What you think is what you feel (WUTIWUF)!

An important component of positive psychology is recognising how our thoughts affect how we feel and in turn what we believe about ourselves and the world that we live in.  The diagram below helps us understand how each process feeds into the other.


    Thought                             Feeling                               Belief

I think I am worthless             I feel worthless                         I am worthless

I think I am a bad person        I feel I am a bad person            I am bad

I think teachers hate me        I feel teachers hate me          Teachers hate me

It is important for us to realise that these negative thoughts and the amount of attention that we give to them cause them to grow in intensity.  The brilliant thing though is that this process is reversible and we can change our beliefs by challenging them. If we interrupt the negative self-talk, start being kinder with our thinking or distracting ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and beliefs will also change over time and become psychologically healthier.

As active adults in children and young people’s lives it is important that we recognise that our thoughts, feelings and belief cycle can lead to positive and negative behaviours.  Any young people who are presenting with challenging behaviours are likely to have an undercurrent of negative thoughts that drive their negative behaviour choices.  By engaging in positive dialogue with a young person even when they are being difficult can divert the negative thought cycle which is currently hijacking their cognitions.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  •  See negative behaviour as a mirror to the young person’s perceptions of either themselves or the situation.  This knowledge can help us to respond with compassion even in the most extreme situations
  • When a young person is behaving in a way that is inappropriate make it very clear what you are wanting from them and why. However it is also hugely important to remind them that you see them as better than the behaviour that they are presenting, children with emotional and behavioural issues need to be reminded that your expectations of them are high not low
  • Challenge negative thinking whenever you hear it. Young people can make start to progress from insight but it is the doing things differently that is the magic to positive change.  By helping our children understand the process we can guide them to a journey of self-discovery and autonomy
  • If young people appear to be engaging in negative self-talk then suggest that they distract that thinking or reduce the amount of time they spend engaging with it
  • Recommend that young people engage in a positive self-talk dialogue in order to off-set the negativity

The Psychology of verbal interaction

Communication is the basis of human and non-human interaction and we can all communicate with a touch or a sound, a look or a symbol, a word or a sentence and also by doing or saying nothing at all. Communication can be verbal and non-verbal and the meaning is best conveyed when all the cues are expressed in synchronicity, however when it involves young or inexperienced communicators, whose views and beliefs are being shaped and attention is hard to channel, verbal communication plays a more influential part.

There are four basic styles of communication, knowing and managing which can drastically change the quality of the interaction and lead to positive results:

The Dominant/Assertive Style

The Submissive Style

The Aggressive Style

The Passive Style

The quality of the style can move along the scale and fluctuate during the conversation, however it’s the ability to pull one’s subconscious impulse into the intended direction.

By being consistent and assertively dominant in the dialogue we can evoke a gradual response of mirroring the pace and tone, subsequently leading to agreeableness and more mindful and conscious interaction. When both opponents start slipping into the same style of the verbal expression driven by the flow of the increasing intensity of the emotion, the quality and purpose of the communication becomes distorted and argument escalates to the extent of unnecessary strain for both parties. Or, if it’s taken the opposite way – subsides and parties just give up in a futile attempt of being understood.

A good understanding of these styles of communication help us learn how to react most effectively when confronted with a difficult person or argumentative child or young person. It also helps us recognise when we are not being assertive or not behaving in the most effective way. Remember, we always have a choice as to which communication style to use. Being assertive is usually the most effective, but other styles are, of course, necessary in certain situations – such as being submissive when under physical threat (a mugging, hijacking etc.). it is highly important to observe and adjust your style according to the situation. Focus on the main goal – to get our children and young people to hear what we are saying and absorb the information to hopefully make the right choice. By guiding them into the right mode/style of communication through adapting ours is the first step to achieving this.

