Cognitive Psychology in the Elementary Classroom

My husband Kevin has read (and improved) almost everything I’ve written in the past 15 years.  After my last post about behavior plans, which he liked very much, he had three observations: (1) I should write about the love of learning kids experience in my room, (2) teachers are surprisingly manipulative, and (3) the posts I’ve been writing are mostly about behaviorism.

To the first point: Kevin’s right.  Posts about freedom, inspiration, and love of learning coming soon!

To the second point, about manipulation: what an interesting way to put it.  Good teachers build strong bonds with their kids, develop trust, and define clear expectations and boundaries.  Do I use those strong bonds to make kids work harder than they would on their own?  Of course!  I use all the resources I have to make them want to do what I (and their parents, our district, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) want them to do.  And is that manipulation?  I suppose so, but another way to put it is that it’s an effective use of influence and motivation, always in the service of student learning and growth.  I have more thoughts on this.  Another future post!

It’s Kevin’s last (excellent) point about behaviorism that I want to write about today.  My posts have focused on what I’m thinking about right now, as we launch the school year.  And at this point in the year, B. F. Skinner himself would recognize a lot of what’s going on in my classroom.  I spend a lot of time setting up expectations and teaching kids how actions connect to logical consequences (good and bad) so that the rest of the year, we can enjoy lots of freedom, controlled chaos, the happy hum of kids learning and sharing and working together.

But a behaviorist is not all that I am, not by any measure.  Most of the time, cognitive psychology plays a much bigger role in my classroom.  Cognitive psychology explains how people think by comparing the mind to a computer.  Like a computer, we get inputs from our environment.  For example, a student is reading a book.  Those inputs get “processed” by her brain.  So, the student thinks about and tries to make sense of her reading.  The brain processes information through the “schemas” it already has that organize knowledge and information.  (To every educator reading this: yes, those schemas.  They come from cognitive psychology.)  So, the student uses their schema for the words they’re decoding, the subject matter of the book, even the other books they’ve read or things they know about the world to make sense of their reading.

As teachers, we encourage students to take this whole process a step further and be metacognitive thinkers.  To think about their thinking so they can use learning strategies more effectively.  And this is true for every subject we teach, not just reading.

I suspect (but have no proof) that cognitive psychology is at the core of many — perhaps most — of our modern beliefs about teaching and learning.

Cognitive behavior therapy (or just cognitive therapy) also has a role to play in the elementary classroom.  Cognitive therapy is often used to treat depression and anxiety (among many other disorders) and can be used in the classroom to build students’ self-esteem and self-confidence.

Cognitive therapists make a clear connection between thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.  What we think shapes what we believe (i.e. our schema).  What we believe shapes our feelings and our behavior.  So, by changing our thoughts, we can change our behaviors.

I had a student once who approached many tasks (especially writing) by freezing up and saying things like:

  • I can’t do it.
  • I don’t know how to do it.
  • It’s too hard.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I’m not smart enough to do this.

By saying this to himself over and over, the student had convinced himself this was true.  He created a loop in which, given a difficult task, he’d tell himself he couldn’t do it, he’d feel bad about himself, and then he wouldn’t be able to do it.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I decided to help the student change his thoughts, hoping that would ultimately change his feelings and his behavior.  So we kept a book that he called his “I can do it” book.  Whenever he had a negative thought about himself or his abilities, we wrote it down in the book.  Then we wrote down the positive thought we wanted to replace it with, the “positive self-talk” we wanted to encourage.  For example:

  • I can’t do it. –> I can do it.  I just need to try.
  • I don’t know how to do it. –> I’ve done things like this before.  I can figure it out.
  • It’s too hard. –> It’s hard, but I can do it.
  • I don’t understand. –> I’ll understand if I reread the directions.
  • I’m not smart enough to do this. –> I am smart.  I can do it!

If we stopped here, it would just be words.  Words are empty on their own.  What this student needed was proof.

So, after the student completed the task, we went back to the book and recorded the evidence of success: “I wrote two whole paragraphs during writing time!” or “I read the directions and knew what to do.”  We proved that the positive message was true, and the negative message was false.  Over time, it became easier for the student to remember the positive messages and say them to himself in the moment.  He developed new schema that brought about new feelings and behaviors.  By the end of the school year, he had no difficulty starting and finishing tasks that had once stopped him cold.

Unlike a behaviorist approach, cognitive therapy deals entirely with what’s going on in a child’s mind.  There aren’t external rewards and motivators.  Instead, the reward is doing something you didn’t think you could do.  And when I think about what I want kids to take with them throughout their lives, this strategy is near the top of my list.

The ability to change our thoughts, change our feelings, and change our world is a power that everyone should have.

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Psychology in the Elementary Classroom

  1. Hmmm. I have reread this post a few times. I so believe that our thoughts, connect to our words, and are filed with power. But I have never thought about how to scaffold this for a student. Great Work! I need to copy this page and put it on my clipboard. Do you have any friendly great reads you could recommend focusing on cognitive therapy?

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