Four types of irrational thoughts that make teachers angry and stupid with students


I’d like to give you a primer on the work of Dr. Albert Ellis. It’s very relevant to what we do with students. So much of what goes wrong in our interactions with students comes from either us or them, and often both, generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, usually in the form of anger. By dysfunctional I mean:

1)  more than is helpful or necessary for the situations we find ourselves in

2)  more than we want to have

3)  more than we know what to do with

4)  more than in healthy for us

5)  a type and amount that works against us instead of for us (like emotion is supposed to)


Whenever you look at feelings, and the role they play in our lives, we always want to look at the Frequency, Intensity and Duration of them. How often we have them, how strong they are, and how long we stay in an emotional state. That will determine how functional or dysfunctional an emotion is in our lives. If we generate a greater Frequency, Intensity, or Duration of some emotion than is helpful or necessary, then it's dysfunctional, and we'd want to reduce one or more of these parameters.


Anger is emotional nitroglycerin. That’s what nature intended it to be to help us deal with threats to our lives. It’s half of our fight or flight response. The other half is anxiety. A perfect metaphor for anger is the comic book character The Incredible Hulk. Once the mild mannered brilliant scientist Dr. David Banner gets angry, and “hulks out”, it’s “smash time”. Banner does things he otherwise would never do, does a lot of damage, ends up with a lot of people angry at him, and regrets it later. Anger can make otherwise smart teachers (and students) say and do stupid things. If there were real threats to our lives, it wouldn’t be so bad. The problem is that human beings can needlessly plug into their fight or flight response by the way they choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. That’s true for teachers and students as well. Human beings have done this needlessly throughout our history. It’s why there’s been so much needless conflict, abuse, suffering and even death.  


Rudolph Dreikurs said students will have one or more of four "mistaken" goals when they misbehave. Two of those are Power and Control, and Revenge. Anger tends to go hand in hand with these two mistaken goals. The same thoughts that give rise to anger give rise to the "mistaken" goals of Power and Control, and Revenge, and the anger drives the behavior intended to achieve these mistaken goals. Unfortunately, teachers often have these "mistaken" goals as well when they get angry with students. It no longer is about getting students to cooperate. It becomes about demonstrating power and being in control, and sometimes even getting even with students for what they've done. It shouldn't ever be about that, but teachers are human, and when they make themselves angry, sometimes it is. 


Ellis created the ABC Theory of Emotions. Where A is an Activating Event, and B stands for the Beliefs we have about ourselves, others, life and what happens. C is for Consequences, or what we feel and do as a Consequence of what we believe about the Activating Event, ourselves, others and life.

Activating Event   +   Beliefs   =   Consequences (Feel, Do)

It’s like that formula we all learn in mathematics,

a   +   b   =   c

Where a is a constant, and b is a variable. If a stays the same and you change b, c changes. Likewise, if the event stays the same, and we change the beliefs we have about it, our feelings and behavior will change.

An alternative formula comes from Active Parenting, which is based on Ellis' work:


I like to teach students a version of this formula to explain how feelings come about:


From this formula come 3 statements that summarize how things really work in life.

1)  Thoughts cause feelings, not event

2)  Our behavior will follow our emotions toward our life events

3)  Attitude is always the father of behavior

The second statement simply means that if we make ourselves angry, we’ll behave the way angry people typically do, which often just makes life worse for us, and those around us.


One of the first things I ever heard when first learning about Ellis’ work was “No one upsets you, you upset yourself”. It’s something they teach cardiac rehab patients. The reason is simple. If they have a bad ticker, and needlessly upset themselves, they could precipitate cardiac arrest in themselves. And though their family would lose them, no one has more to lose than they do. That’s an important thing to remember about anger. No one else’s body has to go through the turmoil that anger creates in our bodies. There’s ancient Chinese proverb, “A man who angers himself and seeks vengeance should dig two graves. One for himself and one for the enemy he seeks to destroy” Even back then they knew the dangers to one’s health of anger.