Remember the first rule of effective communication: The success of the communication is the responsibility of the communicator and it is down to us as significant others in lives of our children or young people to take the lead when it comes to maintaining or bringing the communication back to the resourceful zone.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Use positive and inspiring words and affirmations in any interaction with the young person, consciously paying attention and verbally expressing understanding of their response and feelings
  • Be clear, specific and reassuring in any given praise or any arising argument
  • Replace DON’Ts with Do’s – i.e. “Don’t get upset/agitated– It’s ok to feel that, but think of…”; Don’t say that – please choose another word”
  • Mindfully observe any escalation of your own emotion to be able to appropriately manage it, remember you want a child to mirror you, not other way round
  • Consciously adapt and manage your communication style to foster fertile ground for the perception of the information evoking positive intended change
  • Be as specific as you can in order to convey your message the way you would like it to be perceived, shape up the information to be presented in detail avoiding assumptions from the other party and thus any possible misinterpretation and misunderstanding
  • It is very important for us as adults, teachers, life coaches and significant others in the life of a young mind to stay calm and consistent; to be able to get that vital message across to inspire change for better. By maintaining our position on the same level of the scale we show respect and at the same time confidence in our beliefs, giving a positive example to a young person. Remember, in any conflict a young opponent’s response is subconscious and driven by raw emotion, they express themselves their best way to let you know how they feel in the way they know, the way that has worked for them so many times before, but for us it may be really confusing and seem to mean purposeful manipulation or misbehaviour.

Supporting children with hindered Emotional Development & raising Self-esteem

Emotional development begins with the fundamental stages of being and doing.  These stages are essential for young people to have a sense of self and feel that they are capable to apply themselves and learn.



Gaps in emotional growth

(non-typical development)







Affirmations needed from Teachers, Parent/carer to child


Healthy emotional growth

(typical development)


Developmental block =

don’t be active, don’t do


·         Passive, quiet, holds back

·         Struggles to settle and engage

·         Responds with extremes










Emotional need = stimulus


ü You can explore we will keep you safe

ü You can try things as many times as you need

ü You can be interested in everything

ü I love watching you grow and learn



·         Curious, creative, use their initiative

·         Active, easily stimulated, enjoy sensory experiences

·         Enjoy being involved & experiment-ing



Developmental block = Don’t exist,don’t be, don’t trust

·         Withdrawn,nervous, scared of change,

·         Does not recognise own needs, does not call for care

·         Repeated oral behaviours





(birth -6 months)


ü Emotional need = contact

ü I’m glad you are here

ü You belong

ü Your needs are important to me

ü You can feel all of your feelings

ü We want to care for you


·         Confident & trusting

·         Embraces new experiences and relationships

·         Aware of own needs, signals any distress, asks for help

If children don’t receive the attributions required to fulfil each stage, then emotional, developmental blocks occur. As caring adults, it is important that we provide the message (attributions) to non-typically developing children & young people in order to activate stronger senses of self, and confidence to experiment and try with their

Levin’s Cycle of Emotional Development


Developmental block = don’t think


·         Oppositional to requests, acts strong and tough

·         Directive towards others

·         Demanding, pushy

·         Overreacts

·         Can feel a victim








(18months- 3 years)


Emotional need = structure


ü  I am glad you are starting to think for yourself

ü  You can say no and push the limits

ü  It’s okay to be angry but I won’t let you hurt yourself or others

ü You can know what you need and ask for help

ü You can be yourself and I will still care for you



·       Can think, express and deal with emotions

·       Understands cause and effect, basic rules

·       Can think for themselves and say no


Developmental block = don’t be who you are, don’t be you


·       Overpowering, threatening, bullying, lies

·       Low self-confidence and self-esteem

·       Boasts reputation to bolster identity






& Power

(3-6 years)


Emotional need = recognition


ü You can explore who you are and find out about others

ü You can try out different ways of using your power

ü All of your feelings are ok

ü You can learn from the results of your behaviour



·       Sound sense of self has own identity

·       Understands different roles and relationships

·       Recognises actions, behaviours and consequences in context


Developmental block = don’t make mistakes


·       Struggles with authority and rules

·       Mismatch between expectations and skills

·       Very laid back, over casual

·       Does not finish tasks










Skills & Structure

(6-12 years)


