Enhancing Achievement - What we need to do


Schools do a good job identifying learning disabilities and accommodating students with them academically – better than ever before. Most schools are also training teachers up on teaching methods on a regular basis, and including more technology in instruction than ever before. What they typically do little about is the mental and emotional factors that negatively impact students’ readiness, willingness and ability to learn. Neglecting that is very important because students have to be in the right mental and emotion place to be ready, willing and able to learn. Too many simply aren’t there, and we’ve never done much to help them get there, and still don’t. That’s true even though it’s the main thing that undermines their learning, and our ability to teach them.


The "first do no harm" rule in medicine says that if you can' make a patient better, at least don't make him/her worse. Teachers and schools too often do make it worse without realizing it or intended to. This has always been a major, if not the main reason why students weren't as ready, willing or able to learn as teachers would have liked, and as would have been helpful for those students. They simply weren't in the best mental and emotional place. It's always understandable given what their life circumstances have often been outside school before and while they are in school. But aside from some occassional attempts at counseling, more often that not nothing was done in any formal way to help such students learn how to better manage their thoughts and feelings. In fact, schools often only add to the many things that such students can get upset about. The reason being that such thoughts and feelings can so often manifest in behavioral challenges for teachers and schools, and they typically just take a largely and increasingly punitive approach to behavior they don't like. That's a big part of why there is a "school to prison pipeline".


Now much more attention is being given to achievement as evidenced by test scores than ever before in history. The powers to be at all levels have embarked on an accountability mission. Much of it has been driven by the ulterior motive of privatizating public education for profit. It's called "disaster capitalism" - create an apparent "crisis" using standardized test scores and by manufacturing a narrative that teachers and schools are failing our young people, and then you can justify making major changes to an institution like public education - changes you otherwise would never be able to. i've always believed that was a hidden agenda of NCLB. It was a clever title for legislation that no one could dare argue with, but it had a hidden agenda that dated back to Bill Bennett's agenda for public education as Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration.


However, even those who are sincerely interested in making pubic education better are usually "barking up the wrong tree", so to speak. They keep coming up with new and higher standards, they repackage curriculum, tweak or outright change the standardized tests given, and focus on teacher certification and teaching methods - rather than the fact that too many learners simply aren't in the right mental and emotional place to learn and helping them get there. Social and emotional learning has received more attention than ever in the past decade. Some states have even enacted standards for it. However, little is really being done because of the intense focus on raising test scores. What is being done is often much less than what could or needs to be done.


The ultimate problem is that students too often generate what I call a dysfunctional amount of emoiton in response to their life events. It's often in response to life events that happen outside of school, often long before they even came to school. Their mental and emotional responses to their early experiences will often contaminate their interactions with teachers and other students from the very beginning. Many times students will continue to have to deal with the same life events outside of school as they go through school, or new and even worse ones may arise. Events in school themselves (i.e. not doing well, being disciplined) can also become activating events for generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion.

I define a dysfunctional amount of emotion as:

1)  More than is helpful or necessary for the situation they find themselves in

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


The main way is that it makes them react to life events, in or outside the classroom. It makes them less response-able, or less able to respond to life in the best possible ways. They start seeing everyday events as threats, or at least bigger threats than they really are or need to be. They can literally get in the habit of plugging into their fight or flight responses. Anxiety is often the trigger for doing so, and anger a secondary emotion. Anxiety and anger are the two halves of fight or flight. Much of this is needless, and simply a product of the way they have learned to choose to look at things. The way they do is understandable given what their life experiences have been. It's just not helpful or conducive to learning or being taught.

When people of any age generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, they are less likely to consider consequences of their actions before acting. It’s harder for them to access and act on helpful advice they are given. They are less likely to learn from experiences, and more likely to violate their own morals and values. This would all make sense if there really were a threat to their lives. But as I said, they too often imagine threats where they really don't exist, or magnify ones that do by the way they simply choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. There are so many examples of reacting to life that can interfere with learning, from little things like talking back to a teacher to much bigger things like abusing alcohol and drugs, dropping out, or even attempting suicide. One way to sum this all up is that they are more likely to have "mistaken" goals when they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion.  


