The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life - to fix whatever is "broken" and build something better

These are ten "tools", mostly from Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) that I taught my health education students for most of my 33 years in a classroom to help them fix whatever was broken in their lives, and to build something better for themselves. REBT is the work of the late Dr. Albert Ellis, and is a highly educational form of therapy. Ellis always said "Therapy should be educational, and education can be very therapeutic". There is actually a classroom version called REBE, or Rational Emotive Behavioral Education. So I never did therapy in a classroom. I did education. The best part was that in teaching these tools to my students, it probably helped me personally and professionally as well. My stress, which I had a lot of before I learned these "tools", largely vanished, and I became much more effective as a teacher in dealing with students, especially the most troubled and troublesome ones that teachers so often struggle to deal with.


Here are some key points to make, and why teaching them how to better manage emotions is so important

E-motion is energy to move

E-motion is energy to move. It’s why I like to hyphenate the word to remind people of that. That energy is supposed to help us get what we want and need, make our lives better, and ultimately protect us from threats to our lives and help us survive and reproduce. Anger and anxiety are two important emotions in this regard, and are the two halves of our fight or flight response. The problem humans have always struggled with is that they can needlessly plug into their fight or flight because they manufacture or imagine threats where they don’t really exist, or magnify ones that do all out of proportion to reality. They do that simply by the way they choose to look at things before, while and after they happen. It’s why so many people in modern life end up stressed out, and with anger problems and anxiety disorders. It’s also why there has been so much needless suffering and even death throughout human history, and it continues.

A dysfunctional amount of emotion

Too often people generate what I call a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events. By dysfunctional I mean:

1)  More than if helpful or necessary

2)  More than they want to have

3)  More than is healthy for them

4)  More than they know what to do with

5)  A type and amount that works against them instead of for them

Anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt more often than not fit these definitions because they so often cause people to say and do things that make their lives, and often the lives of others worse instead of better. Our behavior will always follow our emotions toward our life events. That simply means that if we get angry, anxious, depressed, or overloaded with shame and guilt, we’ll probably act like most people do when they feel these ways. People do a lot of unhealthy, self-defeating, destructive and even self-destructive things when they feel these ways.

Behavior starts and continues because it serves a purpose

There are a lot of times when people wonder why others do what they do. The answer is always the same, and quite simple actually. People start and continue to behave in the way they do because it serves a purpose in their lives. Behavior is always purposeful, and goal-orientated. Unfortunately, people often have what Rudolph Dreikurs called “mistaken” goals that get them off course from getting what they really want. They get something out of behaving the ways they do, but make getting what they really want less likely in the long run. That’s why he called them “mistaken”. He said students usually have one or more of four mistaken goals when they misbehave: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure. I taught this model to students when I taught health education, but I added an important one: Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. The reason being that so much of the unhealthy behavior I was tasked to prevent has the mistaken goal of trying to withdraw from or avoid unpleasantness in life, and get relief from the feelings that go with it.

Emotion gives purpose to, and drives unhealthy, self-defeating behavior

The important point is that a dysfunctional amount of emotion is what so often gives purpose to unhealthy, self-defeating behavior. For example, the angrier someone gets at another person, the more purpose it will serve to get even with them. The more anxiety, depression, shame and guilt someone generates, the more purpose it will give to things like smoking, drinking, using drugs, or even contemplating suicide. Later I’ll talk about the important role thoughts play in how we feel, and act. Suffice to say that irrational thoughts people have about what is happening simultaneously give rise to mistaken goals and a dysfunctional amount of emotion. That emotion then becomes the driving force behind behavior intended to satisfy the mistaken goal. The more emotion a person generates, the more driven they will be to achieve his/her mistaken goals. For example, the angrier someone gets, the more driven he/she will be to get even with others. The more anxiety, depression, shame and guilt people generate, the more driven they’ll be to seek relief from them.

How a dysfunctional amount of emotion works against people

The main ways a dysfunctional amount of emotion works against people is that it makes them more likely to react to life instead of responding to it. People become less response-able, or less able to respond in the best possible ways. They lose their response-ability, or the ability to respond in the best possible way to troublesome situations. The specific ways a dysfunctional amount of emotion hurts people are:

1)  They are less likely to consider consequences before acting

2)  It’s harder, and they are less likely to access and act on helpful advice and information they’ve been given

3)  They are less likely to learn from their own experiences and those of others

4)  They are more likely to violate their own morals and values

5)  It’s often harder to perform at levels they are capable of

If we were faced with truly life threatening circumstances, these things might actually make sense. It would be about surviving at any cost. It might not be helpful to think about the consequences too much or let past experiences or your morals and values get in the way. We’d want to react. As they say, he who hesitates is lost.  The problem though, as I mentioned earlier, is that people often needlessly plug into fight or flight because they imagine threats where they don’t really exist, and magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality by the way they choose to look at things.

