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“I can’t do this stuff!” Suddenly Jackson’s math paper sails across the table. Even though you immediately want to retort, “Jackson, we’re only 4.2 seconds into math time,” you know that won’t help. His confidence is zero. Begging him to try won’t change that. Now what? He has successfully trained his brain to believe that he can’t succeed in math.
One way to approach Jackson and other students like him is to teach them about the power of self-talk.
What is self-talk?
Self-talk is the steady stream of messages coming from your inner voice. It doesn’t generally happen out loud, though I’m sure we’ve all been known to grumble audible comments to ourselves when no one else is around. Self-talk is not something that can easily be turned on and off. However, making students aware of the content embedded in the stream of messages is beneficial for increasing self-esteem and confidence.
If you make conscious efforts to listen to your mind’s incessant rambling, you already know that there are inherent themes in those messages. Depending on how you feel about yourself and your abilities, those messages can be generally positive, or they may be filled with self-doubt and negativity. The same is true for children. Students who have a high self-esteem experience more positive self-talk than students who lack confidence.
Helping Students Shift Their Self-Talk:
The first step towards helping the Jacksons in your classroom is to create awareness. This happens in two ways. First, students must have a basic understanding of self-talk. What is it? How can it impact confidence and self-esteem? The second part of the equation involves identifying self-talk in real life. Ask students to identify the judgments they have about their abilities in different areas, like sports, the arts, and varying subjects in school. Identify areas of struggle as well as areas of strength. What does your inner voice say when you are faced with a task that feels manageable? How about a task that has been very difficult for you in the past? How does your confidence and your past experience impact your inner voice? These are all great topics to discuss as you make your students more aware of their own self-talk.
You can also begin with a KWL chart (what students already KNOW about self-talk, what they WANT TO KNOW, and then come back after your finished the activities and fill in the column for what they LEARNED).
Now that students know what self-talk is, they will be better equipped to identify their own self-talk in different situations. Ask students to write down the messages from their inner voice over the course of a week. Keep a little journal or notebook handy (sign up for VIP access to my free resource library and you can print free self-talk logs like the one you see below). Remind students that self-talk is incessant. It’s happening all the time. They should be able to record at minimum of 5 inner voice messages per day.
Analyze the Messages:
Ask students to identify patterns or themes in their self-talk. For example, at 10:00 each day, right before we dive into science, Juanita might notice that she begins to feel lousy. She dreads coming back from PE because she knows it will be time to start the science lab that she doesn’t understand. Her voice says things like, “Hopefully my partner, Berta, understands this stuff because I guess I can just copy from her.” Identifying these patterns will be the first step towards combatting negative self-talk.
Give the Negative Voice a Name:
As crazy as it sounds, I promise your students will have a BLAST naming their negative inner voice. Provide a few examples before you set them free. A fixed mindset voice might be referred to Adverse Antoine, Ruthless Ralph, Cranky Kirsten, Sabotaging Sally, Pessimistic Paul, and so on. Naming this part of their voice allows students to step outside themselves. Students come to understand that they are not defined by that voice and they can treat that voice like a separate entity. The impact results in students taking back the power and control that belongs to them. For some students, this might be enough to make some shifts from fixed mindset thinking to growth mindset thinking.
Practice Reframing Negative Self-Talk into Positive Self-Talk:
Reframing your mindset involves rephrasing negative thoughts, statements, or situations into more positive alternatives. Students can use the journal or notes about their own self-talk (or you can create your own or use the one you see below). Begin with examples of negative self-talk. For example, “Everyone knows I can’t win this challenge.” Ask students to restate the fixed mindset phrase into a positive message using the name they chose for their negative voice. A possible reframe might be, “Good try, Ruthless Ralph. Even if I don’t win, I will learn something from this challenge!” Continue practicing with a variety of negative messages. If we ever expect students to monitor and reframe their self-talk independently, this practice is absolutely necessary (and should be revisited periodically throughout the year). This practice page can also be found in my free resource library:
Use Positive Affirmations:
I’m a big believer in the power of positive affirmations (you can find a blog post dedicated to shifting students’ mindsets using affirmations here and for the benefits of using affirmations here). In almost every instance, a negative message from the inner voice can be replaced with a positive affirmation. I’ve also created affirmations specific to growth mindset like these (click on each image for more information).
Real World Reframes:
This is where helping Jackson becomes much easier. If you are already teaching your students about fixed mindset and growth mindset concepts, you get to add this self-talk instruction to your arsenal of tricks. Your response to Jackson might involve a simple reflection so he knows you hear him, quickly followed by a request to take action. “You sound really frustrated Jackson. I wonder what strategy or first step you might be able to take?” If Jackson has no idea what to do, you can make a few suggestions: check your inner voice and reframe the message if needed, take a few deep breaths, check with a friend, reread the instructions, or ask me for help.
Picture Books That Support Positive Self-Talk:
I’m ALWAYS an advocate of sharing picture books with students, regardless of their age. Here are a few picture book titles that would work well for helping students shift their mindset:
- We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio (corresponding literature unit here)
- The Dot by Peter Reynolds (corresponding literature unit here)
- Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall (corresponding literature unit here)
- The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mike Pett (corresponding literature unit here)
- Unstoppable Me by Wayne Dyer
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (corresponding literature unit here)
- Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty (corresponding literature unit here)
- What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada (corresponding literature unit here)
- What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada (corresponding literature unit here)
- Brave Irene by William Steig
- No Excuses by Wayne Dyer
Wait? That’s IT?:
No, it’s not. Working with individual students, of course, requires teachers to treat each student as an individual. Every child is unique and so are their needs. In order for students to believe their reframed positive messages, for example, they may need help identifying times when their positive reframe or affirmation was true. You can help by asking the student to reflect on past experiences. Think of a time when math didn’t feel impossible, for example. When did you try something that was really difficult? What happened? Even if you didn’t succeed, what did you learn from the attempt? If you made mistakes along the way, how did you handle them? Would you handle them the same or differently now? Why?
These types of questions won’t magically change a child’s mindset or automatically create positive self-talk, BUT they will help students begin to see that their efforts, their process, and their perseverance is what matters. Regardless of the outcome, a failed attempt is better than no attempt at all.
It’s Your Turn!
Share your insight! How do you help your students shift from self-defeating negativity to positive self-talk that supports a growth mindset?
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