Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cognitive Behavior Therapy - Implications for the Elementary

I need to preface this post with the disclaimer that my understanding of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is limited, and that I am not a therapist. 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques may help educators support behavior and character development of elementary students. The National Associate of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (NACBT) ( states, "Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events.  The benefit of this fact is that we can change the way we think to feel / act better even if the situation does not change." 

While the NACBT applies this methodology of problem-solving to adolescents, I think that we elementary educators can benefit from understanding this process. CBT is most commonly used when dealing with people who have moved beyond the concrete operations phase of cognitive development. The concrete operations phases typically occurs from age 7-12 (Child Development Institute As children reach the next phase of cognitive development, formal operations, they are able to reason more abstractly. 

I believe that a key piece in building students' ability to manage their behavior and choices comes with the development of empathy. Vygotsky's viewpoint regarding the development of empathy was different from Piaget (The Brain From Top to Bottom "Because young children could not imagine the [physical] viewpoint of someone on the other side of a table, Piaget concluded that they are incapable of empathy. But in later experiments that gave children the same age the chance to imagine social situations rather than spatial ones, the results were quite different." This is a key understanding for elementary educators regarding student behavior, and why I think that parts of CBT are applicable to elementary students as they learn about behavior and choices. 

Elementary students tend to demonstrate organized, logical thought, which consists of concrete problem-solving. When you pair this with empathy development, their ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes, skilled questioning can assist students in exploring alternate solutions to problems, and considering actions and consequences. 

Here are some tenets of CBT which I believe elementary educators can utilize to help students with behavior development (
  • If we are upset about our problems, we have two problems -- the problem, and our upset about it. This often happen with children. Not only are they upset about the problem, but they're upset about being in trouble about the problem.
  • Therapists (in our case, educators) often ask questions.  They also encourage their [students] to ask questions of themselves, like, "How do I really know that those people are laughing at me?"  "Could they be laughing about something else?" 
  • CBT Therapists do not tell their clients what to do -- rather, they teach their clients how to do. Much of behavior development in small children is about learning how to have different responses. This includes planning for and practicing different responses. The least effective response to any problem is to "ignore it."
  • CBT is based on the scientifically supported assumption that most emotional and behavioral reactions are learned.  Therefore, the goal of CBT is to help [students] unlearn their unwanted reactions and to learn a new way of  reacting.  The educational emphasis of CBT has an additional benefit -- it leads to  long term results.  When people understand how and why they are doing well, they know what to do to continue doing well. 
  • Often, we upset ourselves about things when, in fact, the situation isn't like we think it is.  If we knew that, we would not waste our time upsetting ourselves. Therefore, the inductive method encourages us to look at our thoughts as being hypotheses or guesses that can be questioned and tested.  If we find that our hypotheses are incorrect (because we have new information), then we can change our thinking to be in line with how the situation really is.
Even small children want the skills and power to make good choices. At the lowest level, they want to make choices that keep themselves from getting "in trouble." Using good questioning to guide students through problem-solving about scenarios and endings is a solid methodology. I believe this process will support students' cognitive development and promote positive behavior in school.

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