Depression, shame and guilt

Emotions like depression, shame and guilt don’t seem like energy to move. But people still react to life when they have a dysfunctional amount of them. For example, people reach for cigarettes, over indulge in alcohol or drugs, or even food, and even try to take their own lives. None of these are the best way to respond to live and instead represent reacting, even overreacting to it. I think of shame, guilt and depression as being nature’s counterbalances to anger and anxiety, especially anger. Anger often leads to homicide. If human beings got carried away with the fight portion of fight or flight, they could literally wipe out the species. Depression, shame and guilt are the way to counter that possibility. They can ultimately play out in suicide. Nature is cold hearted in many ways by human standards. And it’s always about survival of the species as a whole, even if it means losing individuals.

Frequency, Intensity, Duration (FID)

Whenever we talk about emotions and their role in everyday life, we want to look at the frequency, intensity and duration of them. How often do we have them, how strong are they, and how long do they last. Another way to define a dysfunctional amount of emotion is that someone generates a greater frequency, intensity or duration of an emotion than is helpful or necessary. That’s why we say people have anger problems or anxiety disorders. Our goal when this happens is always to help them reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of emotions they’re struggling with – to make them less reactive to life, and more response-able; to give them response-ability, or the ability to respond in the best possible ways to what happens in their lives.

Student problems and issues

If you make a list of all the problems and issues that young people so often struggle with, and that negatively impact their readiness, willingness and ability to learn, and be taught, you find:

1)  Many are literally defined by generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, i.e. anger problems, anxiety disorders and phobias, depression, too much stress, low self-esteem

2)  Others are cause by them generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, i.e. abuse, violence, and vandalism

3)  Still others are the result of them seeking relief from a dysfunctional amount of emotion, i.e. smoking, drinking, using drugs, not working, dropping out, addiction, self-harm, suicide

That’s why helping students learn to generate a more functional amount of emotion in response to their life events, in and outside the classroom, both past, present and future, is so important.

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure

There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is that more true than with emotions like anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. For example, treating depression once it has taken roots in someone’s psyche is tough, for reasons I’ll talk about in Tool #10 – Why change is hard, and what it takes.

Anger prevention vs. anger management

We hear about anger and stress MANAGEMENT all the time. But that reminds me of that old saying about “closing the barn door after the horse is already out”. That’s especially true for anger, which is like, and intended by nature to be like emotional nitroglycerin. It reminds me of The Incredible Hulk. Once he “hulks out”, it’s smash time, and the Hulk does a lot of damage that makes sense at the time to the Hulk, but that mild-manner, intelligent Dr. David Banner regrets later. Anger management typically involves teaching people to have impulse control, to avoid doing what they usually do when angry, and to hopefully channel the anger into some more constructive behavior. But anger is just as hard to handle as the real nitroglycerin was in old cowboy movies.

Emotion is not inevitable

Many people treat any emotion, including anger, as some inevitable outcome of human life. But it’s not. Yes, we are hardwired to generate strong emotions, and even if it's more than is helpful or necessary, that’s part of being human unfortunately. As I noted earlier, people often needlessly generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary simply because of how they choose to look at things. Given the common and potential consequences of generating any of the stronger emotions, it only makes sense to try to prevent them as much as possible. That is possible.

THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model

One of my contributions to the field of counseling and therapy is to design a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model for people to use. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This model certainly is. It helps people visualize:

1)  Where they are emotionally and behaviorally at any given moment

2)  Why they are where they are in terms of their thoughts

3)  Where they might want to be instead emotionally and behaviorally

4)  What it will take to get there in terms of their thinking

To see a copy of the THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat, go to:


The reason USA is important is the feeling of shame. It plays a much bigger role in all our lives, but especially students’ lives that most people realize. I often would hear fellow teachers in our faculty lounge say “The problem with these kids is they have no shame”. Actually, the exact opposite is usually true. They have too much, and that’s their real problem, and what causes them to behave in ways we don’t like.

Human beings always try to make sense out of what they don’t like. The theories we have about why things are the way they are will dictate what solutions we come up with and try to employ. If your theory is “The problem is these kids have no shame”, it seems to make sense to try to give them some. But that would be like giving an alcoholic booze to get him to stop drinking. Not a good idea.  

Shame come from not living up to expectations

To understand why shame plays such an important role, we need only look at how it comes about. It comes about from believing, often because you’ve been told, that you don’t live up to expectations in some way. We all have many, many expectations placed on us from the beginning of our lives, and often place more on ourselves. This means many, many opportunities to generate shame, and guilt.

Regret and remorse vs. shame and guilt

Regret and remorse are qualitative different emotions than shame and guilt. They're not simply milder versions of them. Regret and remorse can be helpful. They can make you want to do better, avoid past mistakes, or to make amends to people you may have wronged. Regret and remorse come from wishing (wanting, preferring, desiring) you’d done more or better than you did, and hadn’t done something. Shame and guilt come from SHOULDING on yourself - making a DEMAND of yourself, and thinking you NEEDED to do something.  Shame and guilt are like too much of a good thing (regret and remorse).   