Most people believe that when you get angry, it’s better or healthier to let it out, get it off your chest, instead of holding it in. However, research has shown that there are no real differences in health outcomes between those who let it out and those who keep it bottled up inside them. The only people who fare better health wise are the ones who don’t make themselves angry in the first place.


We often hear about people being sent to anger management classes. Anger management typically entails trying to teach people to have impulse control, to not DO what they normally do when angry, and/or to channel their anger into healthier behavior. So the intervention is being made between the FEELING and BEHAVIOR step in the formula I gave you earlier.


To me, that’s like that old saying about closing the barn door after the horse is already out. As I noted earlier, once someone “hulks out”, it’s too late. Their behavior will follow their emotion, and anger is emotional nitroglycerin. It’s as hard to handle as the real nitroglycerin always was in old western movies. It’s just too easy for it to blow up on us.

When I was a kid, we were told to count to 10. If people did that, it was actually intervening at the THOUGHT step in the formula. Substituting counting to 10 for what they were thinking to make them angry. That's a better approach, like getting Dr. David Banner to start thinking about something else instead of what is making him angry. Parents do this all the time with infants who start to cry about something. The problem is getting people to count to 10 when they're angry. They're usually too locked into their HOT thoughts that are making them angry to be able to count to 10. 

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is that more true than with anger. That's especially true when there is no real threat to begin with, and only a manufactured or imagined one because of how people choose to look at things. The key to preventing anger is targeting the cause of it - what people THINK. But first you have to help them identify what their HOT THOUGHTS might be. That's where the work of Dr. Ellis has been so helpful.


If we’re going to prevent anger, we have to understand how we generate it. Dr. Ellis said that when people generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion of any kind, including anger, it’s because they have four basic types of automatic irrational beliefs:





It’s irrational because it makes them feel worse than is necessary or helpful, and causes them to behave in ways that make their lives, and the lives of others worse instead of better. They’re automatic because they’ve practiced and rehearsed them so many times in the past that they have cognitive “ruts” in their brains. It’s very easy for them to slip into such “ruts” and have the same thoughts again. "Ruts" can be good or bad things to have. If you have a good golf swing, you certainly don't want to have to relearn how to play golf every time you go out on the links. But if your "ruts" give rise to unhelpful thoughts, feelings and actions, they can be a curse. Dr. David Amen calls such thoughts Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, and says people have ANT problems. 


I teach my students five rules.

RULE #1: People have a right to want whatever they want.

Teachers have a right to want students to do what they ask, especially since the vast majority of what we ask students to do is in their best interest. Sometimes we go over the top, and want, expect or even demand too much, but most of the time it’s totally reasonable and good for students. Of course, students also have the right to want what they want, even if we think it’s not good for them (and even if it’s not). It will do no good to tell them they shouldn’t want what they do. That just makes it into a "forbidden fruit", and too often will invite them to adopt the mistaken goal of power and control, and we end up in needless and futile power struggles with them. If we want them to respect our right to want what we want, it only makes sense to respect their right to want what they do. The trick is to find a way for everyone to get as much of what they want as possible. That takes some skill at times, as well as patience and perseverence. But it's always the best way to go in the long run.


According to Dr. Ellis, the mistake people make is to start to:

1)  Think and tell themselves they NEED things they simply want

2)  Treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES

3)  DEMAND what they simply desire

This creates a bigger gap between their expectations and reality if and when they don’t get what they want, prefer or desire, and causes them to generate emotion needlessly - emotion that won’t change what has already happened, but that can negatively impact what happens next.

RULE #2 is: The bigger the difference between their expectations and reality, the more emotion they’ll generate.


If we didn’t care what students did, it would be easy to stay calm. There’s an old saying, “Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed”. But once we start to want them to do something, there’s always the possibility that they won’t. If they don’t, we’ll be frustrated, irritated or annoyed. How frustrated, irritated or annoyed we get will depend on how much or little we wanted, preferred and desired that they do what we want. However, if we think they NEED TO, HAVE TO, or SHOULD do what we want, we’ll get angry instead. How angry we get will depend on how badly we think they NEED TO, HAVE TO or SHOULD do what we ask.


