Harnessing hope to improve children’s lives

Measuring hope in children may be the key to unlocking its power
Allan Mas, pexels.com
Allan Mas, pexels.com

Hope is more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. During our darkest days, hope allows us to imagine a brighter future for ourselves and helps us cope with difficulties and uncertainty.

Hope is a source of psychological strength that appears to have concrete benefits. In a seminal paper on hope, researchers noted that high levels of hope are linked to better grades, athletic performance and physical health. Low levels of hope, on the other hand, are associated with greater difficulty in achieving goals and more negative emotions.

“Hope is especially important when children encounter difficulties, because it can help them find new ways to solve a problem.”

Psychologists define hope as a positive motivational state that is based on an individual’s sense of agency, goals and pathways. Hope is important for child development and survival, writes Shazly Savahl, Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies at University of the Western Cape, in a recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology. Hopeful, goal-oriented thinking grows as children develop, and is central as they learn to walk, talk and interact with the world. Hope is especially important when children encounter difficulties, because it can help them find new ways to solve a problem.

Measuring hope

Some researchers believe that measuring hope is the key to harnessing it to improve children’s lives. By measuring hope, researchers can monitor changes over time and gain a better understanding of how hope relates to progress and well-being. But how do you quantify hope?

“Research on hope has made great strides, but measuring hope on a large scale still presents challenges.”

In 1997, American psychologist Charles Snyder and his colleagues developed the Children’s Hope Scale, which is based on a set of survey questions to determine how children and adolescents feel about their goals, pathways and agency. Scores on the Children’s Hope Scale are correlated with life satisfaction and well-being in different countries and social, cultural and economic settings. Over the last three decades, research on hope has made great strides, but measuring hope on a large scale still presents challenges.

Savahl’s recent paper reports on a study that used the Children’s Hope Scale to measure hope in South Africa’s nine provincial regions. The study is the first of its kind, surveying a representative sample of 10- to 12-year-old schoolchildren nationwide as part of the Children’s Worlds International Survey on Children’s Well-Being. The researchers found high levels of hope in seven provinces, while levels were in the medium range in the Northern Cape and KwaZulu Natal provinces. Western Cape, the province with the highest human development index in South Africa, had the highest mean score on the Children’s Hope Scale.

Translating hope into progress

South Africa is a unique context. According to the Gini Index, South Africa has one of the highest levels of both wealth and income inequality. As Savahl points out, the overall high levels of hope among South African children are all the more important in light of the socio-economic realities of growing up in South Africa. In a previous paper, Savahl and his colleagues noted that when disadvantaged individuals appeared to overcome the rampant inequality in the country, it was in part through education, resilience and other positive psychological traits.

“The power of hope comes from its capacity to improve children’s lives.”

Hope is not a goal in and of itself. The power of hope comes from its capacity to improve children’s lives. To harness hope, Savahl suggests, social service and educational practitioners should focus on developing children’s goal-directed thinking while also removing obstacles to success.

Measuring hope in different contexts, such as the armed conflicts that affect children in Burundi, Nepal and Indonesia, and understanding the links between hope and other factors, such as depression among adolescents in Singapore, could help us understand the role of hope for children facing adversity. There is a universality to hope, and discovering how to harness it may improve children’s lives around the world.

Weekly newsletter

Newsletter icon