Shame as a primary disturbance

Shame can be a primary and secondary disturbance. It’s often the primary feeling that people seek relief from through alcohol and drug use and abuse, dropping out, and even contemplating and attempting suicide. That’s why it’s so important to help kids prevent it in their lives. It’s also why a teacher or parent should never say “You should be ashamed of yourself”. Kids will do that to themselves without encouragement or help from us. If it plays out in the ways noted above, hearing that could easily have been another “nail” in a student’s coffin, either figuratively or literally.

Shame as a secondary disturbance

Shame can also be a secondary disturbance in the sense that it makes kids want to keep what they think and feel a secret, and makes them less likely to want to seek or accept help that is available to them. In their minds, their internal struggles, and seeking or accepting help would just mean one more way they didn’t live up to expectations.  In this way, Dr. Ellis used to say “shame blocks change”.

Keeping secrets can be especially dangerous. It allows them to rehearse and practice irrational thoughts and simple and sometimes erroneous opinions about themselves, others, life and what’s happened to them like a broken record without challenge. This causes such thoughts to get “rutted” in their brain and become automatic. Simple opinions about themselves, others, life and what’s happened to them start to feel like facts instead of the simple opinions that they really are. These “facts” can become the irrational logic of all kinds of unhealthy, self-defeating, destructive or even self-destructive behavior, i.e. school shootings or bullycides.

Anything we think, feel, say or do is understandable

To me, having USA or UOA means choosing to see whatever we and others think, feel, say or do as understandable, given that we’re human, fallible and what we each have been through in our lives so far. That doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with everything we or others think, feel, say or do, or even tolerate it. It simply means that if we put others through exactly the same things, they’d probably think, feel, say and do the same things. Some might fare better, others worse. But most would probably think, feel, say and do much the same.

The Socratic Method works best

It’s always better if they arrive at this conclusion on their own. One strategy is to suggest they imagine that on the day they were born, we took 100 others babies and from that day forward, put each one of them through exactly what they have been through. I often talk about “bell curves”, and how whenever we look at anything about human beings, there will always be a few with very little of something, a few with a lot of it, and a whole bunch in the middle. There will always be a few who do something poorly, a few who do it really well, and a whole bunch in the middle. If we put 100 babies through every single life event they’ve been through, we’d probably get a bell curve distribution as well. There would be a few who didn’t fare well, a few who fared very well, and a whole bunch in the middle somewhere.

Then I ask them, “Is it possible that you could even have ended up at the top of your class if we’d done this experiment?” I suggest to them that troubled and troublesome kids are really “glasses half full” instead of the “glasses half empty” that they and others so often make them out to be.

People should come with movies of their lives

I also tell them I believe we should all come with movies of our lives that people have to watch when they meet us. Then I ask them, “If someone watched your movie, would they probably see the understandable reasons why you think, feel, say and do what you do now?”

Step 1 of the Tool Time Approach with troubled and troublesome students

Troubled and troublesome students have usually had a lifetime of being told and believing they haven’t lived up to expectations. That means they will struggle with shame, even if it doesn’t seem like they do. They often convey a false bravado to others in an attempt to compensate for, and cover up the fact that they privately beat up on themselves a lot. It’s why teachers often wrongly conclude they have no shame. Shame is the reason that the first step I always take with troubled and troublesome students in my “Tool Time” groups, or even when I speak to classes, is to let them know I have UOA. Then I encourage them to have USA. I explain about shame, and why USA and UOA is so important, and how to learn to have it.


You can read more about USA and UOA at:


Sense of powerlessness

Many students have a deep sense of powerlessness. That’s especially true for the most troubled and troublesome students. It can come from having had overbearing or even abusive adults (and other kids) in their lives say and do things to them that they could never stop. But it can also come from simply feeling bad, and not being able to find a way to feel better, or wanting a better life than they have, and never being able to figure out how to get it for themselves.

Mistaken goals of power and control

Students will often try to compensate for this sense of powerlessness by adopting the mistaken goals of power and control, and saying and doing things to prove to others they have power, and are in control of their lives instead of others. Bullying others is one way they do so. Bullying is all about having a sense of power and control over others. It’s a mistaken goal because they typically end up giving away power and control to others. They invite others like adults, or even the police into their lives, and give others a  chance to do things to them that they won’t be able to stop. Ultimately, they could even give society a right to incarcerate them, and control every minute of their lives, or even take their lives.

