Learning to control your emotions in the classroom using a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model (and teach your students to do the same)
THOUGHTS CAUSE FEELINGS, NOT EVENTS
Most teachers mistakenly see what students say and do as a major cause of how they feel. That’s called having an external locus of control – they see something outside themselves as being in control of how they feel. For example, “These kids drive me crazy”. That's puts them at the seeming mercy of students and what happens, and usually results in them feeling worse than is helpful or necessary. More importantly, looking at things this way causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better.
I say "seeming mercy of" because it’s really what teachers think that makes them feel the ways they do. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Some ways teachers think about things cause them to get more upset than is necessary or helpful, and some make it harder to cope or deal with things students say and do.
The goal of this article is not to teach you how to have an internal locus of control. To learn how to do that, go to:
Or check out my website for Teacher ESP - Effectiveness and Stress Prevention at:
FOUR BASIC TYPES OF IRRATIONAL THINKING
E-motion is energy to move - it's why I like to hyphenate the word. It's intended to help us get what we want and need, and ultimately protect us from threats to our lives. Irrational simply means that the way we think causes us to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion. That means:
1) more than is helpful or necessary for the situation we find ourselves in
2) more than we want to have
3) more than we know what to do with
4) more than is healthy for us
5) a type and amount that works against us instead of for us
This is turn can cause us to behave in ways that make our lives, and perhaps the lives of others worse instead of better. Our behavior will always follow our emotions toward our life events (because e-motion is energy to move), and attitude is always the father of behavior. It never makes sense to generate needless emotion, or behave in ways that make life worse instead of better, but people do both all the time. They do that because of how they choose to think about or look at things before, while or after things happen.
Dr. Albert Ellis identified four basic ways all people think when they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, and behave in ways that make life worse for them and others. They are called Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning.
THINK-FEEL-DO THERMOSTAT MODEL
I like to teach students and teachers a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model to help them see the important connection between the way they think, and how they end up feeling, and what they end up doing. It also can helps them see and better appreciate:
1) where they are emotionally at any given moment in time
2) what effect being there has on their behavior
3) why they are there – the thinking that’s causing them to feel and do what they are
4) where they might want to be instead emotionally and behaviorally
5) and what it will take to get there – how they will need to change their thinking
Please study the diagram below first, and refer to it as I go through an explanation of how things work. Feel free to copy and paste it to your computer. Or, even use it with your students. If you’d like to create your own copy by hand, you can follow the step-by-step directions at the end of the article for creating one of your own.
HERE'S THE WAY THINGS WORK
If we set our thermostat at DON’T CARE for what kids do, it’s easy to stay CALM. There’s an old saying, “Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed”. As I noted above, e-motion is energy to move. If we’re CALM, we won’t be motivated to do anything, so this sets our DO thermostat at DO NOTHING.
I teach students and teachers some simple rules to help them navigate through daily life.
Rule #1: We all have a right to WANT, PREFER and DESIRE whatever we want to.
That means teachers have the right to want students to do what we want them to. Of course it means that students also have the right to want what they want, and we’re not always going to get what we want, at least not initually. When we don’t, if our THINK thermostat is set at WANT, PREFER, DESIRE, we’ll get FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or ANNOYED. The level we set our THINK thermostat at will determine where our FEEL thermostat gets set. Depending on the situation, we might experience SADNESS, CONCERN, REGRET or REMORSE instead. The FREQUENCY, INTENSITY and DURATION of these feelings will depend on how much or little we WANT, PREFER or DESIRE something. The more we WANT, PREFER and DESIRE something, the greater our FID of FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION or ANNOYANCE will be.
EXPECTATIONS AND EMOTIONS
Rule #2: The bigger the difference between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we’ll generate.
So if we instead set our THINK thermostat at NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND, and then don’t get what we think we need, and demand, we’ll get ANGRY (or possibly feel DEPRESSED, ANXIOUS, ASHAMED or GUILTY). The Frequency, Intensity and Duration (FID) of any feeling we generate will depend on how much we think we NEED something, think it's a NECESSITY, and DEMAND it. The more we think we NEED something, the more often we'll get upset, the more upset we'll get, and the longer it will last.