People can make DEMANDS of themselves, others and life. When they do, they use verbs like NEED (TO), HAVE TO, CAN’T, SHOULD, SHOULDN’T. Anger comes from making demands of others that don’t get met. The essence of the demand that gives rise to anger is “People HAVE TO do what I want, and be the way I want them to be”. How old does that sound? Like a 3 or 4 year old perhaps? That’s why Dr. Ellis called anger an adult throwing a temper tantrum.


Picture an old fashioned thermostat with a needle you can move up or down to adjust the temperature. But instead, it’s a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat. The face is divided up into 3 columns and three rows, one column each for THINK, FEEL and DO.

In the bottom row of the THINK column is DON’T CARE. In the middle row is WANT, PREFER and DESIRE. In the top row is NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND.

In the FEEL column, the bottom row is CALM, the middle FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION and ANNOYANCE, and the top ANGER.

In the DO column, the bottom is DO NOTHING, the middle RESPOND, and the top REACT. See the diagram at the end of this article.

There's an article about the THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat on this blog site:


E-motion is energy to move, to make our lives better, get what we want and need, and ultimately to help us survive threats. If we DON’T CARE what happens, we’ll be CALM, and probably DO NOTHING.

If we WANT, PREFER and DESIRE something, and don’t get it, we’ll be FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or ANNOYED. We’ll have energy to move, but still be free to RESPOND in the best possible way. We’re still free to consider consequences, to access and act on advice we’ve been given, to learn from our own and others experiences, and to be guided by our own morals and values.

But if we turn our THINK thermostat up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND, we’ll get ANGRY and REACT. If there were a real threat, that would be helpful. But as I noted earlier, people often manufacture threats where they don’t really exist, or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality simply by the way they choose to look at things - like DEMANDING what they simply desire. So people often OVER REACT. There’s two way to make something you don’t like worse: do nothing and overreact to it. Teachers often do the latter because they turn their THINK thermostats up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND regarding student cooperation, obedience and respect.


RULE #3: When people start to think they need things they simply want, and to demand what they simply desire, it can make otherwise smart people do stupid things.

When I lived in Grand Junction, CO for a while, there was an article in the local newspaper with the headline “Substitute Wallops Students”. That was a perfect example of how anger can make an otherwise smart person do stupid things. You have to have at least a college degree to sub. There’s a good chance it might even have been a retired teacher who would know not to put your hands on students except for safety reasons, let alone “wallop” one. If a teacher starts to treat a student’s obedience like air, water and food, i.e. “You NEED to do what I tell you to”, then not getting it becomes a bigger threat than it really is and he might end up putting his hands on one who won't, or even “wallop” the student.

RULE #4: Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived need will win out over behavior inended to satisfy a rational preference.

Here’s a simple example. Wanting to quit smoking is a rational preference. But if you think you NEED a cigarette, and CAN'T go a whole day without one, you're going to struggle to quit. I’m sure that substitute in Grand Junction would PREFER to not do anything to jeopardize their job, let alone so something he could be criminally charged for. That’s a rational preference. The behavior to satisfy that rational preference would be to keep his hands off of all students. But if the teacher thinks or even says out loud “You need to do what I tell you to”, it starts to make more sense to “wallop” the student in an attempt to get his/her obedience.


“They NEED TO be more respectful of teachers”

“They HAVE TO follow the rules like everyone else”

“They CAN’T do that in my class”

“They SHOULD do what they’re told”

“They SHOULDN’T talk back to teachers”

These are all HOT THOUGHTS that cause teachers to get ANGRY if and when students don’t do what they’re asked to. The last two are examples of what’s called SHOULDING on others, in this case SHOULDING on students. People can also SHOULD on themselves (“I SHOULD be doing better than I am”, ”I SHOULDN’T have done that”) and make themselves feel GUILT or SHAME. DEPRESSION comes from SHOULDING on life (“This SHOULDN’T be happening to me”, “I SHOULDN’T have to deal with this”).


