Saturday, April 5, 2014

How to Help Students with Negative Self-Talk

I recently received an email from a passionate new teacher named Shelby. She asked how teachers could respond to students who engage in negative self-talk. We can all probably think of a student who says things like, "I'm so bad at this," "I'm a boring friend," or "I'm so stupid." How do we help these students?

When we correct negative self-talk, students might not believe us. They might think, "She's only saying that because she's my teacher/mother." Other students, especially those with anxiety related needs, might interpret the correction as yet another thing they've done wrong. The self-talk was already an indicator of low self esteem, and sometimes the wrong type of correction can further reduce self esteem. "I'm so bad at math" can turn into, "I'm so bad at math, and now my teacher is upset that I said I'm bad at this... I'm even worse than I thought."

Positive Re-wording

The first thing I ask myself in most situations is, How can I re-word what I'm about to say? We can re-word just about anything to sound positive-- and students simply tend to respond more positively to a positive prompt. Think about how much better you'd respond to your spouse saying, "Would you do me a quick favor and empty the dishwasher?" than, "You never empty the dishwasher," "Why didn't you empty the dishwasher?!" or "Empty the dishwasher now!"

We can redirect students' negative self-talk by example. We can, for instance, make a mistake and say, "Oops, I messed up. That's okay, though. Happens to everybody. I can fix this!" It's kind of like how we use Think Alouds for reading comprehension. We can do the same thing for behaviors. Our kids with behavior needs typically don't pick up on this type of thinking without explicit teaching or positive modeling.

For instance, we can take a student's comment of, "I'm stupid," and redirect it. BUT Instead of saying, "No, you're not stupid," change it to, "I know you're smart, because..." Instead of saying, "No, you have lots of friends," change it to, "I saw you help so-and-so on the playground, and that was such a friendly thing to do." Just like we tell students to "show, not tell" in writing, we can do the same in behavior modification. Show the student they have worth, instead of just telling them.

Positive Talk Breeds Positive Talk

Ever hear your own words come out of your little ones' mouths? I hear my mother's words come out of my mouth at least once a day in my classroom. I've also heard my mother say, "Oh man, I'm turning into your grandmother" about 10 times this week! My northerner best friend moved to the south and developed a "southern accent." Often, people-- especially children-- speak to others the way people speak to them.

I recently observed a pre-teen whose peers are constantly yelling at him, redirecting him, and telling on him. I watched his classmates let one of his classmates "get away with" the same type of behavior on one particular instance. Part of me feels like his classmates have also learned how to talk to him, based upon how one of the classmates and, unfortunately, the teacher speaks to him. I can understand the rationale behind it; they've simply had it. The boy engages in "negative" or what they consider "annoying" behavior on a fairly regular basis, so a minor infraction seems a lot more serious. I think, though, if the adults working with him could train themselves to address each of his behaviors as isolated incidents, the situation would improve. It is, after all, important to let students know that they aren't bad kids; they just didn't make a good choice. Self-fulfilling prophecies can yield negative-- or positive-- behavior. We just need to exercise patience and kindness to help kids achieve this.

I recently was observed by my supervisor, who noted that my students speak very kindly to one another, which she said was a rarity in emotional support. I've worked hard for this, and I had to think about how I've done it to answer her question. I guess I could attribute it to how I speak to my kiddos. I make requests rather than demands, use a kind tone of voice, and encourage them to give each other "friendly reminders" rather than fighting. I also teach tattling vs. reporting (i.e., "Tattling gets someone INTO trouble. Reporting gets someone OUT OF trouble."). I hear my voice coming out of their little mouths all the time. When I hear them speaking unkindly, I ask them, "How can you adjust what you just said to be more friendly?" or "How can you adjust that to sound more like a bucket filler?"

I always remember my grandpa's words, "When you start yelling, you've officially lost control over yourself and the situation. The person who yells loses the fight."

Come Join Team Positive

I explicitly teach the difference between a positive attitude and a negative attitude. When students say something really negative, I ask them, "How can we flip this to get back on Team Positive?" It's a little cheesy, but my students often crave a feeling of affiliation and belonging, as some of them are still working on improving their social skills. If you want to implement this without the "cheese factor," try, "How can we flip this to sound more positive, or optimistic?"

Why is it that in our culture we feel awkward about speaking positively about ourselves?

Why is it that in our culture we feel so awkward being kind to ourselves? Are we afraid of sounding like we are bragging or being full of ourselves? We have to teach our children that it's okay to speak kindly about themselves, and that they can do it in a way that isn't boastful. If they don't want to verbalize kindness toward themselves, can't we still teach them to at least think kindly about themselves? Try following a statement of negative self-talk with something like, "Okay. What are some kind things you can say about yourself?" This is hard for some children, and even many adults.

Think about how nice you would be to a friend who approached you asking for help to lose weight. Why can't we be that kind to ourselves? I know that after I cave and eat a sleeve of Oreos, my thoughts are something like, "Ugh, why do you have no self control? Why did you do that to yourself? This is why you're getting fat. You're gross." I would never, ever say something like that to a friend. It's really crazy how unkind we are to ourselves. Instead, why can't we say, "I'm going to go to the gym, because my heath is worth more than those Oreos, and I can bounce back from a setback"? We have the opportunity to bring our students toward more positive thinking.

So when your student can't come up with anything nice to say about himself, ask him, "What is a nice thing you can say about me (or ________)?" Then, say, "My turn," and say some nice things about him. It might just be a skill that needs to be taught.

