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Fostering Futures and Possible Selves

As a doctoral student in Ann Arbor, a young researcher learned about Devil’s Night, in which young Detroiters burn abandoned buildings on Halloween.

“I wondered: What are these kids thinking is possible for them in the future,” said Daphna Oyserman, now a University of Michigan professor with joint appointments in the Department of Psychology and the School of Social Work. “I thought, surely they aren’t thinking that burning down buildings would turn into obstacles for attaining their futures. I wondered what they imagined was possible for themselves in the future.”

National CASA’s new Fostering Futures curriculum is rooted in the studies of Oyserman and another researcher, Michael Hock, associate director of the University of Kansas School of Education.

Oyserman’s research has focused on a concept called “possible selves.” Her studies have helped young people achieve their full potential by having them visualize a positive self-identity to work toward and a negative one to avoid as well as set goals for the future and plan to achieve those goals.

So she posed questions to youth who had been in trouble as well as students at area high schools. She asked them what they imagined was possible both in terms of positive selves they wanted to become and negative selves they wanted to avoid. Interestingly, she found young people’s answers did not differ much when they projected far enough into the future.

“All of these teens talked about getting married, having a house, having money, realizing the American Dream,” Oyserman said. “Where I did see differences was what they saw for themselves in the more immediate future.”

From her interviews, Oyserman coined the term balanced possible selves to describe those teens interested in doing well who were also concerned about doing badly. In one study, she asked what youth were doing to become like that positive self or to avoid becoming like that negative self.

“Just having one strategy was a powerful predictor of behavior change,” Oyserman said. She translated her research into an intervention called School-to-Jobs, demonstrating that brief, group-based exercises changed children’s possible selves, making feared selves more salient and linked to strategies. The result was that children improved their academic performance.

In the Fostering Futures curriculum, CASA volunteers and youth work together to examine the following:

  • What is the youth good at? What do others say the youth is good at?
  • What does the youth like to do?
  • Where does he see himself in one year? In five years?
  • What are some of the youth's hopes, fears and expectations of herself?
  • What are some short-, medium- and long-term goals the youth thinks can lead to a brighter future? What does the youth need to do to get there?
  • How will the youth know she is successful at these goals? How will she know a change of course is necessary?

Tiffany Denson, transitioning youth director at Child Advocates San Antonio, Inc., is a believer in the possible selves research.

“When you look at these youth, traditionally every decision is made for them,” Denson said. “You will come into foster care. You will live in this home. You will go to this school. No one ever stops to say, ‘What are your thoughts?’ I believe that people don’t want to fail, and I’m a huge advocate of getting the youth to engage in their own lives.”

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