Promises I make to students

For these reasons, the first thing I typically do after letting students know I have UOA and encouraging them to have USA, is to promise to teach them how to have REAL power and control in and other their lives. I start by explaining to them what REAL power is NOT. It’s not:

1)  Getting angry

2)  Telling people off

3)  Getting physical with others

4)  Doing things people tell you not to

5)  Believing you upset others

Defining REAL power and control

Doing any of these things just gives others a chance to do things to them, and take away power and control from them. REAL power and control means:

1)  Being able to choose if you’re going to get upset or not, and how upset you’ll get

2)  Being able to feel the way you’ve always wanted to about yourself

3)  Being able to feel as good as possible regardless of what happens

4)  Being able to keep others out of your head

5)  Being able to defend yourself against people who are already living there

6)  Being able to get your life to turn out as you’d like

An external locus of control

Most people have an external locus of control. That means they wrongly see what happens, and what others say and do as the cause of how they feel. Looking at things this way puts them at the mercy of others and life events they can’t and don’t control. That usually means they’ll end up feeling worse than is helpful or necessary, and worse than they’d like to. More importantly, it usually causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better and the way they’d like. Seeing others and events as the real cause of feeling bad means that those people and events must get better for them to better. What if they never do? By looking at things this way, people actually give others power and control over how they feel that those others don’t really have. They give away the real power and control they do have over their emotional destiny without realizing it.

The truth about how feelings come about 

It’s actually what we choose to think about what happens, and what others say or do that really determines how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. There’s a formula for feelings:


This formula is a version of one I first learned from Active Parenting: EVENT > THINK > FEEL > DO. That in turn was based on the work of Dr. Albert Ellis, his ABC Theory of Emotion. That theory went like this:

Activating Event  +  Beliefs  =  Consequences (Feel, Do)

Activating Events can be real or imagined (remembered). Our Beliefs can be about ourselves, others, life, or what happens to us. What we feel and do are the Consequences of what we believe about ourselves, others, life and the Activating Event. This is analogous to that formula we all learn in math class: 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 an event stays the same, and you change your beliefs about it, your feelings and behavior change as well.

Three important tenets

There are three important tenets that come from these formulas:

1)  Thoughts cause feelings, not events

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

3)  Attitude is always the father of behavior

This explains why detentions and suspensions typically don’t result in the behavior changes they’re intended to elicit. Behavior won’t change until the attitudes fathering it do, and the emotion driving it dissipates. Detentions and suspensions typically only exacerbate both. It’s why the behavior of students who are given many detentions and suspensions often just gets worse instead of better.

Cognitive Choices

We all have a host of cognitive choices we make all the time that really determine how we feel. They include, but are not limited to:

1)   How we LOOK AT things

2)   What MEANING we attach to what happens

3)   What we REMEMBER about the past

4)   What we IMAGINE will happen in the future

5)   What we FOCUS on

6)   What we COMPARE things to

7)   What we EXPECT of ourselves, others and life in the first place

8)   How much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does happen

We make these choices all the time. You’re making them as you read this article.

Choice gives us power and control over our emotional destiny

These are choices that no one else can make for us. Unless we let them. People let others make these choices for them all the time. It’s perfectly understandable that they do, especially when young. It would be unlikely that a child, or even a teen would be resilient enough naturally to defend themselves effectively against what adults would think and say to them, or a group of peers might. But with coaching and practice, they can learn to keep control over how they make such choices with themselves, and take it away from others.

Dr. Victor Frankl once famously said:

“Everything can be taken form us but the last of human freedoms – to chose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way”.

Eleanor Roosevelt also said: “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your consent”

Teaching students to have an internal locus of control is one of the most empowering things we can do for them. Even more than teaching them how to read and write, which we all agree is extremely empowering. Reading and writing plays a crucial role in everyday lives, but thoughts and feelings play an even more pervasive and important role. If people get this locus of control thing wrong, they can suffer a lot needlessly and can make their own and others lives worse than they need to be.

Mental and Emotional Karate

Schools typically take what I call an outside-in approach to the problem of bullying. They have to. They try stop the bullying by first appealing to their students’ humanity, and then backing it up with rules, consequences and increased vigilance and enforcement. Schools have an obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all students, so it’s appropriate that they do this. They would be negligent if they didn’t. However, even their best efforts will probably never stop all the bullying.

I believe we also need to take an inside-out approach to bullying. We need to teach kids how to defend themselves against verbal and cyber attacks just like we teach some kids to defend themselves against physical attacks in real karate classes. I call this “hardening the targets”. A big part of doing so is teaching students to have an internal locus of control. Ideally, I strive to get students to a place where their automatic response to attacks is:

“You can think and say whatever you want about me. That’s your choice. But it’s my choice how I want to look at myself, and feel about myself. And you don’t get to make those choices for me, unless I let you. And I choose not to.”

This is really an adult version of a strategy adults taught us when we were kids:

"I''m rubber, you're glue. What you say bounces off me and sticks to you".