When people get really angry, a common HOT thought is “HOW DARE you….?” For example, “HOW DARE you talk to me like that?” The essence of taking what students do personally is “HOW DARE you do that in MY class?”, or “HOW DARE you talk to ME that way?” I urge you to be constantly listening for times when you think or you and other teachers say out loud "HOW DARE they....?" or "HOW COULD THEY....?". These are huge HOT THOUGHTS.


Here are some stem phrases I would urge you to say to yourself, and see what comes to mind. If thoughts pop into your mind quickly, that means they are probably ones that you have often, that are well "rutted" in your brain, and that probably influence how you feel and act toward students on a daily basis. I would also urge you to start listening to colleagues for demands they make of students. Those can be a clue as to demands you might also be making. It's hard to be around others who make such demands publicly and not be influenced by it.

Students SHOULD.....

Students HAVE TO.....

Students NEED TO.....

Students SHOULDN'T.....

Students CAN'T......

I SHOULD be able to.....

I SHOULDN'T have to......


Anger can often be secondary to anxiety, shame and guilt, or even depression. Anxiety comes from making demands of ourselves or life before events. For example, "I HAVE TO get this lesson done today. I CAN'T spend any more time on this than I have already". With that mindset, a student disrupting what we're trying to do becomes a much bigger threat to what we want to do. Anxiety is the other half of Fight or Flight. 

Shame and guilt come from making demands of ourselves after life events - typically from SHOULDING on ourselves. "I SHOULD have gotten through more material than I did today. I SHOULDN'T have spent so much time on that one area". Shame breads anxiety. If we think we didn't live up to expectations in the past, it's easier to imagine we won't in the future. So student misbehavior again becomes a bigger threat.


Anxiety is called a figment of imagination (read that product) because it’s about things that could happen, but haven’t happened yet, and often never do. Here’s a common occurrence. A student talks back to a teacher. The teacher understandably starts to imagine that if she lets this student get away with it, other students will think it’s okay, and she’ll get more of the same backtalk from others. She imagines she’ll start to lose control of her class, colleagues will realize she has and think less of her. Her principal will think she doesn’t have control over her class, and that could hurt her job status. All these things could happen, but haven’t yet. Imagining them makes the simple back talking a much bigger threat than it is, or needs to be.

If teachers imagine such things, it’s perfectly understandable. They could very well happen. They might even have happened earlier in a teacher’s career, so it would be even more understandable to imagine them. But imagining such things only inflames the situation. Students are not responsible for what a teacher imagines; the teacher is. Unfortunately, because most teachers have an external locus of control, like most people walking the planet, they will tend to blame the students for what they imagine.


There’s a simple, but highly effective technique for dealing with this tendency. It’s called “Staying in the now”. You simply tell yourself:

“That might happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it does, I’ll deal with it. Just like others do. Just like I have other things in the past”

This is a highly effective strategy for dealing with any anxiety, regardless of what the specific imagined events. If we actually think or say this out loud, it will short circuit the anxiety. Thoughts cause feelings, not events (whether real or imagined). The more we practice and rehearse this strategy, the more automatic it will become, and the more effective it will be.


There are a lot of things that students do that are UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT to what we’re trying to do, or UNCOMFORTABLE in some way for us and others around them. The mistake teachers can make is to tell themselves that what students do is AWFUL, as in the worst possible thing that could happen. If teachers think students NEED TO do things (like teachers need air, water and food), that students HAVE TO (it’s a necessity like air, water and food), and DEMAND that they do, they are more likely to think it’s AWFUL when students don’t do what they want. If we were suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger, it would be AWFUL. But we don’t NEED student cooperation, obedience or respect like we need air, water and food. Cooperation, obedience and respect are just nice to have. And it’s just UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT or UNCOMFORTABLE when we don’t get it.

Picture a second THINK thermostat. In this one, the bottom row is DON’T CARE again. The middle is UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT and UNCOMFORTABLE. The top is AWFUL. If we turn the first THINK thermostat up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND, it turns the second one up to AWFUL. See the diagram at the end of the article.