Rudolph Dreikurs said that when students do things that teachers don’t like, and that aren’t good for them, they have one or more of four mistaken goals: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure. Seeking an inordinate amount of attention in a classroom can be irritating and annoying to teachers, and often gets students in trouble. The way they respond to getting in trouble is often by adopting the mistaken goals of Power and Control, or even revenge. This leads to all kinds of behavior that gets them into trouble and that can interfere with their learning and a teacher’s ability to teach not only them, but others. Dreikurs said that ultimately students end up adopting the mistaken goal of avoidance of failure. There are all kinds of ways they try to avoid failure, from not working, getting kicked out of class to dropping out entirely. There’s a fifth common mistaken goal – Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. That’s how they end up alcohol or drug involved, which can also negatively impact their learning. Many kids already have a tendency to have these mistaken goals before they even come to school because of their early life experiences.


The same thoughts that give rise to a dysfunctional amount of emotion simultaneously give rise to mistaken goals. Thoughts cause feelings, not events, and attitude is always the father of behavior. E-motion is energy to move, and the feelings generated then become the driving force behind any behavior intended to satisfy their mistaken goals. The more emotion a student generates, the more driven they will be to achieve their mistaken goal. For example, the lonelier they feel, the more driven they will be to seek an inordinate amount of attention in ways teachers may not like. The angrier they get, the more driven they will be to prove they have power and are in control of their own lives instead of teachers, or to get even with teachers, all of which can ultimately get them kicked out of class, or even school. The more shame and anxiety they generate, the more driven they will be to avoid failure.


Shame comes from being told, and believing that they don’t live up to adult expectations. Many students start getting that message long before they even come to school, and keep getting it in many other ways once they get there. Most underperforming and misbehaving students have had a lifetime of being told, and believing they don’t live up to expectations in some way. That’s even more likely when they have a learning disability. Many times students with learning disabilities end up being behavioral problems in schools. Behavioral problems obviously can negatively impact learning.

Shame can play out as anxiety or anger. If you believe you haven’t lived up to expectations in the past, it’s easier to imagine not doing so again in the future. That’s the recipe for anxiety. Anxiety is technically a figment of imagination – it’s about things that could happen, but just haven’t yet. Shame can make everyday tasks in school, or social situations and others’ comments seem like bigger threats than they really are or need to be. Students can literally plug into their fight or flight responses.


That’s how we get “turtles” who such into their shells, “jackrabbits” who run (i.e. skip school, cut classes), and “rattlesnakes” that coil, rattle and even strike out with venom. Students often become “turtle” with academic tasks, and “rattlesnakes” with authority figures. The “turtles” who basically have the mistaken goal of avoidance of failure are frustrating for teachers to try to teach, but the “rattlers” are the ones that it’s easy to get into arguments and conflicts with, and make mistakes with.  They are also the ones that usually get kicked out of school the most. They can’t learn if they’re not there, and when they fall behind, it just makes matters even worse.


Ultimately, thoughts cause feelings, and attitude is always the father of behavior. According to Dr. Albert Ellis, there are four basic types of irrational thinking: Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Label and Damning.


Students (and teachers) can make demands of others, themselves or life. Anger comes from making demands of others that don’t get met. Students might demand that they be able to do whatever they want when they want to. Of course, teachers sometimes also demand obedience instead of inviting cooperation. Put the two in the same room together and you get a lot of unnecessary and unhelpful emotion, and a lot of conflict that can interfer with not only the student's learning, but the learning of other students. The essence of anger is often "Everyone has to do what I want, and be the way I want them to be" - which sounds like a 3 or 4 year old. It's why Dr. Ellis called anger a temper tantrum. One of my rules as a teacher was "We always need at least one adult in the room". Too often we don't get that because of anger.

Anxiety comes from making demands of oneself before life events, i.e. tests. It can also come from making demands of life before events as well. Students will often manufacture threats needlessly, or magnify ones that might exist by telling themselves "I HAVE TO..." do something before events. Taking this philosophical position causes them to be more likely to imagine something going badly and think it would be awful if it did. That's the formula for anxiety. Teachers often tell themselves that they "HAVE TO" do things. This puts unnecessary stress on them and makes noncompliance or lack of effort in students a bigger threat than it needs to be.  