Read more about locus of control

You can read more about developing or teaching students to have an internal locus of control at:

Read more about Mental and Emotional Karate


Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Attitude is always the father of behavior. That’s why teaching students to recognize irrational thinking in themselves is so important. Irrational simply means that thinking in a certain way causes someone to feel worse than is necessary or helpful, and to say or do things that make their own lives, and perhaps the lives of others worse instead of better. As noted earlier, the main reason detentions and suspensions don’t work is that they don’t change the underlying thoughts, attitudes and beliefs students have that cause them to get upset, and behave in ways we don’t like. Instead they can cause students to just think the same ways, and sometimes even double down on their irrational thoughts.

Dr. Albert Ellis’ theory

Dr. Albert Ellis identified a simple pattern in irrational thinking that is easy to teach students to recognize in themselves and others. He said people engage in four basic types of irrational thought. He called them DEMANDINESS, AWFULIZING, CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS, and LABELING AND DAMNING.


I teach five rules to students.

Rule #1 – You have the right to want whatever you want

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

1)  Think they NEED things they simply want

2)  Treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES

3)  DEMAND what they simply desire

The reason this is important is because of Rule #2.

Rule #2 – The bigger the difference between expectations and reality, the more emotion you’ll generate

For example, if we DON’T CARE what happens, it’s easy to stay CALM. But if we WANT, PREFER or DESIRE something happen a certain way, we’ll be FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or  ANNOYED when it doesn’t. How frustrated, irritated or annoyed we get will depend on how much we want, prefer or desire it be a certain way. However, if we think we NEED something, it’s a NECESSITY, and DEMAND it, there will be a bigger gap between our expectations and reality when we don't get it, and we’ll get ANGRY instead. How angry we get will depend on how badly we think we need it, it’s a necessity, and demand it.

We can make demands of ourselves, others and life. Anger comes from making demands of others that don’t get met. It often involves SHOULDING on others. Anxiety comes from making demands of ourselves or life before events occur.  Shame and guilt come from making demands of ourselves after events occur – from SHOULDING on ourselves. Depression comes from making demands of life – from SHOULDING on life, i.e. “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I shouldn’t have to deal with this”.

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.

For example, if a young girl not only wants, but starts to think she NEEDS a young boy’s love like she needs air, water and food in her life, it can make her do stupid things. If a teacher not only wants, but thinks he NEEDS for a student to respect him, he’d be more likely to put his hands on the student when he acts in a way the teacher perceives as disrespectful. That's more likely because he'd make himself angry instead of just being irritated or annoyed.

Rule #4 – Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived need will win out over behavior intended to satisfy a rational preference.

For example, a person wants to quit smoking. That’s a rational preference. But if someone thinks they NEED a cigarette and can’t go a whole day without one, their odds of stopping are slim.


There are a lot of things in life that are unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable to some degree. The mistake people make is to tell themselves that what has happened, or might is awful. If people think they NEED things they simply want, and DEMAND what they simply desire, they are more likely to think it’s AWFUL when they don’t get those things. The reason is simple. If you couldn’t get air, water or food, it would be awful. You'd slowly suffocate, die of thirst or hunger. People often start to elevate things they simply want to the same level as air, water and food in their minds, which makes not getting them seem awful instead of just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable. Paradoxically, the easier life gets, the more prone people are to AWFULIZE, in part because life getting easier can make them more DEMANDING.

Can’t Stand It-it is

Rule #5 – You have the right to like or dislike whatever you want to

The mistake people make is to start telling themselves they CAN’T STAND what’s happened to them. If we didn’t get air for more than a few minutes, didn’t get water for more than a few days, and didn’t get food for more than a few weeks, we’d die. That would be proof that we couldn’t stand not getting those things. If people start to think they NEED things they simply want, they are more likely to tell themselves they can’t stand it when they don’t get those things. The reality is that they can stand it, they just don’t like it.

The top part of our brains is always trying to make sense out of the world around us. It collects data from our senses and attaches meaning to that data using words. The lower part of our brains that control emotions is blind, deaf and dumb to what is really happening around us. It gets its information from the top portion. If the top portion says that what is happening is awful and we can’t stand it, the lower portion takes it at its word and generates emotion. That emotion will be a dysfunctional amount because the top portion was exaggerating, or lying about what was really happening to the bottom portion. The top portion could even simply be imagining some  event that hasn't even happened yet. That's what happens with anxiety. It's about things that could happen, but haven't happened yet.

Labeling and Damning

Labeling and damning is basically blatant over generalization. Like calling an apple bad because it has a bruise, even though 95% of the apple is still just fine. It’s calling someone stupid simply because they did a stupid thing, or something you just didn’t like. It’s condemning the doer instead of the deed. It’s labeling and damning the person instead of just disliking his/her behavior. People can label and damn others or themselves. Labeling and damning is basically name calling and put downs. Young people do a lot of that, both with others, and with themselves.

If people think they NEED something from others or themselves, they are more likely to label and damn others or themselves when they don’t get it. If they simply want something and don’t get it, it’s easier to simply dislike others or their own behavior.