There is a formula for anxiety:  CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY

First we imagine something bad happening (CATASTROPHIZE), and then we tell ourselves it would be AWFUL. If we thought “It’s happened before. It wouldn’t be that big a deal if it did again” we wouldn’t feel anxiety. AWFULIZING is a key ingredient for anxiety. So another way to combat it is to brainstorm some coping statements to combat it. For example “I’ve survived it before and will again. There are a lot worse things that could happen”. Learning to prevent or short circuit anxiety is important to preventing anger which can make smart teachers do stupid things. Not to mention that when people feel stressed out, it’s really because they’re generating a dysfunctional amount of anxiety.


This is analogous to what was said earlier about anger management. Stress management means doing something after you’ve been generating anxiety to reduce it. It represents temporarily FEELING better instead of GETTING better. There are a lot of ways to temporarily FEEL better. Some are healthy (i.e. yoga, meditation, exercise), others are not (i.e. smoking, drinking, using drugs, overeating). But they all work in the same two basic ways. They either give us a temporary break from our real or imagined life events, and the thoughts we have about them, or they deplete the energy to move (emotion) that has built up. Exercise is one that does both, which is why it’s so often recommended. However, as soon as people stop engaging in such activities, or sober up, the events of their lives are waiting for them, if only in their memories or imaginations. The thoughts they usually have about such events return, and their emotion starts to build back up.

GETTING better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of emotions, including anxiety. The only way to really do that is to change the way we THINK. Anxiety comes from making demands of ourselves or life before upcoming events in our lives. For example, “I HAVE TO get a good evaluation. I CAN’T let anything go wrong” (demands of self) or “Everything HAS TO go as I planned. Nothing can go wrong” (demands of life). When we make such demands, we’re more likely to catastrophize and awfulize.


RULE #5: We have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to.

The mistake teachers make is to tell themselves they CAN’T STAND what students do. This needlessly inflames them, and it’s why Ellis called this type of thinking CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS. ITIS is the suffix for inflammation. If we didn’t get air for a few minutes, water for a few days, and food for a few weeks, we’d die. That would be proof that we couldn’t stand it. If we think we NEED student cooperation, obedience and respect like we need air, water and food, we’re more likely to tell ourselves we CAN’T STAND IT, instead of just don’t like it, when we don’t get it.

Picture a third THINK thermostat. In the bottom row is DON’T CARE again. The middle row is DON’T LIKE IT, and the top row is CAN’T STAND IT. If we turn our first THINK thermostat up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND for student cooperation, obedience and respect, we’ll be more likely to think we CAN’T STAND IT when we don’t get it. See the diagram at the end of the article.


Rule #5 says we have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to, including someone else's behavior. But if we think we NEED student cooperation, obedience and respect and DEMAND it, we’ll think it’s AWFUL and that we CAN’T STAND IT when we don’t get it. This makes us more likely to get ANGRY and to OVERREACT to what they’ve done, or haven’t. We’re also more likely to LABEL AND DAMN them as a person instead of just disliking their behavior. We’re more likely to condemn the doer instead of the deed.

Labeling and damning is over generalization, sometimes blatantly so. It’s like calling an apple bad simply because it has a bruise, even though 95% of it is just fine. It’s calling someone stupid because they did a stupid thing. It’s calling a student a “brat” or a “punk” just because they did something we didn’t like.

We heard a lot of talk about racist thinking with the videos of police violence against people they attempt to arrest. Racism is blatant over generalization. It basically is: The barrel is "bad" because it has a few "bad" apples. This person is part of the barrel. Therefore, he must be a "bad" apple too. Blatant over generalization.

Picture a fourth THINK thermostat. In the bottom again is DON’T CARE. In the middle row is DISLIKE THE BEHAVIOR, and in the top row LABEL AND DAMN THE PERSON. If we turn the other three THINK thermostats up to the top row, we'll get angry. When we do, we’re more likely to LABEL AND DAMN students instead of just dislike their behavior. See the diagram and the end of this article.


