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Education Opinion

Helping Students Cope With Uncertainty: Advice From a Psychologist

By Angela Duckworth — May 04, 2020 1 min read

There is so much debate right now about what will happen with schools, the economy, and so much else. I’m having trouble coping with uncertainty and don’t know what to say to my students. What do you advise?

Uncertainty about the future is an extremely uncomfortable psychological state—particularly when what looms on the horizon is negative, not positive.

For example, not knowing how long the recession will last is, in some ways, more difficult than knowing with certainty that the recession will last a year. Likewise, it can be especially hard to cope with not knowing what school will be like in the fall.

Psychologists sometimes talk about the “need for closure” versus “tolerance of ambiguity.” The basic idea is that some people are more comfortable than others are when it comes to uncertainty. Regardless, it’s important to remember that uncertainty is something most people avoid.

I have three suggestions for coping with uncertainty.

First, tell your students that feeling distressed about our inability to predict what will happen in the future is entirely normal. Explain that the need for closure is human, and like them, you, too, wish you could forecast what life will be like in the year ahead.

Second, help your students put things in perspective. You could ask your class to brainstorm: “What’s the most optimistic scenario for the fall?” then “What’s the absolute worst-case scenario?” and finally, “What’s the most likely scenario?” Then ask students to think through how they’d manage in each possibility. They may realize that even in the worst-case scenario, they’d be just fine.

And, finally, consider sharing this quote attributed to John Lennon and, perhaps, a comfort in these challenging times: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.

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