DEMANDING OBEDIENCE INSTEAD OF INVITING COOPERATION
Teachers will often turn their THINK thermostat up from simply wanting, preferring and desiring student cooperation to thinking they need student obedience, it’s a necessity, and demanding it. It’s easy for us to do because we’ve had adults model doing so with us as children so many times in our past. Children learn what they live. We'll have cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" in our brains from watching and listening to our own parents. These "ruts" will be easy to slip into when we find ourselves in their place either as a parent or teacher. It often surprises adults how much they end up sounding like their own parents when given their first chance to be one. Teaching can cast you in many of those same scenes. Turning our THINK thermostats up this way won’t ever change what students have already done, but it does set us up for getting more upset than is helpful or necessary after the fact when students do things we don’t like and don’t want them to. Doing so can also provoke more of the behavior we don't like in the future.
RESPONDING VS. REACTING
If we get FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or ANNOYED (or CONCERN), we'll have energy to move, but we’re still free to RESPOND in the best possible way. We're still relativvely free to consider consequences before acting, to access and act on helpful advice we've been given, to draw from our own and others experiences, and to let our values and morals guide us.
But if we get ANGRY (or ANXIOUS), we’re more likely to REACT, or even OVERREACT. That’s the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to our lives. ANGER is half of our fight or flight response. ANXIETY is the other half. The ANXIETY often comes first and is quickly followed by ANGER, and it's easy for the ANXIETY to quickly morph into ANGER - for us to be ready to lash out at the student.
But what students do rarely rises to the level of being a real threat to our lives, so ANGER is usually much more emotion than is helpful or necessary. It’s the equivalent of emotional nitroglycerin, and just as hard to handle as the real nitro always was in those old cowboy movies. Think of the dilema of Dr. David Banner when he "hulks out" and become the Incredible Hulk. That's a perfect metaphor for what happens to anyone who gets angry. That's what nature intended for us to have emotional nitroglyerin to deal with real threats to our lives, but it can make otherwise smart teachers do stupid things with, or to their students. It’s why I call anger a teacher’s #1 enemy of effectiveness.
Rule #3: When someone starts to think they need things they simply want, and starts to demand what they simply desire, it can make an otherwise smart person do stupid things
YouTube is full of videos of teachers doing just that thanks to student cell phone cameras. Teachers do stupid things because they get angry. Anger makes otherwise smart, well-trained people do stupid things, no matter what profession their in, or role they're playing.
A SIMPLE RULE FOR TEACHING
One of my rules for dealing with things I didn’t like was: There’s two ways to make something you don’t like worse. Do nothing or overreact to it. Most teachers and parents do the latter with kids.
The problem is that people can, and often do needlessly imagine threats where they don’t exist, or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. A student talking back to us is not a threat to our lives in any way. However, teachers can raise it to that level by the way they choose to look at things. They do that by turning their THINK thermostat from WANT, PREFER, DESIRE up to NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND. Sometimes they even wrongly equate things they simply WANT, PREFER, DESIRE with true biological needs like air, water and food in their minds. For example, “This kid NEEDS to show me respect”, meaning like I need air, water and food. No, actually he doesn't, and some kids won't. And you don't NEED his respect like you need air, water and food. If teachers did, we would have lost thousands of teachers on the job by now.
As noted above, if in our own minds we demand obedience instead of simply wanting cooperation, it can influence our behavior in ways that might even provoke more of the behavior we don’t like in some students. For example, we are more likely to use YOU Messages like "Sit down and be quiet" instead of I Messages like "I'd like you to sit down and please be quiet". Some students are more likely and quicker to rebel against anything adults ask them to do. They often have the "mistaken" goal of power and control, or even revenge. Demand obedience with them and it invites them to do the opposite, and that satisfies their "mistaken" goals, especially when we get angry at them for doing so. If they think they made us mad, it gives them a false sense of power and control, and even revenge against us.
PERCEIVED NEEDs TRUMP RATIONAL PREFERENCES
Rule 4: Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived need will trump behavior intended to satisfy a rational preference.
A rational preference for any teacher would be to want, prefer or desire to get along with their students. It certainly makes the job easier, less stressful and more rewarding when we do. However, if you also have perceived needs like "They need to/have to show me respect. They need to/have to/should do what I say. They can't/shouldn't talk back", you're probably going to say and do things that make it harder to get along with them. In large part because such attitudes set you up for generating much more emotion than is helpful or necessary, like ANGER instead of just FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION or ANNOYANCE. This in turn will make you more likely to react by using YOU Message that order, command, threaten or even ridicule or call kids names. Even worse, put your hands on a student needlessly. Most of us will have pre-existing "ruts" for doing so just waiting for us to slip into them. Getting angry is what will cause us to do so, because that's what we were in the past when we said or did such things. The false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection tha anger gives anyone will preclude you from even seeing "the error of your ways".
