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Helping Students Connect the Dots: Thoughts, Feelings, & Behaviors

Part of creating a healthy classroom climate is acknowledging that we’re all in the same boat. None of us is immune to life’s challenges, and we all need help once in a while. In this section, we provide tools to help students recognize the connection between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and develop healthier ways of coping. These activities are designed to be used with the whole class, but can easily be adapted for use in one-on-one discussions if necessary. 

The concepts discussed here are grounded in an evidence-based approach called Cognitive Behavioral Theory, or CBT. We’ve included a brief discussion of the cycle of situations, thoughts, feelings and behaviors on which this approach is based, to provide a bit of context. But as we note throughout this website, you are not being asked to take on the role of therapist.  

Why is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helpful?

CBT is based on the idea that how we feel and what we do are colored by the way we think. Because we have the ability to change the way we think, we can learn how to have better control of our feelings and our actions.

Recognizing the Cycle

From time to time, all of us struggle with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are unproductive or detrimental, and we all find it difficult at times to muster the motivation to take the action needed to interrupt our troublesome outlook and replace it with a healthier, more positive one. Why do we do the things we do?  Mental health professionals sometimes describe behaviors as resulting from a cyclical process:

Simply put, a situation arises, and we have thoughts about the facts of that situation; those thoughts trigger feelings, and based on those feelings we engage in behaviors which in turn impact the situation (either positively or negatively), and the cycle continues.

Here's an example

Are we doomed to repeat our cycles?

While at first it may seem that, as creatures of habit, we can do little to interrupt these cycles, that’s not the case. There are proven methods to intervene at various points in the cycle and change the trajectory. The exercises in this section are designed to help students learn to identify troublesome cycles and employ straightforward interventions to head in a healthier direction. There are exercises specific to each phase of the cycle. As you’ll read below, the exercises focusing on the behavior phase are grounded in a subcategory of CBT called Behavioral Activation (BA). BA focuses on breaking the cycle of inactivity that can keep us unmotivated and “stuck.” Although grounded in evidence-based theory, BA is not therapy; its practical skill building.

You can use any of these exercises one-on-one with a student, or try them with your whole class together. 

Situations: 

We all receive messages about a given situation – both messages from others and messages we send ourselves. The more clearly we can label these messages, the less likely they are to drive the cycle in an unhealthy direction.

Thoughts

We can retrain our brains to identify automatic thoughts which can be negative or unhelpful, interrupt them and replace them with more constructive coping thoughts.

Feelings:

Learning to name and rate our moods and cultivating mindfulness can help us to connect to our emotions, rather than being dictated to by them. Relaxation techniques can help ease the feelings of stress and anxiety that can keep us stuck in unhealthy behaviors.

Behaviors:

When we are down, we tend to be less active; the less we do, the less we want to do, and the more we continue to feel down. Behavioral Activation (BA) techniques like those in the exercises below force us to interrupt that cycle by doing something, even if we aren’t motivated to do anything. As experience shows, we eventually begin to see benefit from (or even enjoy) the activity, and our motivation to continue it (along with a more positive outlook) “catches up,” starting a new, healthier cycle.