Igniting Hope in our Students: Three Sparks

by Maurice Elias for #SELDAY



 “Hope is certainly essential

  In the lives of all our kids

  But it is up to us to ignite it

  To light the flame that lives within”

These words are part of a longer poem by Michelle Trujillo, from the preface of her bookStart with the Heart: Igniting Hope in Schools Through Social and Emotional Learning. Many educators and parents are concerned about children and youth becoming cynical about making the world a better place. They see polarization, American vs. American, and turmoil within and between branches of government. They see political leaders engage in questionable moral practices, often shamelessly. They seem to be losing hope.
Not so fast, says Michelle Trujillo. The hope is there. It resides within the hearts of the vast majority of our students.  Adults must provide the spark that enables hope to flourish.  In schools, this must be a shared responsibility among the community of educators.  And she provides excellent guidance for how to do this, of which I will share three:

genuine connection is the foundation on which hope is built.  When we care about others, we cannot afford to lose hope.

1. Close Your Tabs and Make Genuine Connections

In her book, Trujillo shares a personal example of having so many things going on in her life that it was like having 20 tabs open on her computer and constantly trying to keep all of them in mind. Her husband suggested she “close her tabs” and focus on fewer things. Why? Because genuine connection is the foundation on which hope is built. When we care about others, we cannot afford to lose hope.

Here’s how to deepen relationships:

Look at other people – even familiar people – as if you are seeing them for the first time. Notice everything about them.

Listen carefully to what others are saying – look for the value in their words, even if you usually do not find their positions agree with yours. What can you connect to in what you are hearing?

Be inviting by smiling and having an open posture. Communicate that you care and are interested. That will lead to deeper contact and relationships.

2. Appreciate the Power of Your Choices.

Teach students the concept of accountability.  Let them look up the word and create their own definitions.  And then give them this framework for situations where they have failed to uphold a rule or meet a moral standard:

Own it – put your responsibility into words without hedging.

Seek sincere forgiveness – who was harmed/offended/diminished by your action? Express your regret and ask for forgiveness

Make it right – as we are seeing now with more and more schools engaging in Restorative Practices, ask the question, “How can I make it up to you?  How can I make it better?”  It also includes saying to oneseslf, as well as others, “The next time a similar situation occurs, I will handle it differently. I will…”

Relatedly, teachers and school counselors may want to encourage students to self-monitor their own behavior with simple reflective checklists. For example:  How did I do today?  Was I successful, mixed, or unsuccessful with regard to Being Respectful to Others; Keeping Myself and Others in Mind When Making Decisions, Acting Responsibly, Being Hopeful and Positive.

When students find themselves being mostly mixed or unsuccessful, they should have a designated adult in the school to whom they can go for additional feedback and guidance.

We have to be ready to ignite and keep reigniting hope. The result — students with hope — is well worth the effort.


3. Never Doubt How Much You Matter

At the core of hope is the belief that one has something to contribute, that one’s actions matter and can make a positive difference. So students benefit from experiences that help them understand and believe that their actions are connected to improvements in the lives of others and the conditions of others’ lives. Here are some suggestions from Michelle’s experience, including conversations with many students:

Ask students to reflect on people for whom they are grateful and why. Be sure they include people in public life, now or in history. Then, ask them to reflect on who is grateful for them and why.

Encourage students to join clubs and teams and be sure there are ample opportunities for all students. Pay particular attention to the inclusiveness of these opportunities. Special Olympics’ Unified Sports model shows how regular PE as well as varsity and intramural sports can take an inclusive approach.

Create service opportunities. Educators need to ask themselves the question, “How can I give this student a chance to show others what he or she has learned, knows, can do, etc.?” This is a question that needs to be asked and answered for EVERY student in the school. This can include typical service activities relating to buddying, helping younger children, connecting with the homeless, those with food insecurity, needing language assistance, in senior centers, etc. And this can include connecting to local or state legislatures, charitable organizations, and community action programs. Within the school, students can create newspapers that give voice to all students. Schools also can arrange with local cable stations to give students broadcast time to share what they are learning in school. A great model for this can be found at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in NJ.


Hope is not like an eternal flame, once lit, never extinguished. In adolescence, the ups and downs of life and teens’ exaggerated interpretations ensure the flame will dim and occasionally go out. So we have to be ready to ignite and keep reigniting hope. The result — students with hope — is well worth the effort. 




About the Author

Maurice J. Elias is a professor in the Psychology Department at Rutgers University, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, and co-director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools, which offers certificate programs in direct instruction and school leadership relating to SEL and character development for educators and student support professionals in school and out-of-school settings. He has received the Sanford McDonnell Award for Lifetime Achievement in Character Education and the Joseph E. Zins Memorial Senior Scholar Award for Social-Emotional Learning from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Prof. Elias is on the leadership teams of SEL4US and SEL4NJ.


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