Top Six Strategies for Educators to Overcome Kids' Negative Thinking

Do you know a negatively-minded child who:

  • Underestimates his/her strengths; is overly self-critical or perfectionistic?
  • Expects the worst in a situation; gives up, melts down or quits in the face of frustration?
  • Is afraid to try new things because he or she doesn't want to risk failure
  • Sees the problems and flaws in every situation instead of the possibilities or the positives?

 We've all been there and it's not pretty, or fun, or productive. Here are six strategies to help talk kids through their negative thoughts and boss back their negative brain, so that they can see things as they are (manageable, temporary) rather than how they feel in the moment (insurmountable, permanent). These strategies work for adults too, so next time you're in a negative spin, don't be afraid to give these ideas a try yourself.

Top Six Strategies for Educators:
Strategy One: Empathize Rather than Convincing

If a student is being hard on him or herself about her work, first reflect their feelings of disappointment: you are really upset about this, this wasn't what you were expecting, rather than reassuring him or her that their work is fine. If they are upset, they are locked into their own picture of what is going on and won't be able to hear you if you try to present another one. Your empathy will free them up to hear other points of view, so you can work to address the distorted thinking, and in the process the facts themselves (especially when they identify them for themselves) will be the most reassuring intervention of all.
Strategy Two: Specificize: Narrow the Problem Down to Its Source

When children get in a negative spin they aren't upset about one thing, they are upset about everything, and it feels to them like whatever went wrong is irrevocable and will ruin everything else in the future, like a bad game of dominoes. Help the child narrow down the cumbersome, unwieldy (and inaccurate) view they have of the situation to the true trigger or the straw that broke the camel's back. By right-sizing the problem, they can then be more accurate about the consequences of that situation and see ways of mobilizing to address it. Ask, "what started you feeling this way? Is there one thing that is bothering you the most about this?
Strategy Three: Look for Strengths and Provide Opportunities to Apply Them

Kids tend to have a narrow definition for strength—"smart." Educators can help to broaden student's views and value their strengths in the world by highlighting and summoning their strong points in many contexts. Work on a strengths vocabulary list in your class, e.g.:  insightful, patient, strong synthesizer, strong narrator, imaginative, articulate, compassionate etc. Keep a visible list for kids to see that these attributes are valued in the classroom (they will inevitably begin to use them at home too!) Drawing on strengths in one's community is a model for how the world works best—both in school and beyond.
Strategy Four: Show the Seams of How Learning Works

Many children believe that intelligence is innate—you have it or you don't. Educators need to actively promote the idea that intelligence is acquired through experience and experience isn't always neat and tidy. Introduce the idea of a learning curve, let children know that concepts are hard at first, that they have not mastered them yet (not that it is a now or never endeavor). Use examples of your own learning process with new challenges to show the trial and error process of gaining competency. It is not about Presto! It's about effort.
Strategy Five: Focus on the Present Competencies Rather than Future Challenges

Most children fear and get stressed out by the unknown, so when teachers use the tact of "you're going to need to be able to do this in middle school" or the like, the message kids get is not "buckle down and learn how to do this," it's "Yikes! Middle school, what if I'm not prepared!" Discuss the value of the skills in their own right in their current context. That way, children can approach them with their curiosity rather than with their fear.
Strategy Six: Destigmatize Mistakes

Yes, there is often a right or wrong answer in school, but in life, kids need to learn how to try things when they are not exactly sure how they will go. Link mistakes with courage rather than embarrassment. Focus on the process—what they can learn from it—rather than the fact of the mistake. And kids will learn to move on mistakes rather than just get stuck replaying the shock of how things went wrong. Have each child identify a "fallible hero" or "famous failure" such as Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, or Thomas Edison requiring 10,000 trials before he made a successful lightbulb. Success is about perseverance, mistakes are often the stepping stones.


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