The history of hope as a theoretical construct is complex and encompasses musings from numerous traditions and fields of inquiry. Within the social sciences, both emotion- and cognition-based approaches to defining hope were developed. The cognitive-motivational framework of Hope Theory, spearheaded by Richard Snyder and colleagues, grounds hope in iterative and additive goal-directed, agentic thinking and determination. Specifically, Snyder’s theory defines hope as a positive state that provides high-hopers with the determination and cognitive tools to successfully pursue goals. Although related to similar positive psychology constructs such as self-efficacy and optimism, hope has been empirically validated as a distinct construct with unique predictive power in childhood and adolescence. Snyder’s Children’s Hope Scale captures children’s pathway (goal-directed planning) and agency (energy toward a goal) thinking and represents the predominant measure (with a few recent exceptions) used to assess child and youth hopefulness, particularly in school contexts.
The work of Snyder and colleagues launched over 30 years of research, linking hope to higher self-esteem, perceived competence and life purpose, optimism, social skills, and academic achievement, as well as lower levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety. Although still in a nascent stage, subsequent research has sought to understand how and why hope operates.
Researchers have framed hope as an internalized mechanism that helps explain the relation between external motivators and the many positive correlates of hope, including academic success. In addition, limited, more nuanced work has investigated the intricate relations between hope and other socio-cognitive skills and interpersonal psychological constructs, such as optimism, to parse out directionality and identify processes that link hope to positive student outcomes.
Hope’s positive correlates have also prompted interest into levels of hope across development to identify optimal windows for prevention and intervention. Large-scale studies of youth hope have shown declining levels as youth progress through adolescence into early adulthood and sensitive periods that correspond to developmental and educational transitions.
Thus, school-based efforts taken by teachers, counsellors, and administrators, as well as explicit hope interventions, may be critical to inspiring and scaffolding students’ hope and life goals.
Indeed, several small school-based studies of hope-targeting interventions suggest the efficacy of focused efforts to promote hope among students, supporting the idea of the school as a context ripe for the nourishing of youth hope.
There are limitations to the current conceptualization and measurement of hope among school children, including the need for expansion to accommodate younger-aged children. Likewise, there is a notable dearth of longitudinal inquiry, and with the exception of a few studies of sub-populations, literature on hopefulness among racial and ethnic minorities, marginalized groups, and across genders. Fine-grained efficacy studies and investigations into the interrelatedness of hope to other constructs and of hope as an explanatory mechanism would help to inform and refine promising hope-promoting efforts and interventions that are being disseminated in schools. Preparing youth to identify and progress toward adaptive goals, and persist in the face of inevitable challenges, remains the crux of hope. Taken together, the foundational tenets of hope theory and its evolving conceptual framework lend themselves to a greater understanding of how child and youth hope is manifested and further developed within an educational context to influence trajectories of well-being.