Last week, we explained how to create good habits that will last throughout the school year. This week, we’re teaching how being mindful of your thoughts can change your experience in the classroom.
If you have a mindfulness practice, you may have noticed that the same kinds of thoughts repeat themselves in your mind. (If you haven’t tried a mindfulness meditation before, we have a free practice for you to try here.) If you sit in silence and become mindful of your thoughts, it will only take a few minutes before you notice your mind reviewing the same ideas, the same worries, the same problems on a loop. That’s because we get into habits of thought.
Thoughts create emotions and our emotions shape our perspective. Getting into negative habits of thought can flood our bodies with difficult emotions like stress, worry and frustration and make us perceive our jobs as teachers in a negative light, which over time can lead to burnout.
Say you’ve been struggling to support a student that has been acting out. You’ve had a few encounters this week with this student that have not gone well and they led to feelings of frustration and stress.
Now, if you wake up in the morning and begin to think worried thoughts about your day, and imagine what might go wrong again today with this student your body begins to actually create the emotions of stress and frustration as though what you’re imagining were really happening.
Now that your body is flooded with stress hormones, it tells your brain to look for signs of danger. Your mind is now expecting the day to go badly and it puts you on high alert, at the ready to defend yourself. With this perspective, you surely act differently towards this student. You’re expecting them to act out and therefore putting up a wall to defend yourself emotionally.
Have you ever watched America’s Funniest Home Videos where a dad gets hit in the stomach by his kid that’s trying to hit a piñata? Don’t you physically feel pain as you watch that poor Dad?
That’s because us humans have something called mirror neurons which allow us to feel what other people are feeling. It’s these neurons that allow us to read a room. They allow us to notice when someone is mad at us and get ready to defend ourselves and they get us to smile back at someone that smiles at us in the hallway, mirroring their kindness.
When you expect your student to act out, they can sense that – it’s a natural human superpower. And so they do. They sense you’re defensiveness and become defensive too. And now the loop is complete.
Thoughts create our emotions, our emotions create our perspective and our perspective creates our experience.
If I think negative thoughts, I feel negative emotions. Then, I perceive the negative in my surroundings (rather than noticing the positive) and I therefore have a negative experience. I’ve fulfilled the prophecy and created the experience I EXPECTED to have.
We have a lot of power over our experience, but it takes a conscious effort to train our brain and make a habit of using our thoughts to create good experiences.
We explained how our brain forms habits in detail in our last post. But let’s review the four steps of habit formation according to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits and look at how thoughts become habits.
The cue is a situation or feeling that triggers your brain to initiate a thought behaviour. It notices something in your inner or outer environment and leads to a craving for a specific reward.
Example: Your struggling student interrupts the class while you’re teaching a lesson. You feel frustrated by this disruption. This feeling of frustration leads to a craving.
The craving is the motivational force behind the habit of thinking. It’s the change in state you want to achieve.
Example: You don’t want to feel frustrated anymore. You crave feeling calm and in control. This craving leads to your brain looking for a way to achieve that feeling.
The response is the actual thought you have to satisfy your craving.
Example: You think to yourself “They don’t respect me, what’s wrong with them?” This response gives you the shift in emotion you were craving and leads to the reward.
The reward is the end goal of every habit, it satisfies your craving and/or teaches you something.
If the response satisfies your craving, you will learn that the response was worth doing again in the future and it can become a habit. However, if the response took too much energy or wasn’t satisfying enough then your brain will learn that it isn’t worth doing again in the future and will resist making it a habit.
Example: When you responded with the thoughts “They don’t respect me, what’s wrong with them?”, you’ve eased your frustration because you have something to blame it on. It gives you the sense of control you were craving.
The problem is, it didn’t satisfy your craving to feel calm. Plus, you love your students, and thinking negative thoughts about them doesn’t make you feel good in the long run and can ultimately lead to teacher burnout. Which is good, because it means you can teach your brain to choose a new thought response in the future that feels better. Once your brain sees that there’s an alternate response that feels better, it will lean towards making that your new habit of thinking.