When we set our THINK thermostat at NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND, it turns our other three THINK thermostats up as well. We are more likely to see what happens as AWFUL instead of just UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT or UNCOMFORTABLE as most daily life events can be. If we were suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger, that would be awful. Start treating what you want from students like air, water and food and it will seem AWFUL if you don’t get it. Set your first THINK thermostat at NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND and it turns your second one up to AWFUL.
ANXIETY - HALF OF FIGHT OR FLIGHT
As noted earlier, teachers often plug into their fight or flight responses needlessly by first making themselves anxious. Anxiety is technically a figment (read that product) of imagination. It's about things that could happen, but haven't happened yet. There's a formula for anxiety:
CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY
First we imagine something bad happening, and then we tell ourselves it would be AWFUL if that did happen. If we instead said, "So what? Who cares? It wouldn't be the end of the world" we wouldn't feel anxiety. Concern perhaps, but not anxiety.
Here's a common example. A student acts out in class. The teacher quickly imagines that if he/she doesn't do something, other kids will think it's okay and he/she will get more of the same acting out, he/she will lose control of his/her class, other teachers will think he/she is not a good teacher, he/she will get a bad evaluation, etc, etc. And, that would all be AWFUL. Suddenly this minor misbehavior becomes a bigger threat to the teacher, at least in his/her own mind. He/she triggers half of his/her fight or flight response, ANXIETY. But that quickly morphs into the other half, ANGER, and the teacher lashes out at the student. In many ways this is analogous to the way a rattlesnake responds to perceived threats, and it can all happen in the blink of an eye. That's especially true if the teacher has gone down the same pathways in his/her brain many times before.
First of all, none of those things have happened at the time. They could, but haven't yet. A simple but effective strategy for short-circuiting anxiety is to respond to such imaginations with "That might happen, but it hasn't happened yet. And if it does, I'll deal with it". You can add "Just like others do, just like I have other things in the past, and like I probably will have to again in the future". This strategy is called "Staying in the now".
Second, the student is not responsible for the teacher imagining such things in his/her own mind. It's understandable that he/she does, but he/she is doing that to him/herself. But since most teachers have an external locus of control and wrongly see others and eventts as the cause of how they feel, they typically will put the blame for their anxiety on students.
Third, none of those things would really be AWFUL, even if the teacher lost his/her job for some reason down the road. They'd just be unpleasant, inconvenient, or uncomforatable to some degree. A lot worse things could happen to any of us (i.e. being diagnosed with cancer, losing a loved one, etc). The second half of the "Staying in the now", "And if it does I'll deal with it", is a way to de-awfulize imagined events. When you tell yourself something is AWFUL, the implication is also that you can't, or won't be able to stand it. So you could also practice responding with something as simple as "I'll survive. I've survived it before and will again".
CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS
Rule #5: We all have the right to like or dislike whatever we want to
According to Dr. Ellis, the mistake we make is to turn our THINK thermostats up and start telling ourselves we CAN'T STAND what we simple DON'T LIKE.
If we set our first THINK thermostat at NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND, it will also cause us to set our third THINK thermostat at I CAN’T STAND IT instead of just I DON’T LIKE IT. CAN’T STAND implies we’re going to die (or go crazy) because something happens. If we were suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger, it would be accurate to say we CAN’T STAND what is happening to us. However, your typical student behavior won’t have that effect, or anything close to it.
The top parts of our brains are constantly looking for threats to us, and let the bottom parts that control e-motion know when one arises. The top part of our brain uses words to make sense of our experiences. When we choose to think we NEED something, perhaps like air, water and food, it makes not getting it a bigger threat than it really is. That makes us more likely to see what happens as AWFUL and to tell ourselves we CAN'T STAND it. But that top portion of our brain is exaggerating or even lying to the bottom part that controls our emotions. The part that controls our emotions doesn’t know that, and takes the upper part at its word. That’s how we needlessly inflame ourselves about what students say and do – by telling ourselves we CAN’T STAND what we simply DON’T LIKE. It’s why Dr. Ellis called this type of thinking CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS. ITIS is the suffix for inflammation.
