Anyone in the counseling world knows that I love CBT. I connect with it both personally and professionally and am very grateful to have been able to take a class all on CBT in grad school. My zealousness is for good reason – cognitive behavioral interventions with children are evidence-based for depressive symptoms, anxiety, and anger. While there are lots of components to CBT (I wrote about many here), my favorite part of cbt activities with kids are the cognitive counseling interventions!
Thoughts, Feelings, Actions Cycle
Especially for children still developing the skill of identifying thoughts, it’s key to help them connect their thoughts with feelings and actions. Show them how important and powerful their thoughts are! Help them understand how our thoughts are automatic – they are what comes first and what leads to our emotions and behaviors.
My go-to strategy for this is using “CBT Stories”. I wrote all about it (including some scripting of what I say) in this post but here is the gist of it: you tell a story about two kids who both encounter the same situation (a dog in the road, getting bumped in the hall, etc.) but who respond in very different ways. Together, you discuss what thoughts, feelings, and actions they have – emphasizing the importance of their thoughts.
I’ve also used this idea in class lessons and projected some of the scenarios:
With students already a little familiar with generating thoughts and identifying their importance, we use the “magic triangle” to talk through situations both proactively and reactively:
When processing these activities, it’s important to emphasize the power of the thoughts. “Why did the two kids feel differently?”, “What changed in the triangle? What caused that change?”, “How could we make this triangle go differently? What could we change to make it better?”
Something tricky about our thoughts is how quickly they pop into our heads – we’re not always aware in the moment that we’re even having a thought! You might want to validate this with the children you work with: “Our thoughts can be automatic, it’s almost like they pop into our brains without us even knowing. Sometimes we have to slow our brains down to ask ourselves ‘What am I thinking right now? What is my brain saying?'”
Helpful vs. Unhelpful Thoughts
Once kids understand the power of our thoughts, they’ll naturally start to see how some thoughts are “better” than others. I personally like to use the phrases helpful thoughts and unhelpful thoughts. There’s definitely space for using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in regards to thinking, especially if a student’s primary issue is negativity, but I think the language of ‘helpful vs. unhelpful’ is usually best. Sometimes there is no positive yet realistic way of looking at things BUT there is always a more helpful way of thinking!
This language can be tricky for students who have internalized the idea that everything good must be positive. Helping them find a flexible, balanced, and helpful way of thinking gives them a strategy to handle the tough stuff when it inevitably happens.
One activity you can do to help students identify helpful vs. unhelpful thoughts is to provide them with multiple examples and ask them to sort between the helpful and unhelpful. You can take it a step farther by having them match up pairs of thoughts after they’ve been sorted.
Another activity with thoughts that can also help with developing self-awareness is what I call “spectrum thoughts.” You present the child with two opposing thoughts and ask them to identify where on the spectrum their own thinking is.
It’s scaffolding their learning about thoughts by providing them with examples, plus it’s giving them the opportunity to identify some of their own (possibly unhelpful) thought patterns.
After you’ve begun identifying thoughts, you can start challenging some of them! Because thoughts can be automatic, we might not always be able to prevent unhelpful ones from popping into our minds. Instead what we can do is take notice of them and sort of…argue with them! That’s what I tell my students, anyways. Sometimes we can take control of our thoughts by arguing with the unhelpful ones – something that many kids are happy to hear us sanction!
Here’s a list of thought challenging questions that I’ve found most helpful with working with kids:
Another intervention is to play “thought detective.” I have a whole post about it here but the gist of it is that you take an unhelpful thought and gather evidence both for and against it before coming up with a more helpful and balanced thought. It’s extra fun if you grab a magnifying glass or any other prop to really lean into the detective idea.
And last, but certainly not least, a cognitive counseling activity to do with kids is practicing using self-affirmations. While some helpful thoughts are specific to different situations, I like to think of self-affirmations as a cognitive coping strategy you can use any time you’re in a tricky situation or experiencing distress. They can also be used proactively – sort of like loading up our mental cups with positive and helpful thoughts.
In my worry and anger group, we ended each session with a “finger touch affirmation.” You can read the directions in the picture, but basically it’s a practice of touching each finger to your thumb while saying the affirmation (usually one word per finger). This was such a hit! My students rotated each week whose job it was to pick the affirmation.
With a feelings group I did with younger students, we used this spinner to practice different affirmations. Students took turns spinning the spinner and then reading the affirmation aloud. With my kindergarteners, I whispered the affirmation first for them to repeat since they weren’t all independently reading yet.
Saying things out loud, repeating things, etc. is not inherently fun. Add a spinner? Boom, instant fun!