“Look on the bright side” and “it could be worse” are statements we hear all the time, and likely even more so during the pandemic.
On the surface, these remarks might seem to inject much-needed optimism into a tough situation. But rather than motivating students or teachers to push through stressful times, experts say statements like these have the opposite effect.
“Toxic positivity” as it’s known—or the papering over of legitimate feelings of anxiety, stress, or despair with saccharine, out-of-the-box phrases like, “look at the good things you’ve got”—doesn’t promote resilience in children or adults, said Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
“You can’t always look on the bright side of things. Sometimes … you have to give yourself permission to feel all emotions,” said Brackett. “Especially as a teacher, if you only tell everyone everything is going to work out fine, a, that’s unrealistic because nothing always works out, and b, … you’re not being a role model for your students that it’s OK to experience the full range of feelings.”
Morale and motivation are suffering right now in schools. Some numbers from recent EdWeek Research Center surveys illustrate just how much: Nearly 40 percent of middle and high school students said their morale was lower than before the pandemic. Half said the pandemic has made them less motivated in their schoolwork.
Forty-five percent of teachers said their morale is lower now than before the pandemic, and 42 percent said the pandemic has made them less motivated at work.
Nearly a third of educators said that administrators’ attempts to improve teacher morale had no impact at all. Four percent said these attempts actually made morale worse.
‘It’s OK Not to Be OK’
Urging students, staff, peers or even oneself to find the silver lining in a bad situation might seem like a good way to boost motivation and improve school climate, but it often has the reverse effect.
The issue, said Brackett, is that ignoring negative emotions doesn’t make them go away.
“They become like a debt inside of you,” he said. “They show up somewhere, whether it be in a depression, or an eating disorder, or in aggression, or in physical health problems.”
Additionally, negative emotions serve an important purpose, said Bracket, and you need not look any further than the pandemic for examples of this.
“[A]nxiety is a good thing to feel right now, because it will make certain that you stay socially distanced, that you wear your mask, and that you take care of washing your hands,” he said.
Being a good role model for students doesn’t mean always putting up a happy face, said Adrienne Khan, a 4th grade teacher at Bayview Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She said she does try to stay upbeat for her students, but not constantly.
“I think sometimes kids think adults are perfect, and as teachers and parents we hide what is going on with us,” she said. “And they need to see that reality. We all have bad days. We are all going through this together. It’s OK not to be OK.”
She said she urges her students to keep trying, and reminds them that the pandemic won’t last forever. But in the here and now, she admits, it is tough.
Khan has been struggling with toxic positivity in her job. She said the administration in her district doesn’t want teachers to discuss with parents or post on social media about their struggles, in particular with the technology they’re using to teach remote students. Khan said she feels pressure to act as though everything is just fine. She has been telling herself that “it could be worse” and “at least I have a job,” which she said leaves her still feeling negative.
“It would be very helpful if I could hear the words,'We realize this is really tough, and this sucks right now,’” from district’s leadership said Khan. “It wouldn’t change anything, but at least I would feel acknowledged.”
That sentiment is echoed over and over again on social media, where teachers point out that writing “you’ve got this” in chalk on the sidewalk or hanging a banner that says “teachers are heroes” often rings hollow as they struggle to deal with everything ranging from technological glitches during classes to coronavirus-related deaths in their school communities. In EdWeek’s recent survey, teachers anonymously wrote in these pieces of advice for administrators:
“Save the pep talks, it seems phony.”
“Stop the comments ‘we appreciate all you do.’ These reduce morale and are frustrating.”
And finally: “Stop with the toxic positivity.”
Telling someone to look at the good things they’ve got essentially dismisses what they’re feeling, said Leslie Blanchard, the executive director of the Leadership Development Institute at Louisiana State University, a leadership training and consulting group that works with K-12 schools.
“It’s the same as not listening at all,” she said.
And toxic positivity isn’t unique to administrators— it can just as easily come from other teachers in a profession that puts a premium on having an upbeat attitude.
Blanchard, a former middle and high school teacher, published a piece on Bored Teachers about toxic positivity in April and it struck a chord with educators—she was inundated with emails from readers saying they were fed up with insincere optimism from colleagues.
Toxic positivity doesn’t just fail to motivate people, said Blanchard, it often has the effect of making them feel guilty, in addition to being stressed, for not being able to muster optimism.
Blanchard has two pieces of advice for dealing with toxic positivity, which, she emphasized, can come from principals, administrators, parents, and fellow teachers (as well as oneself). First, recognize that the person telling you that “everything happens for a reason,” or unhelpfully reminding you that this already terrible situation could be worse, doesn’t intend to make you feel bad.
The second: “I might tell a client to, in a kind way, explain to Pollyanna that ‘when you tell me ... that it’s not as bad as it seems, you invalidate the things that I’m feeling and struggling with right now.’”
A Balancing Act
All of this is not to say that being positive is bad, or that being negative is good. It’s a balancing act. On average, people should feel more positive than negative emotions, said Brackett, the expert from Yale.
But a constant state of happiness—whether in a pandemic or not—shouldn’t be an emotional goal because that expectation is unrealistic and sets people up to feel even worse when they can’t achieve it, he said.
It’s not healthy to wallow in negative emotions, either.
“If you fail a test, as a kid, and you’re feeling despair for a day or two, or for a week, fine, that may help you figure out what to do to study better or get the help you need,” Brackett said. “But if you feel chronic despair about your academics, that’s not helpful.”
What is helpful is tuning into your own self-talk—or encouraging your students to—and making sure that you’re acknowledging the difficulties you’re facing but also not being too harsh on yourself, said Brackett. Breathing and mindfulness exercises are other strategies for tackling the unrelenting stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.
And, finally, it helps to be honest that while things could always be worse, they still really suck right now.
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here’s What Educators Can Do