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Empowering Teachers for Success: The Role of Language and Effortful Self-Talk

The Educational Coach

30 Aug 2023

Is the language you use with your students empowering their learning?

As educators, we are no strangers to the rollercoaster of a new academic year. As we reflect on the press-riddled outcomes of the 2023 cohort (Guardian, 2023) and prepare our students through another year of growth and learning, it's vital to equip ourselves with effective strategies to lead positive, energising environments for ourselves, students and colleagues.

Understanding Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)

Automatic Negative Thoughts, as defined by Beck (1976) are negative thought patterns that unconsciously infiltrate our minds, often leading to irrational, distorted, and self-critical thinking. These thoughts can contribute to negative emotions, increased stress levels, and even mental health issues.

Common types of ANTs that may affect our personal and professional lives include All-or-Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralization , Catastrophizing, and Personalization, and Labelling  (Harvard Stress & Development Lab, 2023). For more information, visit

Research led by Dr. Luskin at Stanford has shown that the average person has around 60,000 thoughts per day, with a staggering 80% of them being negative and, often, repeated daily (Be Brain Fit, 2023). This research shows chronic exposure to ANTs can impact neurotransmitter levels, brain connectivity that ultimately affect our mood, motivation, and cognitive functions.

Breaking Free from ANTs: What Can Teachers Do?

So, ahead of the new year, how can we help? The stressors teachers face are well-known (Wilhelm et al., 2000) and ever-increasing stress has been linked to a vulnerability for negative automatic thoughts (Greenwood et al., 1990). Embracing a proactive approach to combating ANTs is essential for success. Jim Kwik, a renowned brain coach, advocates for "the Killing of ANTs" through subtle changes and tweaks in our language to manipulate negative self-talk and reduce the impact of ANTs and positively influence the thought patterns of ourselves and our students.

Research by Thomaes et al. (2020) found that effortful self-talk, contextualised through telling children to try their best and work hard on tasks, benefited the performance of children holding negative competence beliefs: it severed the association between negative competence beliefs and poor performance. In a 2019 study, children who practised positive "effort-talk" (I will do my best) outperformed their peers in mathematics compared to those who practised positive "ability-talk" (I am very good at this) or no self-talk at all (Trusted Source, 2019). Prioritising effort over the outcome allows individuals to detach themselves from negative thinking about their abilities. And, so, for you as teachers and leaders, drawing inspiration from a growth mindset, championed by Carol Dweck, you can manipulate your thought patterns positively by embracing "effort-talk" and emphasising the importance of your hard work.

As we step into the 2023/24 academic year, let's break free from the grip of ANTs. By embracing the principles of educational coaching and performance psychology, we can cultivate a positive and resilient mindset that not only benefits us as teachers but also empowers our students to thrive in their educational journey. Audit your self-talk – is it as empowering as the language you use with your students?


Alban, P. (2023, February 13). Automatic negative thoughts (ants): How to break the habit. Be Brain Fit. 

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York:     International Universities Press.

Guardian News and Media. (2023, August 24). GCSE results day 2023: Higher fall in proportion of top grades in England than in other UK nations – as it happened. The Guardian.,from%2020.8%25%20to%2022%25

Hall, W. J. (2022). Identifying negative automatic thought patterns. Stress & Development Lab. 

Parkay, F. W., Greenwood, G., Olejnik, S., & Proller, N. (1988). A study of the relationships among teacher efficacy, locus of control, and stress. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 21(4), 13-22. 

Thomaes, S., Tjaarda, I. C., Brummelman, E., & Sedikides, C. (2020). Effort self‐talk benefits the mathematics performance of children with negative competence beliefs. Child Development, 91(6), 2211-2220.

Wilhelm, K, Dewhurst-Savellis, J., & Parker, G. (2000). Teacher stress? An analysis of why teachers leave and why they stay. Teachers and Teaching, 6,291-304.

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