How optimism can help kids build resilience and lead happier, healthier lives

'The change is on us'

CINCINNATI -- Here’s the thing: Children’s brains develop more in the first five years of life than for the next 95 years if they live to be 100.

So getting it right in the early years is important. As far as Steve Gross is concerned, getting it right means cultivating kids’ optimism, confidence and hope so they have the strength and resilience to cope with the challenges that life brings.

Steve Gross

“It’s really about how do you help children grow up being able to really see and focus on the good in themselves, the good in others and the good in the world around them,” said Gross, the founder and “chief playmaker” of the Life is Good Kids Foundation. “Our core belief is that optimism is the single most important trait a child can have that will enable them to be resilient.”

Gross will be bringing his message to the Tri-State Oct. 27 as keynote speaker for the first day of 4C for Children’s annual leadership conference for early childhood professionals.

Called Grow the Good: Nurturing the Roots of Resiliency, the conference aims to give early childhood educators the tools and skills they need to work successfully with children who have experienced trauma, said Vanessa Freytag, 4C’s president and CEO. 

This marks the first year 4C is holding one, large regional conference instead of separate events in its three services areas of Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Miami Valley. Already more than 500 people have registered for the event, and there is room for plenty more. 4C is offering tickets for Gross’s breakfast presentation to people who aren’t attending the rest of the conference.

Freytag said she’s particularly excited to have him at the conference because of his expertise and the way he talks about adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs.

RELATED: Never heard of ACES? Here’s why you should care

“I hope they walk away with that base of knowledge and also knowing that there are programs and trainings and any number of resources for them as providers to help them better work on their skill sets to better serve the children they are responsible for,” she said.

WCPO spoke with Gross about his foundation’s work and the message he will be delivering later this month. Excerpts of the interview are below. His responses have been edited for length.

Question: Tell me about the goal of your foundation and its work?

Gross: Our primary mission is the spread the power of optimism to help kids heal from early childhood adversity, like the traumas associated with growing up amidst violence, poverty or illness.

Q: Why is that so important for children?

Gross: There’s a lot of data right now on the impacts of ACEs and how ACEs can be really toxic to the developing brains and bodies of children, especially in very high doses.

Early childhood adversity can really impact the social, emotional and cognitive development of children. If they grow up feeling a sense of shame, of helplessness, a sense of feeling unworthy, it’s pretty easy to not feel capable and confident to go out and explore the world and do all the things that make the world beautiful.

When a child can see goodness in the world and feel interested in exploring the world, they’re open to learning and exploring and growing. 

And when children see the world as a dangerous and threatening place, they lose their motivation to engage, connect, explore and learn, and their whole focus turns to self-preservation.

Q: How can these approaches help children who have experienced trauma?

Gross: The most important thing, and the way that we do the thing that we do, is to think about all of the people every day who go out and try to make a difference in the lives of children. Whether they’re teachers, counselors or after-school providers -- these individuals are in the life-changing relationship business. 

In order for kids to heal, they need to have a supportive community of adults who can guide them, who can care for them, who can nurture them and who can really help them to learn and grow and heal.

So it’s about how do we help adults bring their best human selves to work every day because the interventions don’t heal children. People heal children.

Our focus at the Kids Foundation, knowing that we can’t be all things, is how do we help front-line care providers who are working with our nation’s most at-risk kids? How do we help them bring their best selves to work every day as human beings?

We kind of figured out that outstanding human services require outstanding humans. 

Q: Some people might see the word ‘optimism’ and view that as naïve. What is the research that backs up your approach?

Gross: I don’t believe in optimistic or positive thinking. And a lot of people will say optimism is about ignoring all the bad stuff in the world and pretending everything is OK when it’s not OK. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have minds as human beings that tend to focus more on negative information than positive information. Research shows that when people focus on the problems, it hinders their overall health, it causes inflammation in the body, it stresses personal relationships. Human beings need to be able to see opportunities.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, done over more than 70 years, found the best predictor of how somebody grows old is the quality of their social relationships. It is almost impossible to have high-quality social relationships if you don’t trust others and you don’t believe in yourself.

Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t perfect. Life is good.

We’re just trying to help people to be able to tap into their most optimistic self because that will give them the best opportunity to cultivate what we call their social and emotional super powers.

You cannot spread what you do not have. So it’s a caring for the caregiver model.

These boys were photographed at Treasure House Child Development Center in Covington.

Q: Why is it so important to focus this work in early childhood?

Gross: The reason I think I think early childhood is most important is that a child’s brain develops more in the first five years of life than it will for the next 95 years if they live to be 100.

Prevention is a much more efficient and effective way of working with children than intervention.

We undervalue and under-resource and under-support early childhood educators. They’re often the low people on the education totem pole.

And yet, the people in early childhood education are working with a much more impressionable mind. They have a much better chance to impact the young child than a college professor has of impacting a college student.

They deserve to be supported because they’re doing the most important job.

Q: What kind of difference can a preschool teacher make in a child’s life?

Gross: In my opinion, the single most important thing a preschool teacher can do is that when a child leaves preschool, they are excited about learning and they think learning is fun.

When a preschool teacher creates an “oplaysis,” a place where a child feels safe and empowered and valuable, where they feel a sense of joy and pleasure and purpose and feel connected to a team and they’re not alone, you have given them the foundation of all they need in life.

God bless preschool teachers. They’re the protectors of humanity. And we will only evolve as far as we support and help our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Q: What can the rest of us -- who aren’t educators -- do to make a difference?

Gross: The change is on us. When we’re always bringing our best, our most loving, our most authentic, our most creative selves, we end up spreading good vibes.

What can you do to help grow the good in somebody else’s life? How do you leave people in your interactions? Do you leave them feeling bigger or feeling smaller?

It begins with us.

As Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist said, if you don’t life it, it won’t come out your horn.

How do you live it? And see how it makes a difference.

More information about the Life is Good Kids Foundation is available online. 

Information about 4C’s Grow the Good: Nurturing the Roots of Resiliency conference and how to register is online, too. Click here for information about how to get tickets only for Gross’s keynote breakfast presentation.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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