Practicing being mindful of your thoughts is incredibly illuminating and can be huge in helping you to avoid teacher burnout. Remember, thoughts create emotions, emotions create your perspective and your perspective creates your experience. Your thoughts are at the root of it all and can create an awesome experience or a negative one no matter the situation. You can learn more about this in this podcast episode.
If you aren’t convinced that being mindful of your thoughts is super important, consider this: two people go to the same movie. One person loves it, one hates it. The movie (the neutral situation) isn’t what creates the experience, it’s the person’s thoughts ABOUT the movie that create their unique perspective and experience. This is why people can have different opinions on the same subjects.
The best way to become mindful of your thoughts is through a daily mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your thoughts and feelings with openness and non-judgement. The point here is to simply begin to notice the types of thoughts you’re in the habit of thinking. Once you’re aware of your old programming, you’re empowered to begin making changes.
Learn how to start a mindfulness practice in this episode of The Balanced Educator Podcast.
Change your thoughts, change your emotions, change your perspective, change your experience.
So, let’s look at our last example and see how we can make changes so that we actually feel better.
Download the free Thought Habit Formation Worksheet PDF that we created for you and follow along to practice creating a new thought habit.
Your struggling student interrupts the class while you’re teaching a lesson. You feel frustrated by this disruption. This feeling of frustration leads to a craving.
You don’t want to feel frustrated anymore. You crave feeling calm and in control. This craving leads to your brain looking for a way to achieve that feeling.
You notice the familiar feeling and catch the old thought. Then, you consciously choose to think a better feeling thought: “They’re having a hard time, how can I help?”. This response gives you the shift in emotion you were craving and leads to the reward.
Thinking “they’re having a hard time, how can I help?” rather than “they’re giving me a hard time, what’s wrong with them?” leads to feelings of compassion and gives you the sense of calm control you were craving because now you’re focussed on finding a solution rather than dwelling on the problem.
Not only did this response satisfy your craving of feeling calm and in control, it also taught you that this thought felt better than the old one, so your mind is more inclined to reach for this thought in future frustrating situations.
Now, let’s review what we’ve covered so that we can avoid teacher burnout by creating good habits of thought.
Use a mindfulness practice to become aware of your thought habits. (Learn how to start a mindfulness practice in this blog post or listen to this free guided mindfulness practice). Notice during your mindfulness practice how your thoughts make you feel. Soon, you’ll be better able to catch your negative thoughts during your day and choose better feeling thoughts before they snowball and lead to teacher burnout.
Use the Four Stages of Habit Formation to Create a New Thought Habit
Download this free Habit Formation Worksheet PDF to help you use the cue, craving, response, reward habit loop to change your experience in the classroom.
Know that this practice of catching thoughts that make you feel bad and switching them to better feeling thoughts is an ongoing practice. Have compassion for yourself as you practice and keep working at it. You’ll find that over time it will become a habit.
We explained the importance of repetition in habit formation in part 1 of this training series here.
We hope that this blog post has been enlightening, empowering and that it will help you to avoid teacher burnout by creating positive habits of thinking that make you feel better emotions more often.
Take what you’ve learned here a step further and integrate social-emotional learning into your classroom. Teach your students how to become aware of their thoughts and emotions and give them mindfulness strategies to manage their big emotions. We have an entire unit that teaches this to your students in our online, ready-to-use mindfulness program, Educalme Classroom!
You can try Educalme Classroom out for free at www.educalme.com.
To go even deeper on this topic, listen to our episode on The Balanced Educator Podcast below.
Be sure to subscribe to the Balanced Educator Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Play so you don’t miss our upcoming episodes as we continue to teach how to avoid teacher burnout.
The Balanced Educator Podcast episode 65: How to structure a mindfulness practice into your school day.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
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Do you think being mindful of your thoughts can change your experience in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!
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