Many of our older students who can make choices yet are unwilling to always make good ones, use thinking errors regularly to cope with stress and avoid taking responsibility. These are the students who have some frustration tolerance and ability to control their actions as opposed to little of either. This group is more the “Won’t” than the “Can’t” students (who have reactive patterns they are unable to stop; “can’ts” often have mood disorders, pronounced ADHD, or serious trauma symptoms.) Of course, students who have elements of both types—unwillingness and automatic impulsivity—can benefit from thinking errors work once they are calm and available to talking things through.
To explain more, a thinking error is an illogical, distorted thought, notion or idea that helps the thinker:
- resist an unwanted opinion or demand,
- avoid making a needed change,
- repress unwanted emotional pain,
- avoid responsibility for a harmful action,
- manipulate others in the service of meeting the thinker’s own needs, or
- give the thinker permission to do something that is not okay.
They are colored by negativity, often automatic, habituated patterns and are not based in fact. They are negative, closed or fixed, self-serving mindsets that are used when one feels threatened by others or bad about oneself. Here are a few examples:
Victim Stance: being a victim by being a ‘pity pot’ or helpless
- “I can’t do this.”
- “I am not good at this.”
- “You made me do this.”
- “If you hadn’t done______, I wouldn’t have done _______.”
- “I am too tired.”
- “No one will help me/tell me.”
- “I did not have the right materials.”
- “I did not know I could ask.”
- “This is not a big deal. So what she got hurt.”
- “I did not mean it; I was just kidding.”
- “Nobody heard what I said anyway.”
Denying or Lying
- “I did not do it (when the student actually did).”
Being Grandiose or Self-centered
- “I am not the same as others; I should not have to do ___.”
- “The rules don’t apply to me.”
- “I can get you fired.
- “This is terrible.”
- “Everything is ruined.”
- “I’ll never be able to __________ again.”
- “Why should she feel that way?”
- “What a cry baby.”
- “That doesn’t upset me, so why should (the other person) get so upset.”
These and other kinds of thinking errors help students justify what they want to do and accompany harmful actions they choose to take. When “won’t” kinds of students defend their disruptive behaviors, we tend to respond negatively in return by instituting complex punitive consequences, trying to reason with them or preaching rather than just setting a firm neutral and logical limit first then finding ways to help them alter their automatic protective reactions. Some ways to help students correct these destructive thought patterns or thinking errors include:
- Have students keep a record or diary of the day’s thoughts that might have led to their actions, poor performance, or problems with others.
- Have students begin each day with, and post along the way, positive statements that will counteract negative ways they normally react to daily stressors.
- Teach students if they are able to ‘hear’, examples of common thinking errors and their purposes; then have students role play better ways to think and act.
- Share your own thinking errors and model how you change what you say to yourself to counteract the negative thought.
- Use movie clips or statements in books that are examples of thinking errors and see if students can guess what specific kind of error is demonstrated and what the person is trying to gain by using it. Then talk about other ways to think more constructively.
- Teach thinking errors as part of a social skills curriculum for the whole class, so that no one is singled out for their own negative thoughts until ready to share.
- Post thinking errors and their definitions (or positive affirmations) on the walls, and have students periodically during the week review them and with a raising of hands see if any have been used/worked with.
- Help students find new ways to cope with stress, i.e., breathing deeply, relaxing muscles, or talking to themselves with phrases such as “I will be all right” “I have succeeded with this before,” “I can ask for help at any time,” I know I can do this,” or “There is nothing to worry about.”
- Teach students about the new ideas now being written about negative, closed or fixed mindsets versus open or growth mindsets and how much they can impact on learning (see Dweck and Ricci resources).
- Focusing on thinking errors each week can have a huge impact on student attitude and classroom culture.
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