Emotional need = excitement, frequency


üIt is ok to stop and think before you respond with yes and no

üMistakes are good, they mean that you are learning

üYou can trust your instinct to decide what to do

üYou can find ways of doing things that are good for you

üYou can learn when and how to disagree

üYou can decide when to get help rather than stay distressed

üWe always want to be with you and it is okay to differ, that is when we can learn more about each other together




·       Embraces diversity and difference

·       Recognises own internal/

external structure of values/codes of conduct

·       Identifies with same sex group


Developmental block = don’t grow up


·       Engages in inappropriate risk-taking behaviours

·       Poor relationships

·       Struggles to separate










(Separation & Sexuality)

(12-18 years)


Emotional need = sex, freedom,


ü You can know who you are and learn practise skills for being independent

ü     You can develop your own relationships and interests

üYou can grow and develop in your gender role, but it is ok to still need help

ü You can adapt old skills to create new ways

üWe are excited by who you will become as an adult

üWe trust that you will ask for support when you need it


·       Enjoys being who they are

·       Embraces independence

·       Developing a confident sexual identity

·       Engages in challenges and new experiences



learning in the classroom.


As parents and we can support a young person’s emotional development and self-esteem through our words, actions, reassurance, appropriate expectations and praise.


If we marry this evidence on emotional development with Maslow’s Pyramid of need, we can also see that these two emotional blocks could also hinder other aspects of personal growth.  Feelings of safety (high levels of anxiety) and furthermore sense of belonging and self-esteem which ultimately prevents young people from feeling that they are capable of learning.

Maslow’s Pyramid of Need

Little actions that can help in a big way!


  • Choose some attributions from the lists and incorporate them in to your approach with non-typically developing children
  • Nudge young people into embracing learning with lots of reassurance and in bite size stages
  • Make mistakes an acceptable part of learning. Many young people don’t attempt work not because they can’t do it, but because they are terrified of failing
  • Keep your expectations high but realistic, give the message that you believe in each child and young person
  • Find things that a child or young person can feel proud of. This internalises actions and associates them with a feeling.  This feeling of pride and achievement then act as a hook to hang further praise
  • Praise and then praise some more

Understanding Emotional Development

Typically developing children naturally progress through the different stages of emotional development and become confident, trusting, accepting young people who embrace diversity and become independent learners.  However emotional development involves many complex stages which can be hindered with inconsistent parenting, lack of sensitivity or nurture, and or difficult life events.

This table shows how typically developing children mature emotionally when compared to non-typically children.  This process begins from birth and matures across the lifespan to age 18. However the first 5 stages occur between the ages of 0 and 12 years.  From the table you will recognise how some young people you teach become stuck in various developmental stages along the way, power & identity being the most common area which typically occurs between the ages of 3 & 6 years, though I know many 14 year old boys who are still presenting in this stage as you may do too!  It becomes apparent that age isn’t just a number for some of our students; it is a state of emotional development.


Hindered emotional development, also negatively impacts on many other psychological concepts including moral reasoning and self-regulation.  When children and young people feel that they not making the right choices, like their peers, this also affects self-esteem and in turn resilience which highlights how important this area is for young people’s engagement in learning and quality of life.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Apply a nurturing ethos for children and young people
  • Listen without judgement
  • Ask rather than tell
  • Reiterate do’s rather than don’ts
  • Be very clear about instructions and sanctions as this allows children and young people take up time to process what will happen either way and supporting correct behaviour choices
  • Celebrate mistakes as part of the learning process and use them to educate when possible even when applying sanctions
  • Use language carefully “I don’t care about why you were late” to a child or young person means “I don’t care about you”
  • Find the good whenever you can and praise as much as possible
  • Keep your expectations high and nudge them towards the behaviour that you require through positive modelling
  • Remember that young people rarely remember what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel


The importance of being in the present moment – mindfulness.