Shame and guilt come from making demands of oneself after events. Such demands often involve SHOULDING on themselves. Of course, they often have had adults SHOULD on them many times in the past, so it's easier for them to do it to themselves, and more likely that they will. Many kids have even be told "You SHOULD be ashamed of yourself". Kids will naturally do this to themselves, and often much more than is helpful or necessary. They don't need any encouragement from us.

Students can get into a viscous cycle of anxiety and shame/guilt. The more they tell themsleves they HAVE TO do something before events, the more likely they are to SHOULD on themselves afterward. The more they SHOULD on themselves after events, the more likely they are to think and tell themselves they HAVE TO do something in the future, and so on.

Depression comes from making demands of life. It often involves SHOULDING on life. For example, "This SHOULDN'T be happening to me", and it is. Or, "I SHOULDN'T have to deal with this" and they do. The bigger the gap between their expectations and reality, the more emotion they'll generate.

Boredom is often a problem with today's students. Boredom comes from making demands of life as well - and sometimes of others like teachers. For example, "School SHOULD be more fun" or "Teachers SHOULD make classes more interesting". Making such demands is understandable given the overabundance of stimulation today's students have so often been subjected to, but it's not helpful by any means. 


There are a lot of things in life that are unpleasant, inconvenient, or uncomfortable to some degree. The mistake students (and teachers) make is to start telling themselves that something that has happened, or that might is AWFUL, as in the wore possible thing that could happen. The formula for anxiety is:


If students simply imagine something bad happening (CATASTROPHIZE) and said “So what? Who cares? It won’t be that big a deal” they wouldn’t feel anxiety. It’s AWFULIZING about the imagined event that really causes the anxiety.


We all have the right to like or dislike whatever we want to. The mistake people make is to tell themselves that they CAN’T STAND what has, is or might happen to them. If we couldn’t stand something, we’d die or go crazy. Obviously people don’t when they say they CAN’T STAND something, so they are needlessly inflaming themselves. That’s why Dr. Ellis called it CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS.


The essence of LFT is telling oneself “I CAN’T STAND…” doing something. For example, students often say “I CAN’T STAND doing the same thing everyday….doing so many problems….having to get up so early….doing things I don’t like….doing things that are boring”. This kind of thinking makes it harder to do the many things students need to do to learn. LFT and AWFULIZING have both become rather pervasive in young people, and adults as well. It’s a natural outcome of life getting more convenient, comfortable and pleasurable. When life does, it creates a growing intolerance for inconvenient, discomfort and unpleasantness. The reason is that people develop a tolerance for comfort, convenience and pleasure, as well as stimulation, like they develop a tolerance for alcohol and drugs.

There are inherent DEMANDS in LFT as well. For example “I SHOULDN’T have to do things that I don’t agree with….the same thing everyday….so much work every day….write so much”. Or, “Teachers SHOULD make school more interesting….SHOULDN’T give us so much work everyday”


Students (and teachers) can LABEL AND DAMN themselves or others. Labeling and damning themselves both contributes to shame and guilt, and is more likely when students feel those ways. If a students says "I'm stupid and can't do anything", it certainly makes it much harder to teach them.


One overriding factor that causes students (and teachers) to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion is having an external locus of control. The vast majority of people on the planet, including students and teachers, have an external locus of control. They wrongly see what others say and do, and what happens as being the cause of how they feel. This essentially puts them at the mercy of other people, and life events that they can’t control. By looking at things this way, they needlessly give others and life events power and control over how they feel that others and events don’t really have, and give away the power and control over their own emotional destiny that they do have. This typically results in them feeling worse than necessary, for longer than necessary, and more importantly to miss opportunities to feel better. 

The reality is that it’s the thoughts people choose to have about what others say and what happens that makes them feel the way they do. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Conflicts between teachers and students, or between students more often than not occur because both parties blame the other for how they make themselves feel. Seeing others as the cause of how they feel just gives them more to get upset about. 