You can read more about the four types of irrational thinking at:


Getting better vs. feeling better

There’s a difference between temporarily FEELING better, and GETTING better. There are a lot of ways to temporarily feel better. Some are healthy (i.e. yoga, meditation, exercise), and others are not (i.e. smoking, drinking, drugs). Ways of feeling better act like OTC medications for the symptoms of a cold. As long as they are in peoples’ bloodstream and tissues, they get relief. But once they leave, symptoms will return because the OTC medication did nothing about the cause of peoples’ symptoms – a virus infecting their tissues.

How people temporarily feel better

Ways of temporarily feeling better work one of two ways. They give people a temporary break, time out or vacation from the events of their lives and their thoughts about those events, or they deplete the energy to move that has built up because of what people think about their events. Exercise is one that can do both. However, those ways of feeling better typically do nothing about the cause of peoples’ feelings – what they think about their life events. When people stop engaging in such activities, or sober up, their life events are typically waiting for them, if only in their minds. Their automatic thoughts about their events return and their feelings build back up.

Defining GETTING better

Getting better means permanently reducing the Frequency, Intensity and  Duration of feelings like anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. There’s only one way to GET better. It’s change the way people think. It’s called cognitive restructuring.

The Scientific Method

Every thought people have or comment they make is basically their theory or hypothesis about the way life is, or should be. The bigger the difference between those theories and hypotheses, the more emotion people will generate, and the poorer mental health they will enjoy. The important question is “Does the evidence or observations of everyday life support your theory or hypothesis? Or do they refute them and perhaps suggest alternative, better theories and hypotheses?” We teach the Scientific Method to students in science and math classes every day, all around the country. But we neglect to teach them to apply it to their everyday theories and hypotheses. It’s relatively simple to start doing that.

Fact or Opinion?

When people generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary, it’s typically because they think in terms of opinions instead of facts. The problem is that people too often start to treat simple opinions as facts. They do that because they simply have heard or repeated to themselves the same thoughts over and over again. That causes them to become rutted in their brains, and automatic. Once they become  automatic, simple opinions can start to seem like, and get treated as facts instead of the simple opinions they really are. Posing this simple question can force people to reconsider whether their thoughts are facts, or just simple opinions.


Disputing means questioning and challenging. There are some simple but direct questions we can pose to students, and encourage them to pose to themselves and each other. For example:

BELIEF:     They CAN’T say that  about me

DISPUTE:   Why CAN’T they say that? They CAN’T, or you just don’t want them to?

When first asked such questions, people often begin their responses with “Because….” and then proceed to list all manner of reasons – none of which are the correct answers. The only correct answers are:

ANSWERS:  They CAN say that about me, I just don’t want them to. They can say whatever they want to

Some  other examples:

BELIEF:      They have to apologize for that

DISPUTE:    Why do they HAVE TO apologize? They HAVE TO, or you just want them to?

ANSWER:    They don’t HAVE TO, I just want them to. They don’t HAVE TO do anything.

BELIEF:       It’s really AWFUL that they did that?

DISPUTE:     It’s AWFUL, or just unpleasant (inconvenient, uncomfortable)?

ANSWER:     It’s not AWFUL, it’s just unpleasant (inconvenient, uncomfortable)

BELIEF:        I CAN’T STAND when people do that

DISPUTE:     You CAN’T STAND IT, or just don’t like it?

ANSWER:     I CAN STAND IT, I just don’t like it

BELIEF:        He’s an idiot for saying that about me

DISPUTE:     He’s an idiot, or just did something you didn’t like?

ANSWER:     He’s not an idiot, he just did something I didn’t like

With practice and rehearsal, these questions and correct answers can become automatic. That will cause them to be to peoples minds what grammar check is to a computer

You can read more about correcting irrational thinking at:


People often keep saying and doing the same things they always have, even when what they do doesn’t work, and even after they suffer because of what they say and do. One reason is that behavior starts and continues because it serves a purpose. They will continue to behave the same way as long as it continues to serve the same purpose. People often have mistaken goals as well. They achieve  their mistaken goals even though doing so makes getting what they might really want in the long run less likely.

A big part of what gives purpose to unhealthy, self-defeating behavior is that people generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events. That emotion becomes the driving force behind behavior intended to satisfy “mistaken” goals. Behavior will always follow peoples’ emotions toward their life events. As noted abovee, the real cause of their feelings is not what happens to them, but the thoughts they choose to have about such events. Those thoughts are typically automatic from years of practice and rehearsal. They have cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that they tend to slip into and doing so causes them to recreate their pasts without realizing it, or intending to.

So how to break out of this vicious cycle?