Many young people struggle with life events and growing up which can leave them in a heightened state of mental and emotional pre-occupation.  This can be based on weakened relationship issues, traumatic life events, temperament types or experiencing difficult times. These issues can drive underlying negative perceptions and a pre-occupied mind-set based in the past or an apprehension of the future. Research suggests that this on-going mental dialogue can occur at a rate of up to 1200 words a minute, which as imagined can impact on personal choices, and the ability to focus on the here and now which then affects the ability to make choices and learning.

When people are suspended in the upset of the past or in a ‘fortune telling’ perception of the future, they miss out on the ability to see what is happening around them now. By recognising small day to day things i.e. a welcoming smile, some positive feedback, the fact that you feel OK today or the deliciousness of your lunch can aid to support positive emotional and psychological well-being by grounding ourselves in the present.  Teaching children to be in the present and to notice the good that is around them can foster improved self-esteem, the development of resilience and an increased ability to learn.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • When you engage with young people in a positive way, ask them how that act makes them feel as this grounds them in the present and connects them with the here and now which can lead to more reflective practice
  • When giving positive feedback about work, behaviour or attitude, use more specific language rather than it being just being good, e.g. “I really like the way that you came in to the classroom today it was really mature.”  This extended discourse reconnects the young person with the present
  • If young people appear to be pre-occupied gently bring them into the present moment with a positive comment, or a question about their day ensuring that they are back in the moment

Help young people understand the importance of taking time throughout the day to ground them in the moment. By modelling this behaviour children and young people can learn to ‘smell the roses!’

Positive Psychology and its impact on Well-being!

Positive Psychology is a relative new field in psychology terms and has only been around for approximately 30 years. The concept is that if we do not recognise and value key positive traits within our lives, it impacts negatively on mental health and well-being. The two most important positive psychological traits that we all need to check-in with and register as often as possible are gratitude and hope.

Gratitude is important as it keeps us in tune with things that are valued and important in our lives. It is interesting how we teach children to say thank you from a very early age, however this is just a word. Gratitude is a state of mind which supports self-esteem in the fact that we feel valued due to the recognition of the important things around us. In neuroscience terms learning to become mindfully grateful releases the same chemicals in the brain as a prescribed anti-depressant. So by activating a grateful mindset can have huge effects on the brain and improved mood and well-being.

Hope is also essential as it lights the future with positivity. Depression is most often associated with feelings of hopelessness as the person involved cannot see anything good ahead. In the work that we do with children and young people it is essential that we encourage hope at all times. This is not about being overly optimistic as that can alienate real feelings by suggesting that things can be changed quickly. Instilling feelings of hope is about high-lighting future possibilities and helping children recognise their role in creating their own positive future through motivational support.

By understanding the value of these key psychological concepts you will hopefully begin to reflect on your dialogue with young people in your care and see the difference that the application of positive psychology can make. Don’t forget to register any positive changes and be grateful for the small differences that happen for you, the young people and the developmental and well-being changes that are happening for everyone involved.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Listen to what children and young people are saying and incorporate hopeful dialogue whenever possible
  • Stop and think before you engage in any difficult dialogue. If what you are saying isn’t helping them, teaching them or making them feel better question as to whether you need to say it
  • Provide praise as often as possible as this fosters gratitude. When providing praise ask them how it makes them feel. Then suggest that they lock it away inside them so that can go back to it when they need to feel something lovely. This instils feelings of value which accelerates a grateful mind-set

Do you pass the test that children and young people set?

Working with children and young people can be one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet or one of the most frustrating and difficult!  When we, as the active adults working with tomorrows adults feel that our relationship is collaborative and strong, there is mutual respect and everything is pretty much going as we would like it to be, which can bring out our best qualities allowing us to be more than a parent, carer, teacher, a life coach guiding and nudging them into a more positive adulthood.

