Monday, November 19, 2012

Reading Research Monday: Toxic vs. Positive Self Talk

One of our students was having a rough week last week, in his reading group.  I volunteered to take the student out into the hall so we could talk and walk around a bit to cool off.  Working with all ages of students from preschool through twelfth grade, I have encountered many reasons why kids break down: dad got a DUI, mom hasn’t been home for three days, a best-friend turned on a student, someone is bullying, a dog died, grandma is in the hospital, it’s just a bad day… the list goes on and on.  I knew the first grader I was working with had difficulty with his parents and I was expecting to hear his usual, “My mom was being mean.”  I wasn’t prepared for his reasoning this time.  When I asked him what was wrong, he turned and looked at me straight in the eyes and yelled, “I’m a jerk!”  He kept repeating it, “I’m a jerk!  I’m just a jerk!  There’s nothing I can do about it!  I’m a jerk!”  

I asked him why he felt that way and steered the conversation down a more positive and constructive path.  After a few laps down the hall we were ready to go back to class, but it definitely left me wondering how this student’s image of himself and how his self-esteem and self-worth (or lack thereof) were playing a role in his occasional behavior problems.  Ultimately, I wanted to know what I could do to help him.

This brings me to today’s Reading-Research Monday, which is not in fact related to reading.
In the article How Self-Talk and Stress Levels Impact Your Relationship With Your Self, author Athena Staik, Ph.D. discusses how our inner thoughts impact and are impacted by the quality of the relationship you have with yourself.  Staik states:

“When this inner dialogue, however, consists of toxic thinking patterns and limiting beliefs that unnecessarily activate your survival system, literally, your body takes subconscious control of responses, thus, your capacity to make conscious choices. In survival mode, the body shuts off most all communication to the higher cortex and relies instead on ‘proven’ protective strategies it has stored in memory.”

So students who have this “toxic thinking” about themselves might push themselves into a survival mode where they are not able to make conscious choices.  This signaled to me that for some students, helping them build positive inner dialogue is a must for them to feel safe and comfortable in any learning environment.  Of course all teachers strive to have a safe environment in their classrooms, but maybe the biggest obstacle to a student feeling safe is him- or herself.

It was difficult to find research in this area that was directly related to students.  However, the Mayo Clinic   offers (non-school related) advice on how to first identify negative thinking.  Here are four common types:
  1. Filtering: magnifying the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones
  2. Personalizing: if something bad occurs, automatically blaming yourself
  3. Catastrophizing: automatically anticipating the worst
  4. Polarizing:  seeing things only as either good or bad, no middle ground

The Mayo Clinic also offers ways to make a positive change:
  • Identify areas to change
  • Check yourself
  • Be open to humor
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Practice positive self-talk

Perhaps (and again, I wish I could find more research!) the first place for a teacher to start would be to identify the trigger areas for a student and then promote positive self-talk before those triggers go off.  Providing students with phrases that might seem simple could have a powerful effect on their feelings of self-worth. 

A teacher can also teach the student to recognize his or her own triggers and build strategies on what to do when things aren’t going well.  What you would address and discuss is obviously dependent on the student you would be working with, their age, and their personality. 

One area teachers can have control over is surrounding all students with positivity. 

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