The key is to get people to learn how to generate a more functional amount of emotion in response to their life events. The key to doing that is, as noted earlier, changing the way they think, about themselves, others, life and what happens to them. Dr. Albert Ellis devised a five step process for doing this. It’s based on his ABC Theory of Emotions. The steps are:

A  =  Activating Event

B  =  Beliefs

C  =  Consequences (Feel, Do)

D  =  Dispute

E  =  Effective Coping Statements

We can start with the Activating Event (what happened) and go to the Consequences (what they felt or did). Or, we can start with the Consequences and work back to the Activating Event. But the most important step is identifying what peoples’ Beliefs are about themselves, others and life, and what happened. That’s really Tool #5 – Recognizing irrational thinking.

Step D, or disputing, is really Tool #5 – Correcting irrational thinking. Once they dispute, question and challenge their irrational thoughts, they brainstorm Effective Coping Statements they could think or say out loud. The goal is to get to F, a Functional Amount of Emotion

F  =  Functional amount of emotion

If they do, that puts them in a much better mental and emotional place to problem solve, and brainstorm behavioral options.

G  =  Generate behavioral options

Hopefully, this will lead to their lives getting better, and them being happier, healthier, and more hopeful

H  =  Happier, Healthier, Hopeful

I’ve always believed that discipline should be a positive experience, and that the further we get into it, the more positive it should become. Making these steps part of the discipline process is a way to do that, both in a classroom, and as a school.


You Messages

YOU messages are orders, threats, name calling, put downs, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism and more. They are what people use when angry. Anger will feel threatening to others. They will often respond with their own anger and escalate the conflict. YOU messages are aggressive and called “solution” messages because they try to take away from others their right to choose what they want to do. That usually invites others to adopt the mistaken goal of power and control, and not comply, even if doing so would be in their best interest, and  not complying could result in undesirable consequences. When people use YOU message, it usually involves pointing a finger at others. No one likes others doing either of these things. That’s why YOU messages are usually ineffective in getting people what they really want. They often instead invite needless and futile power struggles.

I Messages

I messages simply give other people information. They leave it up to those people as to what they want to do about that information. That information includes what people don’t like, what they want, and sometimes how they feel. I messages can also include acknowledgements of others feelings and wants, i.e. “I realize you’re not happy because you would rather I not have done that”. They can also include apologies. If there is any finger pointing involved, it’s more likely to be at the person speaking than others. I messages acknowledge and accept that people only really control what they think, feel, say and do. They can’t and don’t control what others do. There’s an inherent respect for others in I messages that is absent in YOU messages. It’s why they work better.

Putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be

As noted earlier, one form of irrational thinking is DEMANDINESS. Making DEMANDS of others, ourselves or life sets us up for generate more emotion than is  helpful or necessary. Another way to correct demandiness, and bring our THINK thermostats down, is to practice using I messages with verbs like want, like, rather, prefer, appreciate, and wish. For example, “I would like you to sit down and be quiet” instead of saying “Sit down and be quiet!” By practicing talking in I messages, it becomes automatic to think in the same way.


As noted earlier, behavior is always purposeful, and goal orientated. Unfortunately, people often have what Rudolph Dreikurs called “mistaken” goals. They get some reward or gratification for achieving their mistaken goals, but in doing so, make getting what they really want less likely in the long run. When people have mistaken goals for too long, they tend to lose sight of the “prize”, or what they really want in the long run. There’s a saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, it’s easy to end up somewhere else, perhaps someplace you might not like being. That’s true when you’re traveling in a car, or navigating your way through life. It’s especially important for kids to learn to recognize when they have mistaken goals, because they so often have them.

You can read more about mistaken goals at:


Why this is so important

There are a number of reasons why this is important. First, kids have a tendency to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion and react or even overreact to life events, and often make their own and others’ lives worse instead of better. Second, they tend to have mistaken goals that get them off course, and cause them to lose sight of what they really want. They tend to SHOULD on themselves, and beat up on themselves for not living up to their own or others expectations and feel ashamed and guilty. This shame and guilt can play out in many unhealthy ways, as noted earlier. It also makes them much more sensitive to the criticisms of others, even when those may have some validity. They often  become “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”, neither of which will allow them to reflect on the “error of their ways”, and often simply results in them sucking into their shells, or striking outt at others.

Some  simple questions that can and need to be asked

1)  What do you really want?

Some other versions of this question might be “How do you want to feel?”, “What do you want your life to be like?” or “Where would you like to be?” As noted earlier, if you don’t know where you want to go, you might end up somewhere else – some place you might not like. Kids often struggle to answer this question. It’s important they do, and that we encourage them to stay focused on what they want, and never lose sight of it.

2)  How’s it working for you to think, feel, say and do what you do now?

Does it allow you to get what you really want, or make it harder? Does it allow you to feel the way you’d like to feel, or make that harder? Has it helped you get where you’d like to be at this point in your life, or has it gotten in the way?

3)  If you keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what you do now, will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future?

Another question that sometimes needs to be asked is:

4)  If someone else thinks, feels, says or does what that person does, are you like to get what you really want with them, or from them?

Are you likely to feel the way you’d like to feel with them?

