Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Tackling NEGATIVE THINKING in the Classroom: Helping Anxious Students Change Their Negative Thinking Patterns Can Reduce Stress and Improve Their Performance

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Tackling NEGATIVE THINKING in the Classroom: Helping Anxious Students Change Their Negative Thinking Patterns Can Reduce Stress and Improve Their Performance

Article excerpt

Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health disability affecting students across the United States. In fact, research suggests that almost a third of the country's adolescents have struggled with an anxiety disorder during their childhood (Merikangas et al., 2010). However, few teachers receive significant training in their teacher preparation programs in mental health and behavioral best practices. By and large, teachers are left on their own to learn about the effects of anxiety on learning and behavior and to figure out how to address it in the classroom.

Anxiety is characterized by rumination and negative or distracting thoughts as well as an increase in arousal and physiological symptoms (Vytal et al., 2012), and it is related to diminished performance across a wide range of school-related tasks (Moran, 2016). Negative thinking patterns --such as all-or-nothing thinking ("I don't understand fractions. I stink at math!") and catastrophic thinking ("If I fail my spelling test, I will never get into college!")--can become intrusive and ongoing, taking a toll on a student's mood, attention to tasks, working memory, and academic performance (Putwain, Connors, & Symes, 2010; Vytal et al., 2012). Such negative thinking disproportionately affects students with anxiety (Kertz, Stevens, & Klein, 2017; Rood et al., 2010). Further, persistent negative thoughts often lead to unproductive behaviors such as avoidance, defiance, and tearfulness (Leahy, 2002; Mahoney et al., 2016). For example, we've all known students who will shut down as soon as you give them an assignment. "I can't do this" or "This is going to take forever," they'll tell themselves, then drop their head on their desk and close their eyes. Although we might be able to make some inferences about what might be happening in students' minds based on these behaviors, thoughts are not observable, so it's important to collect data on negative thinking via interviews or self-reporting and share that data with a psychologist to analyze (Berle et al., 2011; Mahoney et al., 2016) in order to monitor students' thinking and the effectiveness of any intervention.

Most teachers are sympathetic by nature, but their intuitive efforts to help such students are often ineffective. Typically, for example, teachers may use incentives to encourage them ("Come on, buddy, if you get this done now, then you won't have so much homework!" or "Recess is in 10 minutes. Let's finish this so you can go outside"), and on occasion this may get the student to reengage. However, this sort of encouragement does nothing to silence the internal chatter of negative thinking, and the student is just as likely to shut down again the next time they receive a similar assignment. Clearly, other strategies would be more useful over the long term.

School counselors and psychologists certainly have a role to play in helping students who suffer from anxiety and negative thinking patterns--and they tend to be the only school personnel with specific training in how to address these issues. For example, some have expertise in the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment for reducing negative thinking in anxious children (Muris et al., 2009). But it's not realistic to send every anxious child to the counselor or psychologist, or to do so every time they seemed stressed out. The fact is that teachers come face-to-face with students' anxieties every day; they are in a position to provide support, in addition to outside therapists and school counselors; and they can do so effectively if they understand certain basic principles and strategies.

Change the perspective

Imagine checking in with a student at 3:00 to ask how the day went, and she says, "Horrible!" However, she seemed highly engaged and upbeat most of the time, and it's hard to believe that her entire day was horrible. It's more likely that she's focusing so intently on the few negative moments she experienced that they eclipse everything else that occurred during the day, including many moments that were positive and others that were more or less neutral. …

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