The Positivity Pitfall

July 14, 2019

Positivity is a good thing.





That’s what everybody says, right? If you want to be happy, you have to be positive. If you want to succeed, you have to be positive. Positivity is the key to everything you want….but is it really?


Let’s be clear. There are two types of positivity. There is an authentic positivity that is grounded in true self-confidence and a growth mindset. It is a calm type of positivity that allows a person a full range of emotions knowing that circumstances will eventually change and any kind of sadness, anger, grief, pain, embarrassment, guilt or shame will eventually wane. It is one that does not assume that a person must be excited and hopeful 24/7, 365. It is healthy for the person holding it and helps them create a healthy, warm environment that others can feel comfortable in.


Then there is the other type of “positivity,” false positivity. It is grounded in self-doubt and a fixed mindset. It is a mask worn to show others how “positive” a person is when they actually feel the opposite. It’s eternally effusive. When you encounter it, it makes you feel uncomfortable for reasons you may not be able to put your finger on. You might think Why is this person bothering me? They’re so nice. False positivity is shallow. It creates an unhealthy situation for the person wearing it in that it does not allow them to acknowledge and feel “negative emotions.” Emotions such as sadness, anger, embarrassment etc are to be ignored rather than experienced. The person must not ever show a face that is not “positive,” especially publicly. This is very psychologically damaging for the person in that emotions that get repressed stay with them long-term and wreak havoc on their lives. It causes them to be uncomfortable and judgmental and creates a confusing environment for others.


How do these two kinds of positivity affect education?


In myriad ways.


Let’s take a look at one.


In the classroom, the type of positivity available to the teacher makes or breaks an effective educational environment. It has been well documented in recent research that positive behavioral supports are the most effective classroom management tool to the point where the federal Department of Education funded a program called, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or PBIS. Many states have mandated the implementation of PBIS in all classrooms. Sounds great, right?


The only problem is that teachers receive literally no pre-service training in PBIS or in social and emotional skills for themselves. Likewise, they receive no professional development that allows them a safe space in which they can explore their unconscious biases, their personal emotional triggers, their subconscious and conscious judgements, their ability to productively express their own feelings etc. Teachers are people. People have experiences, some that leave them feeling good and others that leave pain of some sort. We all have this but the great majority of people, including teachers, receive no training or education in how to understand their feelings or what to do with them. This creates a bigger problem for those of us who work in educational environments than other people because it is our job to teach our students these skills and to create equitable environments that encourage, support and motivate all students to learn to the biggest potential.



I have watched some teachers who were lucky enough to have natural role models and developed these skills long before they decided to become a teacher seamlessly create learning environments that allow all of their students access to and productive expression of all of their feelings, environments full of true rigor (see my next blog post for a full explanation of this), environments that support all students regardless of their situation outside of the classroom, what they look like, their preferred learning style or any developmental delays or disabilities. Likewise I see the majority of teachers struggle with this and they do not understand why it is hard for them or why “PBIS doesn’t work” for them. In every case, it is a matter of the teacher not having the social and emotional skills training they need to hold authentic positivity and it’s not their fault.


How does this affect their classrooms?


1. False positivity makes people uncomfortable. That means the students, colleagues and parents of students feel an inherent lack of trust in the teacher. Without trust there is no chance for a productive relationship. Without relationship there is no chance of students reaching their personal learning potential. 


This lack of relationship causes students to check out. Students who are checked out choose unwanted behaviors. Teachers with false positivity have a tendency toward judgmentalism to begin with so their reaction is punitive which in turn reduces trust, which threatens relationship, which leads to further check out and builds active resentment with students which leads to more and more unwanted behavior. All of this leads to more and more time being dedicated to “classroom management” which means that less and less time is being spent on learning.


2. Teachers who lack self-confidence tend to have a fixed mindset. Research shows that a fixed mindset inhibits learning not just for the person holding that mindset, but (especially for teachers) for anybody that person has authority over. This directly affects the amount of rigor in a classroom. When teachers don’t believe in their own ability to change and grow, they have no possibility of believing in their students’ ability to change and grow. Therefore, they create lesson plans based on what they think their students can already do rather than on what they think their students can learn to do. The authors of These Kids Are Out of Control do a phenomenal job of laying out how this specifically creates inequity in our schools. 


3. Teachers who are uncomfortable with their own emotions are going to be uncomfortable with other people experiencing real emotions. This leads to teachers who shut down students experiencing “negative emotions”. Shutting someone down when they really need your support leads to a lack of trust which leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy described in #1.


4. Teachers who lack authentic positivity tend to, in best case situations, not feel comfortable addressing bullying behavior and, in worst case situations, actively model and encourage bullying behavior.


5. Teachers who lack social and emotional skills are as unequipped to teach them as a teacher who does not understand math is unequipped to teach math.


The lack of social and emotional skills training is keeping our schools from being effective and equitable.


This is why I teach professional development programs specifically designed to develop social and emotional skills in teachers, paraprofessionals and other school staff. (See future blog posts for an explicit explanation of why this cannot just be for teachers.) If you’d like me to come help your school become more effective through SELs skills development, contact me here.

Please reload

Featured Posts

I am not against reading but I am against reading jail.

We know that the best way to teach our kids to read is to expose them to reading materials that...

Reading Jail?

September 21, 2018

Please reload

Recent Posts

June 3, 2020