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Your heart breaks. Yet again, your student is giving you a myriad of reasons why they ‘just can’t do this’. Your thoughts race trying to find the perfect phrase to motivate and build your student’s esteem but nothing works. Multiple studies have shown that positive affirmations can backfire when a person does not believe the affirmation they are repeating; it can actually make the negative self-talk worse. For a positive affirmation to work, we must internally know that we are actually capable of what we may be worried about. In the case of your students' negative self-talk, they can’t imagine that they can do it.
What do you do when a student is speaking negatively about themselves?
Believe it or not the worst phrase you can use when a student is in the midst of self-doubt is a positive one like, ‘No, you're not dumb, of course you're smart.’ Instead always meet them where they're at, be with them and try to understand what they are feeling. For most of us, the worst thing that somebody can say when we're feeling angry or upset is that we're wrong, because that just adds to the negative feelings. It adds to the negative feelings because, in that moment when someone denies what we are feeling by trying to be positive, we feel alone and misunderstood.
What can you do to help your student? How do you address negative self-talk?
Get used to answering with ‘yes and …’ This helps the student who is stuck to see that what they are thinking may be correct and there are other ways to see it as well. For example, if they say they do not want to try anymore because ‘they can’t learn English’, you can respond with ‘Yes, and right now it is really hard and you feel disappointed that you keep getting the answer wrong. I am here to help you practise and feel the hard feelings. With practise, your English will get better.’
Give them time and space to calm down when they are in the midst of a big feeling. Try to stay calm and breathe for them. Try not to speak or give direction when you see that their body and thinking brain is overwhelmed with the emotion they are experiencing. Slow down. Give space. Be present to their pain. Repeat. Your loving response will help them understand that all emotions can be managed no matter how big they get.
Sometimes negative self-talk is general and not specific to a task in the classroom. In those cases, always remember you can’t ask them ‘what happened?’ or ‘why do you feel this way?’ They may not know when they are overwhelmed by big emotions and negative self-beliefs. You are the one that helps your student process and figure it out because their body and mind are overstimulated and that is why the negative thoughts creep in. After a difficult incident of negative self-talk with a student, ask yourself these questions and they will help you guide and help your student moving forward.
- How was their body – Tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Did they move/exercise today?
- What happened right before the incident?
- What happened a day before the incident?
- What is happening in the future that may be changing and they may be anticipating?
Asking yourselves these questions will help you figure out what or why they are feeling so defeated.
Negative self-talk is difficult to manage. This is especially true when you can see the potential of your student. It can feel overwhelming for you as the teacher since a student who self-deprecates is not ready to learn. By definition, this student is keeping you from doing your work. However, if you slow down and take the time to speak to your student and remain curious about why they may be feeling bad, you will build both your relationship with your student and their well-being.