The answers to these last 3 questions are usually obvious once question 1 is answered. They just need to be asked.


Many people do try to change, and fail. If this happens repeatedly, they often lose hope and give up. The reason they often fail is because they simply don’t understand and appreciate what they are up against. Brain physiology is a double edged sword. For all the wonderful things it allows us to do, when we try to change for the better, it can be a curse.

Cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”

When people practice thinking, feeling, saying and doing things certain ways, they create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” in their brains. These “ruts” are easy to slip into, and hard to stay out of or get out of, just like real ruts on dirt roads. “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. That can be good or bad news depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions the “ruts” lead to. “Ruts” are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories can become their destinies. That could be good or bad news as well, depending on what their histories have been.

What it takes to change

Once people create “ruts”, they can’t get rid of them. They can only make new ones and hope they can compete with their old ones for use. To change, people have to first make a new connection, or create a new pathway between nerve cells in their brains for thinking, feeling, saying and doing things differently. Then they have to use that connection or pathway repeatedly until it becomes a “rut” and can compete for use with their old “ruts”. They have to practice and rehearse thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the new way until it becomes as automatic as their old ways. But people can always slip into their old “ruts”, and probably will. Knowing and accepting this is part of having UOA and USA.   


The best part of teaching these "tools" to students is that it need not cost anything to do so. Any teacher or any school could start tomorrow after having simply read what's here. There's no need to buy expensive canned programs.


Schools typically do one issue programs at a time. I understand why, and it's better than doing nothing. But there's an old saying about "killing two birds with one stone". Teaching these "tools" to students is a way to prevent or address all those problems and issues students so often struggle with. It's a way to help them learn to better self-manage. If they do, it makes our jobs easier. It's also a way to "teach them to fish so they can eat for a lifetime". If we're the ones who do, it's something they will love us for forever. That's makes our jobs much more rewarding than they can be from just teaching subject matter.


I have never liked when schools purchased canned programs and have teachers conduct activities that are not their own - even if teachers give it their all. That's probably better than doing nothing, but there's a better way. Most of these programs say they are "evidenced based", but so did D.A.R.E. and abstinence only sex education programs when they first came out. Now we know from independent research that these two programs not only don't result in the outcomes they claimed to, but there is actually some evidence that some kids actually are more likely to engage in the risky behavior they were designed to prevent.



The first thing people usually ask me about the "tool kit" approach is "Is it evidenced based?" The answer is yes and no. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Education (REBE), which the "tool kit" is largely based on, has been proven time and again to be one of the most effective approaches for helping people. However, my particular version has never be researched. I was a classroom teacher, not a PhD or researcher. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that it made huge differences in kids lives. Even since I've retired from the classroom, there have been so many times that students I've spoken to have come up and said "This was life changing" afterward. Many of those were the most troubled and troubesome kids at the schools I spoke at. Obviously that doesn't guarantee that it will be. As Tool #10 suggests, such students will always struggle to stay out of their old "ruts", and will have to practice the new ways of thinking and looking at things I suggest so they can compete with their old ways. But if I can do, they can. Anyone can.


My mentor and instructor in my REBT classes was an REBT therapist and educator name Terry London. Terry used to always joke about his classes being "cheap therapy". He was right. I was able to take the "tools" from REBT/REBE that he taught me and use them to improve my own mental, emotional and even physical health immensely. I don't even like to think about where I was before I took his classes.

I like to use a screwdriver metaphor to explain why kids will benefit from simply being taught such "tools". Suppose you have to contend with unstable furniture all day long because of a lot of loose screws. But you don't own a screwdriver, and have never used one. If I gave you a screwdriver, and quickly showed you how to use it, I'm betting you would immediately tighten all those loose screws and bring stability to your life. Kids will do the same thing with all the proverbial "loose screws" in their lives if we give them the right tools. I've seen it happen many, many times. When I worked in construction in the summer as a teenager, the old guys would always tell me 'Any job is easy kid if you use the right tool". That's true when you're trying to fix what might be "broken" in your life as well, and build something better for yourself.


I've been on the other side of the table when administrators have rolled out one new initiative after another over the years. Initiatives we all knew would be something we'd do for a while and then it would fall by the wayside. So I know how teachers can react to anything new, especially if they believe it's being imposed on them. 

That's why I've always suggested teaching teachers the "tools" for their own sake first and foremost - to reduce or eliminate stress and improve their mental, emotional and even physical health.  Let them become proficient at using them in their own lives, and learn the value of them. Then enlist their help and expertise in teaching the "tools" to their students. Help them see that what's always been getting in the way of what they'd like to do as a teacher has been kids' inability to self-manage as well as would be helpful. If they teach their kids to better kids self-manage, their jobs will get easier, and more rewarding. Plus, teaching the "tools" to students will also help teachers become more proficient in using them in their own lives. Teaching them to my students 5 times a day helped me. It's a win-win.