who is happy no matter the score or if a ball even touches his or her glove, Gross emphasized that happiness and optimism are most important when we are down. “There are always flowers and blue skies for people who choose to see them. You can’t be an educator or get out of bed and live a life without optimism. You can’t teach if you can’t see the good in others.”
Acknowledging that in the classroom and at a school, there are lots of things competing for your attention. He called the second level of optimism the ability to focus on the good, which “doesn’t mean denying the bad stuff in the world,” he added. “Find and use your resources. Acknowledge threats but work to shift your perspective from worrying about the bad news to focusing on the good.”
#2. Optimism unlocks our superpowers.
Think of all the qualities you most admire in your students and those you had when you were in elementary school. Creativity. Curiosity. Genuineness. Compassion. Kindness. An ability to experience awe and wonder. Fun.
“Schools are a place where these [superpowers] emerge, and these are the powers capable of changing the world,” Gross said. “Kids, in their purest form, possess the social, emotional and cognitive superpowers to change the world. We are not fully educating children if we are not helping children nurture their superpowers.”
Adults, he lamented, have a superpower deficiency. Using the list above, he asked the audience to imagine what would happen in the world if there were a 10% increase in compassion? In creativity? In kindness? Etc.? “Imagine if we figured out the technology to make people 10% more open-minded and respectful?” he asked. “In a child’s eyes, there are infinite possibilities. In the experts’ eyes, there are few.”
3. Fear can destroy optimism.
Gross quoted philosopher Mike Tyson who famously (and accurately) said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When a fighter is getting slammed in the ring, he puts up his guard and goes into a defensive stance. “Overwhelmingly stressful experiences can actually change children’s brains,” Gross explained, citing research by Dr. Robert Block of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Gross’ presentation included wisdom from many optimism experts, including Mike Tyson.
Using Dr. Jaak Parskepp’s research on rats who were given everything needed for survival but placed in an unenriching, solitary environment, Gross explained that the rats’ dendrite development – the neuron’s branching process that conducts impulses to the brain cells – suffered. It flourished in the rats who were in social settings and had enriched opportunities (mazes, stimuli, tunnels, etc.). When Dr. Parskepp introduced a stressor – cat hair – into the environment, the rats’ play behavior plummeted to zero and never returned to its previous level once the stressor was removed. Check out Dr. Parskepp tickling (yes, tickling) rats to show rats laughing.
“We are not rats, and rats don’t have great teachers or great schools,” he said. “When we create enriched environments, we are playmakers. When we are mindful and can detect the cat hair and remove it, we are playmakers.”
1. Joy, which can be big and loud or soft and quiet.
2. Internal Control, which recognizes that every child is an original. Kids, Gross explained, feel in control when they feel supported physically, mentally, socially and emotionally.
3. Active Engagement, which is the capacity to be here now and be engaged. Educators, he said, need to help students figure out what they need to be here now. “Now is the only time when anything happens,” he explained.
4. Social Connection, which addresses our innate need to connect with each other: “When kids feel engaged in the classroom and feel a part of something powerful, optimism will take root.”
The O’Playsis equation.
- What are you going to do to bring more joy into your life?
- What are you going to do to find and keep more balance?
- What changes your curiosity? Creativity?