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  • Writer's pictureChristine Hertz Hausman

Five Tips for More Productive & Positive Self Talk

Like it or not, we all have voices inside of our heads. These voices are a combination of all the voices we have heard through the years, the good ones and the bad. We often tune out our self talk to a steady hum in the background until moments of stress when we turn it up.

Think of a time recently when you were under stress, not necessarily bad stress, just a time when you working harder than usual.

What was your inner dialogue? Did you give useful tips and encouraging advice? Were your actions accompanied by nagging doubt and fear? In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown (author, professor and researcher extraordinaire) calls these not-so-helpful voices Gremlins. How fitting is that analogy?

The shocking thing is that we are in charge of those little voice, and when we discover we have the power to change our self talk, we can change our lives. We can also help our students develop internal voices that help them instead of holding them back. Here are five self talk tips for children and adults alike!

1. Notice superhighways of self-talk:

Critical to our understanding of self-talk is the understanding that we build neural pathways that promote the self talk we use the most. Much like highways are built on ancient paths that have been used for hundreds of years, our brains create high speed connections around our most common types of thinking. In her book, How to Stay Sane, psychoanalyst Philippa Perry references self observation as a way to change patterns of thought, stating, “...the neural pathways that promote toxicity will be used less and will gradually shrink, while those that promote empathy and awareness will grow,” (p 36). Luckily for us as teachers, the children we teach are in the process of constructing these neural pathways, and it is much less about unlearning and shrinking and much more about helping children lay down the highway in the most productive and positive place.

2. Deconstructing negative neural pathways takes time:

When we do develop negative internal chatter, and that internal chatter has become a fast moving highway, we have to first deconstruct the negative neural pathway and reroute through spoken self talk, then private speech, a more positive pathway. Only once the new positive pathway has been intentionally set, and the person repeatedly guides him or herself down it multiple multiple times, can it then become a new, better superhighway.Consider unlearning a bad habit and relearning a new one. It is never too late to make your self talk your greatest ally, and the source of the productivity and happiness in your life, it just takes plenty of practice and plenty of time.

3. Change the pronoun:

Eric Kross of the University of Michigan studied the pronouns people use when engaging in self talk. He found that when they used the pronoun “I” it often added additional stress, but that “a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects.” Kross conducted a study where he gave people only five minutes to prepare for a speech. He asked some people to address themselves as “I” and some in the third person. He found that people who addressed themselves by their name were more likely to engage in positive, support inner dialogue. By using the third person, participants were more likely to talk to themselves as a rational, caring friend, and that small distance left no voice for an emotional spiral of negativity.

4. Mantras work:

Runners have known the power of mantras for years. Often runners adopt a mantra to repeat as they run, especially when the running gets tough. In the Runner’s World article “The Magic of Mantras” sports psychologist, Stephen Walker, explains that he teaches mantras to help athletes “direct [their] mind away from negative thoughts and toward a positive experience.” The article goes on to quote David K Ambuel, a philosophy professor saying, “Indeed, the Sanskrit word "mantra" literally means "instrument for thinking." As such, these short words or phrases have long been used to focus the mind in meditation.” If runners are being taught mantras to overcome mental challenge on the course, can we not do the same in our classrooms? As with running, sometimes the biggest obstacle is our own minds.

5. Create a tool to help maintain positive self talk:

These tools can include post-it notes with quick sketches and key phrases, bookmarks, photographs with captions, checklists and tally cards. Vygotsky calls such tools mediators, something that stands as an intermediary between a stimulus (My first try did not work) and an individual response to the stimulus (Switch it up!)- we create mediators to prompt a specific response (Tools of the Mind pg 51). By sending children off from a small group or conference with a tool, we are helping them to engage and learn independently in situations that previously needed adult guidance.


This post has been adapted from A Mindset for Learning. To find out more about self talk and the book, click here.

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