There are a variety of ways to correct irrational thinking. You can read about them at:


Remember that the hottest of HOT thoughts are questions like “HOW DARE you?” When we pose questions like “HOW DARE you….?” or “HOW COULD you…?” the answer is always EASILY! Think about it. How much energy or effort does it take for students to talk back, refuse to cooperate, or say something nasty? Not much. It’s easy. So when we ask such questions, the answer is EASILY. I had a rule as a teacher: never ask a question for which you won’t like the answer. Questions like “HOW COULD you be so stupid?” would be a perfect example. At the very least, kids often aren't fully aware of why they do the things they do. 


Dr. Ellis created a five step process by which people can learn to generate a more functional or helpful amount of emotion. It's based on his ABC Theory of Emotions.

A   =  Activating Event                         Step 1 or 2

B   =  Beliefs                                          Step 3

C   =  Consequences (Feel, Do)          Step 1 or 2

D   =  Disputing                                      Step 4

E   =  Effective Coping Statements    Step 5

We can start with A or C. We could start with what happened, or what someone is imagining will happen, and then go to how they made themselves feel and what they did. Events can be real or imagined. Or we could start with how they're feeling and what they did, and then go back to what the Activating Event for that was. But the important step is B, identifying the automatic irrational Beliefs they had, or are having about what happened, or perhaps themselves, others and life.

Then we Dispute those beliefs. Dispute means to question and challenge. There are a host of ways to do that. That is followed by brainstorm some Effective Coping Statements - thoughts we could have instead of what we had before, and that would help us cope and deal better with what we didn't like.


There are a host of simple questions we can practice and rehearse asking ourselves when we hear ourselves using words like NEED (TO), HAVE TO, SHOULD, CAN’T or SHOULDN’T.  For example:

“Why do they NEED TO do that? They NEED TO, or you just want them to?”

“Why do they HAVE TO do that? They HAVE TO, or you just want them to?”

“Why CAN’T they do that? They CAN’T, or you just don’t want them to?”

When first asked such questions, it’s pretty common for people to begin their answers with “Because…” and then proceed to list all kinds of reasons they think justify their positions. But none of those will be correct. The only correct answers are:

“They don’t NEED TO, I just want them to”

“They don’t HAVE TO, I just want them to”

“They CAN, I just don’t want them to”

We could also add “They don’t HAVE TO do anything”, and “They CAN do whatever they want to”. These are the basic questions that need to be asked. They can be asked  of demands of others, ourselves or life.


The goal of disputing is NOT to get you to not care about what students do. The goal is simply to get you to turn your THINK thermostat down a notch, from NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND to WANT, PREFERENCE and DESIRE. This will turn your FEEL thermostat down from ANGER to simple FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION and ANNOYANCE. You'd still have energy to move, but be free to RESPOND instead of REACTING or OVERREACTING. It would make you more response-able, or able to respond to what students do that you don't like in the best possible ways.


There are three simple questions we can ask:

“Why is it so AWFUL?”

“Is it AWFUL, or just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable?”

“Is it AWFUL like (having cancer, etc.)?”

The correct answers are: 

“It’s not AWFUL, it’s just unpleasant, inconvenient, uncomfortable”

“At least it’s not as bad as (having cancer, etc)”

Again, the goal is not to get you to not care. It's simply to get you to turn your THINK thermostat down a notch, from AWFUL to simply UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT or UNCOMFORTABLE. Many things in life are unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable.


There are three simple questions we can ask:

“Why CAN’T you STAND IT?”

“Are you going to die or go crazy just because of that?”

“You CAN’T STAND IT, or just don’t like it?”

The correct answers are:

“I CAN STAND it, I just don’t like it”

“I’m not going to die or go crazy just because of that”

The goal again is not to get you to not care about what student do. It's simply to get you to turn your THINK thermostat down a notch from CAN'T STAND IT to simply DON'T LIKE IT. This is turn will turn your FEEL and DO thermostat down. 


There are four simple question we can ask:

“Why are they (STUPID) just because they did that?”

“They’re (STUPID), or just did a (STUPID) thing?”

“They’re (STUPID), or just did something you didn’t like?”

“They’re (STUPID), or just a Fallible Human Being?”