This formula becomes almost self-satisfying with regards to typically developing children and young people. However…we also have kids, who are more complex, needing more guidance and nudging than their more developed peers. These are the children who can alter the equilibrium of the ideal environment. These young people can at times bring out the worst in us and trigger feelings of frustration, inadequacy and resentment.

This is where the test comes in!

All children and young people are learning every minute of every day (though it might not always be on the things that you need them to be on!)  They are learning from all of us all the time. They are seeking out knowledge on interaction, relationships and emotions. They are observing who makes them feel good, why people might make them feel bad and all the while creating a perceived image of their world around them. You contribute to that image. Some of us will splash on colour, warmth, belief. Sometimes we might be responsible for adding blander shades, or unconsciously delaying developing scenes.  When children are having a difficult moment or day, their behaviour becomes your test.

They will wonder if you are going to write them off maybe like other people have done in the past. They want to see if you are going to react in the same way that other people have done at times. They desperately hope that you will be different. Kids want you to pass. By passing the test we teach our students an alternative. We begin to create changes in the brain that support emotional development. We change how kids think and feel. Sometimes as adults we think one of our major roles is to educate our children and young people through words. However in years to come, our children will forget what we said to them, but they will never forget how we made them feel. How we make children and young people feel becomes the test. So… do you pass the test?


Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Accept that kids are kids and that the perfect environment can exist when kids feel happy, loved and safe
  • Don’t let your negative perceptions about what and why a child or young person is doing what they are doing change how you present. Remember they want you to pass
  • See our children as future adults. If an adult or colleague did something that upset or offended you how might you approach it with them? Would it be different to how you challenge a child? If so how could it be different?
  • Incorporate transactional analysis into how you interact with children. If you converse with them with you in authoritarian adult, they are more likely to kick against it as a distressed child. Interact as a supportive adult and you will communicate with their inner adult role which is more likely they will hear what you are saying as you make them feel respected

Children who feel little value about themselves

Many children and young people could be dealing with, on daily basis, feelings of unworthiness and a lack of personal value.  This factor could be influenced by external issues, the quality of relationships in the young person’s life or within child issues such as temperament and personality, and can usually be a little bit of all. Most children who feel things most deeply are those who are in fact the most sensitive and so not only hurt the easiest, but also struggle to bounce back from difficult life events. Regardless of the reasons, we as the active adults in each child’s life have a role to play in adding some currency to each young person and in turn, improving their sense of wellbeing and worth.

Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Improving the value of a young person takes time
  • Every smile, positive comment, engaging conversation, listening if they are upset, comforting gesture if you know they seem unhappy, asking “How are you today”, second of forgiveness even if your last interaction was a nightmare, gives these young people a currency which fosters feelings of worth
  • We have all felt saddened when a child or young person shows total refusal to stop a behaviour when asked but then someone else can ask and they do it straight away! The words exchanged are about 5% of the action; the quality of interactions prior to this event is the other 95%. A child who feels little about themselves will not want to let you down as you make them feel different, make them feel ok and that means the world
  • Praise must be specific, saying “that is good” does not register as they do not usually feel good at or about anything. By being specific i.e. “I really like the way that you have……” the young person is less likely to reject this praise
  • Try it and see. Set yourself a personal challenge to engage positively with children and young people, even if you act it at the beginning, the results for you will make it worthwhile over time. Win win!

Celebrating mistakes as part of the learning philosophy

Many of the young people who are referred to me have delayed emotional development and usually low self-esteem. These two factors interfere hugely with how a child or young person views mistakes.

As many of you will be aware, acknowledging and recognising mistakes can be difficult.  However the impact of those mistakes on our well-being can be affected by many variables i.e. how we are feeling about ourselves, the ratio of successes to mistakes, how we were informed/found out about the mistake.  So even with a sound level of self-esteem and self-confidence mistakes can cause us to wobble emotionally.  However a period of self-reflection most often motivates us to learn from the experience and hopefully not make that same mistake again in the future.  This process supports resilience.