"In this classroom, we encourage one another... and ourselves."

Most of us spend a good part of the year teaching our students that they need to speak kindly toward one another. We positively reinforce students when they work together and encourage each other. We do not tolerate students who put each other down. We treat others the way we would like to be treated. Now we need to establish the same procedure, in which students treat themselves the way they treat others. "Treat yourself the way you would like others to treat you." Just as you do not tolerate put-downs of other students, do not tolerate self put-downs.

I had a teacher who would always redirect our negative self-talk. We weren't allowed to say, "I can't." She taught us that if there was something we truly could not do, we could find a way around it. For example, people can't fly, so that's why they invented airplanes. Some people can't walk, so they have wheelchairs. Some people can't see, so they have glasses or Braille. There is no "can't." We have to find detours. She would acknowledge our feelings, if we said something like, "I can't write" but redirect us and show us ways around it.

She said, "Change that 'I can't,'" just about every day to all of us. Saying, "I can," or "I will," just became what we did. We didn't feel singled out. We didn't feel like we were horrible people. She was upbeat and happy in her redirection, and we would laugh when we accidentally said one of the DUN DUN DUNNNN forbidden phrases. We learned that when things are difficult, we don't give up; we try. When something is broken, we don't throw it away; we fix it.

I think we also need to be realistic. Every child is not going to always be the best at everything. It's fine to admit that there are things that we haven't mastered-- but it is not okay to set limits on ourselves. Instead, we need to find ways through or around limitations. I compare it to a road block in construction. We aren't just going to go home because a road is closed. We will follow a detour. If a river is in our way, we will build a bridge. We aren't perfect, and there is always room for improvement. We can be nice to ourselves while striving for that improvement.

Explicitly teach and practice this concept.

Host a social skills lesson about negative self-talk. Make a T-chart with negative ways of saying things and positive ways of saying them. Discuss negative self-talk and how to stop, assess, and change it. Discuss limitations and develop detours around them. Initiate exercises where students practice speaking nicely about themselves and others. Practice this until it feels natural. Establish a new procedure with the class that starting today, we will only accept encouraging self-talk. Ask students to imagine what it would be like if everyone set limits. There would be no travel, few heroes, little innovation, etc. Imagine all we'd miss. Often, children who feel out of control engage in negative self-talk. Teach them that it is one thing they actually can control.

I'm also completely in love with the book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. It compares confidence to a full bucket and teaches students to say things that fill other people's buckets, thereby filling their own. I often ask, "Are you being a bucket filler?" when students begin speaking unkindly toward themselves or others.

I also recommend the book, Getting Unstuck from the Negative Muck: A Kid's Guide to Getting Rid of Negative Thinking by Lake Sullivan, Ph.D. It teaches children to identify, talk back to, and change negative thoughts.

What are your thoughts on negative self-talk? Do you see it in your schools or homes? How do you help students with this? Please share in the comments below!

A Peach for the Teach


  1. This is a great post! I never know what to say to kids besides "No, you're not stupid" or "Yes, you CAN do this" when kiddos have negative self talk. I like using the examples to show how you know they are or are not something! Also, I love the new blog design! Too cute!

    1. Thank you so much, Allee! I'm so glad you picked up some new ideas! Danielle at Crayonbox Learning did the new blog design! I love it! She's so good! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Wonderful post! There are so many practical tips that I have to share it on Pinterest and Facebook! Thank you!

    1. You're welcome! Thank YOU, Hojo!! I really appreciate that! You're the best!!

  3. Brandi, this is an awesome post! It relates to how we talk to kids with anxiety as well--by asking things in a way that conveys confidence ("I can't wait to see how great your art project" is rather than "it's time for your art project") can make the difference between a kid trying and giving up! I also love the way you drew the parallel to how we talk to and about ourselves. This is terrific! I'm off to share!!

  4. Thank you SO much, Christine! I appreciate the share! I love your way of asking things in a manner that conveys confidence! What an awesome way of wording it. Thanks for your comment!

  5. This is super helpful! I love the examples you gave and can see this seriously benefiting the lives of several students. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much, Pensive Sloth! I'm thrilled to hear that it will help you! You're welcome! Thanks for your comment!

  6. I've been praying about a student who uses negative self talk all the time and then I stumbled upon this blog post! This is just what I needed, thank you so much!

    1. Jessica, your comment means a lot to me! I really hope it helps! If you need any help with any specifics, please feel free to ask!

  7. Hi

    Just checking in to see that you received your 2014 Manifestation Breakthrough Kit?

    This is absolutely amazing, download it right now while it's still free, and use it to FORCE the universe to give you your DREAM life...

    ==> Click here for your 2014 Manifestation Breakthrough Kit

    Imagine being able to manifest your dream life...

    ...Without hard work or struggle.

    Whether your wish is for more wealth, success, happiness, better relationships, good health... Make sure you download your kit while this is still available:

    ==> Go here for The Manifestation Breakthrough Kit [YOUR LINK HERE]

    I particularly like the mp3 audio file that comes with it, which puts the Law of Attraction on autopilot to manifest prosperity, abundance and happiness.

    The life of your dreams is yours!

    P.S. I'm not sure how much longer this will be available for free so download your copy as soon as you can:

    ==> The Manifestation Breakthrough Kit

    Enjoy and have a great day!