The only correct answers are:

“They’re not (STUPID) just because they did that”

“They’re not (STUPID), they just did a (STUPID) thing”

“They’re not (STUPID), they just did something you didn’t like”

“They’re not (STUPID), they’re just a Fallible Human Being like the rest of us”

Once again, the goal is simply to get you to turn your THINK thermostat down a notch from LABELING AND DAMNING THE PERSON to simply DISLIKING THEIR BEHAVIOR. 


Most of us have cognitive “ruts” in our brains for making DEMANDS, AWFULIZING, telling ourselves we CAN’T STAND things we simply don’t like, and LABELING AND DAMNING others or even ourselves from practicing and rehearsing these patterns of thought over and over again for many years. “Ruts” make our thoughts automatic. It’s easy to slip into these old “ruts” and have the same kind of thoughts again. When thoughts are “rutted” and so automatic, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we always have a choice as to what we want to think about anything, including what students do, or don’t do.


We also will have emotional and behavioral “ruts” that follow our cognitive “ruts”. That will make it easy for us to get angry like we have in the past, and to do what we’ve always done when angry. More often than not, it would probably entail using YOU messages when talking to students. YOU messages include threats, orders, commands, name calling, put downs, ridicule, sarcasm, etc. YOU messages are also called “solution messages” because they try to take away from others their right to choose what they will do. YOU messages also usually involve pointing a finger at others. No one likes either of these things.


There is another way to turn our THINK thermostats down from NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND to WANT, PREFERENCE, DESIRE. It's forcing ourselves to use I Messages when talking to students instead of the usual YOU Messages people so often use when angry at others. I Messages simply give information and leave it up to the other person as to what they want to do about it. For example, "I WANT you to sit down and be quiet", "I DON'T LIKE when students interupt what I'm saying" or "I'd RATHER you wait until I'm finished to ask questions".

I had a simple rule as a teacher. Whenever you're going to say something to a student that they might not like hearing, always start what you say with "I" (I Message) or "Please..." (the magic word). For example, "I'd LIKE you to stop talking" or "PLEASE stop talking while I am". I Messages use verbs like WANT, LIKE, RATHER, PREFER, APPRECIATE, and WISH. Simply forcing yourself to use I Messages and these verbs can eventually cause you THINK thermostat to come down, and stay down. Ellis called this "putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be". In this case your verbal behavior. Practice and rehearse talking the way you want to start thinking. Practice expressing your legitimate WANTS, PREFERENCES and DESIRES as want, preferences and desires, instead of elevating them to NEEDS, NECESSSITIES and DEMANDS in your mind and using YOU Messages.


Once we create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones and hope they can compete for use with our old ones. So to change, we need to create a new pathway or connection in our brains between nerve cells for thinking (or feeling and behaving) differently. Then we need to practice and rehearse that new thought until it becomes a “rut” as well. But we can always slip into our old “ruts” at any time, and probably will. It’s a downside of brain physiology.

I like to think of the "ruts" for our automatic irrational beliefs as being like concrete or asphalt pathways that we can’t rip up. And they lead us to a bad place emotionally – an emotional swamp of sorts. What we can do is lay down new pathways that take us away from the swamp and to a better place emotionally. That’s what the questions and answers do.


If we keep practicing and rehearsing these questions and answers, they will get “rutted” and become automatic. They will start to function in our minds like grammar check on our computers. In this way, we can learn to keep our THINK thermostats turned down, and turn them down quickly should they go up suddenly because we slip into our old cognitive “ruts” - like we probably will. This will keep our FEEL and DO thermostats turned down as well.  We’ll be less likely to get ANGRY and that will free us to RESPOND in the best possible ways to things students do that we don’t like, instead of REACTING or even OVERREACTING.





18.01.2016 09:19

Gitte Sommer Harboe

Brilliant way to explain this rather non concrete subject. As a cognitive therapist, I am inspired in new ways to explain these processes to my younger clients.

18.01.2016 16:49

Ray Mathis

Thanks Gitte. I explained it this way to 14 year olds for many years in my classroom. Check out the THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model