The Power of Self-Talk

In recent years, education and brain research have collided.  The science of the structure of the human brain provides significant evidence that our thinking has the power to physiologically change the structure of our brain.  In other words, we can actually re-wire our brains through our thoughts.  The work of Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler provides inspiration to revolutionize classroom culture and places a new level of importance on the conversations we construct with our students. A shift from negative, fixed mindset messages to more positive growth mindset thoughts may seem challenging, but can be as simple as adding a single word to the end of a closed statement.  For example, when a person states “I’m not good at math,” simply tagging the statement with the word yet has the power to open that statement up for a future and new possibilities.  “I’m not good at math yet” implies the expectation and potential for development toward mastery in the future.  Try it yourself. Think of something you feel you can’t do – or for which you have little to no proficiency. Say what that thing is out loud.  For me, “I can’t snow ski.”  The finality of that statement sends a strong message not only to myself, but to everyone around me.  If my co-workers are planning a ski trip, I’m not likely to get an invitation to join along.  I’ve made a statement that doesn’t send a message that I’m willing to try. That is just the way things are and will be in the future. Now make that statement again, this time tagging with the word yet.  “I can’t snow ski yet.”  That single word opened my own mind to the possibility of learning the sport, and also placed a bit of a challenge on the table for my co-workers. Implied message: Who is willing to help me learn? Invite me to go along, and I’ll give it a try! Such is the power of words, and the importance of positive self-talk.

One exercise used to practice this concept is called The Hateful Task. Near the start of the school year, the activity was used as a warm-up exercise after discussing our ability to re-wire our brains. Students were asked to think about a task that they are responsible for at home that is their most hated, dreaded task. Some may pick doing the dishes, scooping dog poop, or mowing the lawn. The class was asked to raise their hand as soon as they thought of that task. Now they were to close their eyes and picture in their mind’s eye performing that hateful task. They would imagine their posture, their facial expression, as well as what they are thinking or saying to themselves as they perform this dreaded task. They were to then open their eyes and sketch a stick figure drawing of them performing this hateful task, including their facial expression and either a thought- or talk-bubble expressing what they would think or say to themselves at the time they are performing this task. After this, students shared their drawing with their teammates and describe how they are feeling and what they are thinking/saying about this task. We then had a full-class discussion on how the task must be done whether we complain or not; therefore, it does no good to have a grumpy attitude. Also, many students noted that once the task was complete, it really wasn’t as bad as the anticipation of the task. The class then brainstormed thoughts or phrases that could replace the more negative statements. After brainstorming many alternative positive phrases, such as “this will only take a few minutes, and then I can…”, “If I do this without complaining, I will be able to earn my allowance this week,” or, “I can listen to my music while I do this and the time will go by faster,” students were asked to draw a contrasting picture of them performing the same task, this time with new facial expression and talk- or thought-bubble and new phrase. Students excitedly shared their new phrases with each other, providing feedback and encouragement along the way.

In closing this conversation, it was noted that no one thinks positive thoughts all the time; however, we can train ourselves to identify when negative thinking begins to creep in and swap those thoughts with more positive, open-ended thinking. In essence, rewiring our brains to support a growth mindset for learning – not only in school, but in all aspects of life.

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