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Parent Coach: Classroom
Coaching Part I: Developing Constructive Internal Language
Dr. Steven Richfield
School is one of the most potent
influences upon the social and emotional development of our children.
Peer pressures, teacher evaluations, academic challenges, and a host of
other forces await our kids everyday. These forces shape children's
evolving repertoire of life skills in a variety of ways. Sometimes the
impact is favorable; for example, warm and healthy friendships can spur
the continued growth of empathy, perspective-taking, and mutuality. On
the other hand, the potential negative impact of teacher criticism or
peer rejection can threaten academic motivation and self-acceptance.
While it is reasonable for parents to try to shield youngsters from the
negative influences of school, teachers and guidance counselors are in
the best position to do so.
In my role as child psychologist I am often in contact with the teachers
and school counselors of those children I treat. I try to share my
understanding of my patients so as to "lengthen the shelf
life" of therapeutic intervention. Often there are certain school
requirements and triggers that children do not possess adequate skills
to manage, i.e., sharing attention, complying with rules, containing
energy, accepting critical feedback, being the object of teasing, etc.
Teachers and counselors are eager to help and receptive to my
suggestions for school-based intervention. When I explain my coaching
model and Parent Coaching Cards, they invariably ask how such coaching
might be implemented in the school. This article will discuss one of the
major points that I have offered in response to this question.
The overriding goal of my work with all children, and AD/HD kids in
particular, is to teach them emotional and social skills for successful
coping. My coaching model leans heavily upon empowering one's
"thinking side" and strengthening one's watch over the
"reacting side. One critical way this is accomplished is through
the development of constructive internal language. Internal language is
what we silently think to ourselves. It takes on a constructive quality
when it is used in the service of coping with life demands.
Unfortunately, many children are more accustomed to using internal
language as a release valve when faced with challenge, rather than as a
pathway to effectively contend with challenge. For example, when various
school pressures build up, students are more likely to think or say to
themselves, "this is awful...I can't do this...I'll never make a
friend, etc." These internal statements may temporarily relieve
pressure by projecting responsibility and forfeiting participation. But,
in the long run, they just perpetuate problems by drawing a child away
from the construction of solutions.
Children can be coached in how to use their internal language in all
phase of emotional and social skill building. The school is the ideal
place to conduct such coaching due to the presence of demands and the
support of teachers and counselors. One of the first steps is to help
children identify their constructive internal language. It may be
referred to as their "helpful thinking voice" to distinguish
it from some of the self-defeating thinking that goes on in children's
minds. Teachers or counselors might explain that the "thinking
voice" helps to solve problems and make good decisions while the
"unhelpful voice" can actually make problems worse or lead to
bad decisions. An example can make this clear:
Suppose a boy sat down to do his worksheet of ten problems and realized
that he could not do three problems on the page. Two thoughts come to
A. "This is impossible, I'll never get a good mark on this. Why
even bother trying?"
B. "Well, just because I can't do these three doesn't mean I
shouldn't try my best."
"A" can be characterized as the "unhelpful voice"
and "B" as the "helpful thinking voice."
Next, children might be presented with the following dichotomy to
reinforce their understanding:
IN RESPONSE TO ACADEMIC CHALLENGE
Helpful Thinking Voice: "This looks hard and probably even too hard
for me to do…but I'll never know unless I try. I'm going to take it
step by step and just forget about how hard it is so I can keep myself
Unhelpful Voice: "This looks hard and probably even too hard for me
to do…I'm definitely not going to be able to do it. I hate this kind
of stuff and can't see why we have to learn it."
IN RESPONSE TO SOCIAL CHALLENGE
Helpful Thinking Voice: "They don't like me and I don't like the
way they are treating me. Maybe I'm different from them and they can't
deal with that. Or, maybe they just don't really know me yet, and
they'll change their minds when they get to know me better."
Unhelpful Voice: They don't like me and I don't like the way they are
treating me. They're idiots and I feel like smashing them. If they say
one more thing to me, I'm definitely going to make them pay for what
they're doing to me."
IN RESPONSE TO EMOTIONAL CHALLENGE
Helpful Thinking Voice: "Things didn't work out…again. This is
getting really frustrating. It's hard to understand why it's happened to
me this time. Maybe somebody else can help me figure it out. Who should
Unhelpful Voice: "Things didn't work out…again. Why does this
always happen? This is so unfair. I can't believe it. I don't deserve
it. Why me?"
Most children will recognize how in each example, the initial thoughts
are identical, but the resulting internal dialogue is completely
contrary. Discussion then focuses on the imaginary scenarios that might
lead to each one of these examples, and the specific phrases that each
voice utilizes. In the case of the helpful thinking voice, words and
phrases such as "step by step," "maybe" and
"hard to understand" are offered to stress the importance of
plotting a strategy to cope, making the option of change seem viable,
and expressing the quest to make sense out of circumstances. In
contrast, words and phrases such as "definitely,"
"hate," idiots," "feel like smashing them,"
"always," and "unfair" reveal the emotionally
charged and absolute thinking of the unhelpful voice.
The helpful thinking voice examples also demonstrate the attempt to
construct solutions to the problems faced by the child in question. In
the academic challenge, the child adopts a strategy of minimizing
awareness of difficulty. In the social challenge, the child adopts the
perception of things changing for the better in the future. In the
emotional challenge, the child decides to pursue helpful consultation.
Once children grasp the importance of constructive internal language
they will be better able to benefit from the school-based coaching of
social and emotional skills. Future articles will address the next steps
in that progression.
Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. His
column appears monthly. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social
skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of
homes and schools throughout the world. He can be contacted at http://www.parentcoachcards.com