When people rehearse and practice thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the same way, they create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” in their brains. These “ruts” are as easy to slip into, and as hard to stay out of, or get out of as real ruts in dirt roads. “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings and behaviors automatic. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions they lead to. “Ruts” are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories become their destinies. That can be good news or bad news as well, depending on what their history has been. Once we create “ruts” we can’t get rid of them. We can only create new ones and hope they can compete for use with our old ones. But human beings will always have a tendency to slip into their old ruts, and usually will. Students will slip into their old “ruts”. Change is a challenge for this reason.

I was taught “Look at your past, but don’t stare at it”. That’s exactly what so many students get stuck doing – staring at their past, and recreating it because they do. “Ruts” play a huge role in this, but many things teachers and schools do encourage students to stare at their pasts. Typical classroom and school discipline can do that. More often than not the message is “Look at what you’ve done AGAIN!”


We’ve got to teach students how to get into the best possible mental and emotional place to be ready, willing and able to learn, and be taught. To do that, I believe we can and should give ALL students ten “tools”. These are part of what I call the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life. They include:

1)  Tool 1 – Understanding and appreciating the important role of emotion in everyday life.  

A big part of this is giving students a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat. A picture is alway worth a thousand words. The thermostat helps them see where they are emotionally and behaviorally, and why. It helps them see where they might want to be instead, and what it will take in terms of their thinking to get there.


2)  Tool 2 – Learning to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA) and  Other Acceptance (UOA).

This is to combat the shame that so often undermines student readiness, willingness and ability to learn. 


3)  Tool 3 – Developing and Internal Locus of Control.

By learning how feelings really come about, and the cognitive choices they always have that control how they feel, students are empowered - they are in a much better position to keep their emotional thermostats turned down, and turn them down quickly should they go up.


4)  Tool 4 – Recognizing irrational thinking in themselves and others.

Thoughts cause feelings, not events, and attitude is always the father of behavior. Teaching them to recognize irrational thinking in themselves and others is the first step toward helping them correct it, and avoid it in the future.


5)  Tool 5 – Learn how to correct irrational thinking.

GETTING better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of emotion in their lives. There's only one way to do that - change the way they think. It's called cognitive restructuring. If they practice doing so enough, it becomes automatic, and acts in their brains like grammar check on a computer.


6)  Tool 6 – A step-by-step approach to troublesome life events.

In math, students are taught that if they approach problems in the same step-by-step fashion, they are more likely to get the correct answer. The same is true in life. Dr. Ellis created a simple five step process for helping people get into a better mental and emotional place.


7)  Tool 7 – Asserting themselves with I-Messages.

Most people use YOU Messages when dealing with others, especially when angry. YOU Messages typically involve being demanding of others, or labeling and damning them is some way. Practicing using I Messages is not only a more effective way to communicate, but it helps people become less demanding and less likely to label and damn others.


8)  Tool 8 – Recognize when they and others have mistaken goals.

When things don't go well in classrooms and school, it's because students, and sometimes teachers have mistaken goals. Learning to recognize them can be very helpful. It's a way to begin to identify what people are thinking. It's also a way to help them see the self-defeating nature of what they are currently doing.


9)  Tool 9 – A simple, non-judgmental way to evaluate their own thoughts, feelings, actions.

Most students will not like to have adults criticize them. That's especially true for the most troubled and troublesome ones. It's much better if they can learn to self-evaluate. Students also tend to beat up on themselves privately, more than adults ever realize. This is an alternative to doing that.


10) Tool 10 – Understanding why change is hard, and what it takes.

Even if students want to change, they will struggle to do so because of cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts". The more they understand about "ruts" and how they affect what they do, the easier it will be for trhem to change. Knowing about "ruts" also helps them have USA, and UOA for others.


You can read about these tools in depth at:  www.itsjustanevent.com


Students have to be in the right, or best possible mental and emotional place to be ready, willing and able to learn. Too many simply aren't there, and don't know how to get there. That has always been a major, if not the main reason students have always struggled to learn as much as we or they would like them to. We've never done much in any formal way to help them learn how to get into a better place mentally and emotionally, and still don't for the most part. There's much we can and should do. It's not therapy. It's education. It's teaching them how their own minds work and how to use that knowledge to their advantage - just like we teach so much else about how life works and to use that knowledge to their advantage in so many others ways.