With this in mind we now need to draw out attention to children and young people who are not at the same level. Mistakes mean only one thing and that means failure.  Not failure in the task or behaviour choice, it represents failure in them as a person.  They are the mistake, they are a failure. This perception creates a negative spiral that does further damage to self-esteem, self-confidence and longer term resilience.

Now for the psychology bit!  Learning and understanding that mistakes are an essential element of learning is a crucial component of the emotional development stage “Skills and Structure” which is formulating between the ages of 6 & 12 years.  For children and young people to move through these crucial years and also to embrace the following stage of Integration (12-18 years) then mistakes need to be a natural part of the learning process that fosters development and not a learning inhibitor.

As the active adults in our children lives we need to be celebrating mistakes as they confirm that young people are learning.  All learning works on theory that learning builds.  The Zone of Proximal Development supports this concept.  Children and young people learn, with in a margin based on what they already know.  This opens up a whole new realm of understanding and potential mistakes.

Please share this understanding with your children and celebrate the mistakes that you are all going to experience together, because that means we are learning.  A maths teacher who provided a class with simple addition calculations and everyone got them correct has not actually taught the class anything!

Please embed a ‘celebrating mistakes’ philosophy into your parenting in order to support your children to achieve academically and emotionally.


Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Share your mistakes – be the mistake champion (well you are the oldest!)
  • Acknowledge mistakes as a positive and reiterate that it mean that they are learning
  • Welcome questions as that shows that children and young people are engaged and questioning highlights learning

Incorporate mistakes into together time, “Who has made a mistake today?” and celebrate them

Acceptance and how it supports positive mental health

Many children and young people struggle with accepting certain situations or circumstances in their life which in turn affects mental health and quality of life.  Many conversations follow a pattern with regard to an incident whereby the young person was unable to accept the situation, request or sanction.

Sometimes this is because they feel the world is against them and the act confirms to them that they are rubbish. For some they struggle to accept as they have learned to believe that they are/need to be against the world which fuels blame and underpins feelings of injustice and anger.  Both outlooks reflect low self-esteem, and poor psychological well-being. One outlook drives a perceived sense of failure, the other that they have not got the internal strength to face up to their part in the situation.

As active adults we also need to accept that some young people in our lessons are not as developed as their peers and so some of their behaviours or learning needs will appear more demanding and challenging.  We must also recognise and accept that this is not always a sign of that young person deliberately acting in the way that they do in order to annoy, upset or damage the quality of your relationship.  Non-typically developing children need to be coached and nudged through a consistent modelling approach in the direction that you would like them to be within your caring environment (not always the door!).


Little actions that can help in a big way!

  • Acceptance plays a crucial role in positive mental health, well-being and quality of life for children, young people and adults
  • Children do not always understand what this term means when used in day to day situations. By helping young people grasp that acceptance means recognising that some rules are bigger than us as individuals it can remove the element of fight. An analogy that I use with children and young people sometimes is if wearing a banana on your head suddenly became compulsory school uniform.  Some young people would go with it straight away (accept it – this is a battle I cannot win), some would refuse until they had been sanctioned/conditioned into realising that wearing the banana was the only way (accept it in the end) or refuse to wear it and start a revolution that will lead to positive change for the better or accept it in the end out of motivational exhaustion!
  • Young people who have not had clear defined boundaries set out in early childhood do not always see acceptance so clearly. They need to be educated on this concept but harsh actions alone will not support behavioural change.  By explaining this concept young people will learn to see the realities of what needs to be accepted in life (ones we have little control over) and which events we have some control and the right to appeal
  • Explain to our children why we are requesting what we are. Extract the maturity and moral understanding from them rather than trying to implant it
  • Provide honest, reasonable and non-personal information to support this request. This can be easier for the young person to understand if you make the request about conduct not just you as the caring adult
  • Don’t forget long term behaviour change is not quick and is not easy. We all have to accept that some young people could be prevented from doing so due to complex within child developmental issues and/or complex external factors