Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a blog post published on July 2nd , 2020
Coming back to school can feel nerve-wracking. Under most other circumstances, reopening schools would be cause for celebration. But for teachers, it leaves many wondering if it’s safe or if it’s even possible to manage.
If you’re finding it difficult to focus on your children’s learning with all this stress and anxiety on your mind, you’re not alone. A good way to stop that storm of thoughts is to calm their intensity with a technique called thought challenging.
So let’s take a deep breath…
…and work through these feelings.
What is the ‘thought challenging’ technique?
Pioneered by psychiatrist Dr Aaron T Beck, thought challenging is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) technique that helps you evaluate negative, unhelpful or repetitive thoughts by using logic and reasoning.
The intent of thought challenging isn’t to replace a negative thought with a positive one. Instead, it encourages you to look at a thought or feeling from different and honest angles, and come to a balanced conclusion based on evidence. It halts a downward spiral by creating a mental stop sign, and helps you to forge new pathways of thought when up against similar scenarios.
How can I use thought challenging in my teaching practice?
Using thought challenging is very simple. You can start by addressing a thought and asking yourself some questions.
Start with a negative or unhelpful thought that you’ve been wrestling with. It could be something like, “With schools reopening, there’s too much to take care of and think about. I can’t do this.”
That is a valid feeling. There’s a lot going on right now.
But instead of submitting to this feeling, let’s see if we can temper that thought with some countering facts.
1. Ask thought challenging questions
Now that you have a thought in mind, let’s ask some questions about it.
When asking these questions, remember to be kind to yourself, but also make sure that you’re answering with facts and honesty rather than opinion or feeling.
So let’s try it:
- What are some facts supporting this thought?
- What are some facts countering this thought?
- Do I know that this thought is true, or do I just feel that it is?
- Is there anything that contradicts this thought that I’m ignoring?
- Am I coming to a conclusion that isn’t justified by evidence?
- If someone who loves me knew I was thinking this thought, what would they say about the thought? What evidence would they point out that would suggest this thought is not 100 percent true?
- If a friend were thinking this thought, what advice would I give them?
- Is this the only way to think about this? What are some other ways?
- What happened last time I was worried about this, or worried like this?
- What is most likely to happen?
- Am I taking an extreme view?
You may find it helpful to write down your answers, so you can refer back to them during the process.
2. Form a more balanced thought
Now that we’ve asked ourselves some questions, we’re likely to have some evidence that our original thought is not 100 percent true.
With this evidence, try to form a balanced thought that has weighed out the facts against the feelings. So, for our original example, “There’s too much to take care of and think about with schools opening. I can’t do this…” we might write something like:
“It is scary to come back to work during a pandemic. But it is being managed in my country, because our foremost medical professionals have greenlit schools reopening.”
“There is a lot to do and take care of. But I will have support from my school and my coworkers.”
“There have been times I have been truly overwhelmed before. But I got through it, and I will get through this too. I will have to be more careful than I usually am. But I have been practicing that level of care for months now. This is just the next step.”
3. Remember that it’s an ongoing practice
When you’re just starting out with thought challenging, it can be helpful to keep these tips in mind to help you through the process:
Practice, not perfection
Thought challenging can feel awkward, silly or forced at first. But with some time and practice, it will start to feel helpful and genuine.
One step at a time
Try to start with just one thought, rather than a series of thoughts or feelings. Limit the thought to just one sentence if you can. It will be much more manageable to challenge one thought at a time, and if necessary, you can use this technique with any related thoughts or feelings.
Record your thoughts
Writing down your thought process will help you keep track of the conclusions you’ve drawn, instead of going in circles. When you have a record of your thoughts, it’s easy to refer to it either during the thought challenging process, or down the road should you have this thought or feeling again.
Getting a handle on mental health isn’t always easy, so remember to give yourself credit. As a teacher, you’re handling quite a lot right now. Before you can focus on your learners, it’s important to focus on you.
We hope this technique helps you find the balance and strength you need to teach at your best.
Snyder, C. and Forsyth, D. (1990) Handbook of social and clinical psychology: The health perspective. Allyn & Bacon. Oxford: Pergamon Pr.