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Visualize the Good and the Bad

Use your pessimism to imagine Plan B.

Educators employ visualization techniques to build strengths that overcome obstacles and attain goals. Students use their imaginations to envision strengths and rehearse the practice of them. Most often, they use visualization techniques to alter a limiting mind-set and create a growth mind-set — they envision learning, improving, failing, trying again, and then, succeeding. They visualize with a positive end in mind.

Visualization is a strengths-based movie with a happy ending. Students learn to play it on demand in their heads. The ability to visualize is an important predictor of success. Visualization enables students to dream a life of strengths and accomplishment ahead.

Surprisingly, visualizing a worst-case scenario is also an effective tool. Defensive, anticipatory, pessimism, or the power of negative thinking, is the basis for adversity training. Mentally practicing how to manage a negative outcome by imagining how to deploy strengths to handle it decreases the fear of it. Imagined limitations do not entangle children because they invent a strengths-based alternative. The "What If" worries are chased away by the power of the mind.

Children learn to visualize what might go wrong in a situation, imagine the details of the possible negative outcome, and shift their attention to facts rather than random worrisome speculations. They visualize a contingency plan. They engage in adversity training through visualization.

Visualization creates mental self-efficacy or the belief that a signature strength can bring success and create the preconditions for that success by freeing the mind of past failure and lingering doubt. Students imagine how they will use their strength energy to bounce back more quickly or be more resilient and optimistic in the face of failure or stress - when they may pessimistically expect it or worry over it.

Visualization not only activates positive anticipatory thinking - it shortcircuits negative anticipatory thinking. What matters is not so much whether you are optimistic or pessimistic - but how you visualize all the chapters to come. Teach students to mentally rehearse before they get on stage. The added-value is more relaxed students. Visualization is just one relaxtion technique consistent with the practice of positive psychology.

The teacher might also increase the effect of visualization by using some of the most recent findings in brain research: the 'elephant- in-the-room' theorem. When the teacher tells children not to think about something—such as chocolate—they can’t help thinking about it. The teacher can trigger focus - positive or negative - by simply telling students not to think about something. If she tells them not to laugh, they are more likely to laugh. If she tells them not to think about a past disappointment, they will think about it. So this approach backfires because now the student focuses on that action or feeling. Neuronal attention to the teacher's verbal prompt is aroused. So the teacher must not prompt worrisome distractions by attending to "do nots". Do not talk, do not worry, do not stop working.

Children and adolescents have a virtual, wireless world inside their brains that can produce positive imagery that anticipates a postiive end. They can also produce strength imagery that responds to fear of a negative end. They visualize themselves using their strengths to build a platform for success no matter what particular roadblock obstructs their way. They engage in a mental workhsop and visualize their success or their successful response to a setback. To visualize is to daydream with a purpose.

Pessimism is a positive when it prompts visualization of Plan B.


Have you learned visualization techniques? Do you practice visualization on a routine basis and in a systematic way? Do you teach your students to visualize positive outcomes? Do you teach your students to visualize strength responses to negative outcomes? Do you think that visualization can be incorporated into cognitive thinking and academic work (e.g. graphic organizers)? Do you think visualization can be incorporated into affective thinking and academic work (e.g. emotional maps)? How much time will you spend teaching your students visualization techniques? How much time will you allocate for students to engage in visualization? Visualization improves our understanding of our self and others. Did you know it is also a research proven technique to improve reading comprehension? Imagine yourself in that situation...imagine yourself with that feeling...imagine yourself making that decision.



Abrams, L. (March 13, 2013). A case for pessimism. Atlanta: The Atlantic

Taylor, E. (June 4, 2011). The mental rehearsal that makes a difference. New York: Huffington Post


Curran, E. (2007). Guided imagery for healing children and teens: Wellness through visualization. New York: Atria Publishing (imprint of Siman & Schuster).

Norem, J. (2002). The positive power of negative thinking: Using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak. New York: Basic Books.


PBS I Love Charts

Web Resources

Kid's Inspiration Software

Imagery for Kids (Dr. Charlotte Reznick)

Inspiration Software

Visualization Exercises (Goals for Kids)


Read My New Book from W. W. Norton & Company

Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom

Author Page

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