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CBT Strategies with Elementary Students: Examining Thoughts

Our brains are powerful. And on occasion, they lie to us! Sometimes, the thoughts in our mind just aren’t true. Often, when our students are experiencing distress, it’s due to unhelpful and untrue thoughts in their minds. This means one of our jobs in working with students is to help them examine their own thoughts. We can do this by becoming ‘detectives’ searching for ‘evidence’ both for and against their thoughts. Who doesn’t want to be a detective?!

cbt strategy examining thoughts with elementary students

To start, I ask “What if I was thinking ‘All the kids at this school hate me. I’m the worst school counselor’? That thought would make me feel so sad. What if I told you I was thinking that, what would you say?” Then they usually laugh and say “no way!” I ask them why my thought is wrong, and they provide me with some reasons (they like me, they saw I’ve helped other kids before, even if 1 student doesn’t like me doesn’t mean they all don’t, etc.) Depending on the age of the student, at this point I tell them either that I’m deciding that my thought was untrue and I’m getting rid of it or I’m coming up with a more helpful and realistic thought like ‘Some of the kids might not like me, but most of them do’.

I explain here that sometimes our brains and thoughts lie to us, and when we’re feeling upset, we should be like detectives to examine our thoughts. Then I connect what we just did with my thought to doing just that, with the student helping me gather “evidence”.

If the student’s unhelpful thoughts are related to anxiety or phobias, then I sometimes also introduce this idea using the book Something Might Happen. The main character in this (very funny and silly) story has several unfounded worries that he eventually gets over.

Then I whip out my magnifying glass and together, the student and I can examine one of the character’s thoughts. Then we decide whether or not there’s evidence to support it. Here’s a super old one!

Teaching CBTto elementary, using cognitive behavior therapy to change unhelpful thoughts examples

After that, we get to the tough stuff – the student’s thought! We list their thought and then evidence both for and against it. Often, they can come up with a lot of the evidence themselves. Other times, I might provide prompts like “What would you say if it was your friend experiencing this?” or “Have there been any times when this didn’t happen/the opposite happened?”

Here’s a re-creation of one I did with a 3rd grade boy about his thoughts that his teacher hated him. When it was finished, I encouraged him to take it home and process even further with his mom.

cbt strategy examining thoughts with elementary students

There are years where I do this activity a couple of times a month. Usually, it goes as planned. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes students are ready to examine their thought(s) and sometimes they are not. It usually requires that the kiddo already have the ability to be at least slightly flexible in their thinking. I also find that this activity works best with kids that are ready to accept help for their symptoms and can accept that the situation cannot be changed. Another strategy I use with elementary students to help them understand the power of their thoughts are these CBT stories.

Here are some presenting issues that I’ve used this examining thoughts/thought detectives activity with:

  • “Something bad is going to happen to my dad”
  • “I’m going to fail”
  • “My friend is talking about me behind my back”
  • “If my mom goes outside, it means something bad is happening out there”
  • “It’s too hard for me”

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cbt strategy examining thoughts with elementary students

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and
educators!

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.