LABELING AND DAMNING
Finally, we are more likely to LABEL AND DAMN THE PERSON (i.e. name calling, putdowns, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism) instead of simply DISLIKING THEIR BEHAVIOR. Labeling and damning is over generalizing. It’s calling an apple bad because it has a bruise, even though 95% of the apple is just fine. It’s condemning the doer instead of the deed. An example might be saying “That’s kid’s a real brat” even though he/she does so many other things that people like. Doing this makes us more likely to precipitate conflicts with students, and makes it harder to resolve them.
SHAME, GUILT AND DEPRESSION
DEPRESSION, SHAME and GUILT don't seem like energy to move, but people still do REACT to life instead of responding in the best possible ways when they generate such emotions. For example, turning to alcohol or drugs, or even contemplating suicide when or because someone feels depressed, ashamed or guilty would be example of REACTING to life instead of RESPONDING in the best possible ways. RESPONDING might be turning to someone who cares about you for emotional support and help sorting things out.
Teachers are no strangers to shame, guilt and depression. Many struggle with such emotions. Shame is a common reason young teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and why so many older teachers are trying to retire early in any way they can. It comes from believing you aren't living up to expectations. That's an easy perception to have when you're a young teacher, especially if you end up in some very challenging circumstance. That often happens because of the way seniority works in most schools. The new teachers get the toughest kids. However, expectations are rising, even unrealitically so for all teachers, so the potential for shame exists for all, regardless of age or experience.
If you believe you haven't and aren't living up to expectations, it's easier to imagine not doing so in the future. So shame can lead to anxiety. This is why teachers can start dreading going to work, or having to deal with certain students or classes. As noted earlier, everyday events can start to seem like bigger threats than they really are or need to be. Shame about the past and anxiety about the future because of it are really the ingredients for low self-esteem. Students who struggle with shame and anxiety often adopt the "mistaken" goal of avoidance of failure. They profess to not care, stop working and might even drop out in a "mistaken" effort to avoid failure. They can become "turtles" or "rattlesnakes", and either such into their shells, or coil, rattle and even strike out at teachers or other students. They are both defensive postures, reactions to perceived threats, just like they are in the real animals. Teachers can do the same things in an effort to protect themselves, ultimately choosing to leave he profession. They can also adopt the same postures. In the latter case, they start lashing out at students more and more.
LEARN TO CONTROL YOUR OWN EMOTIONAL THERMOSTAT
You can learn to have control over your emotional thermostat. I did by taking classes in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Education (REBE) offered for educators in the Chicago area. Unfortunately, these same classes were never available in other areass, and are no longer available even in Chicago. The reason is that districts stop approving, giving credit for, and reimbursing teachers for taking such classes. The university that offered these graduate classes for educators stopped doing so due to lack of enrollment.
That's the bad news. But here's the good news. I can teach you all you need to know to learn to have control over your emotional thermostat. And since I taught this to 14 year olds my entire career, I've gotten pretty good at keeping it simple enough to be good for you. I invite you to visit my Teacher ESP - Effectiveness and Stress Prevention website at:
There you’ll learn some simple “tools”.
1) To have an internal locus of control
2) To have Unconditional Self and Other Acceptance
3) To recognize irrational thinking in yourself and students – how you and they turn your THINK thermostats up
4) To correct irrational thinking in yourself, and challenge it in them – how to keep your THINK thermostat turned down, or turn it down quickly should it go up, and teach your students to do the same.
Learning to gain control over your FEEL thermostat invovles a few simple steps. First, recognizing that it's really what we choose to think that really determines how we feel, not what others say or do, or what happens. Second, recognizing and reminding ourselves that we always have cognitive choices, choices that we alone can make. Some ways we make such choices will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make it easier to deal with what students do and we don't like, others will make it harder. But we always have choices. Three, learning to recognize when we're turning our THINK thermostats up in the four basic ways noted earlier. Four, learning how to challenge and question (what Ellis called disputing) such thinking, and practicing doing so enough so that it becomes automatic, and occurs in our brains like grammar check works on a computer. Finally, learning and practicing new ways of looking at things that help keep our thermostats turned down all the time.
DISPUTING (QUESTIONING, CHALLENGING) IRRATIONAL THINKING
You can read about how to correct (challenge, question, dispute) irrational thinking at:
One way is to simply practice and rehearse posing some simple questions, and answering them in the correct way. In the following examples, B stands for a Belief you might have, D stands for the Dispute or question you can ask, and A stands for the only real correct answer. For example:
B: "They can't talk to me that way"
D: "Why can't they talk to you that way? They can't, or you just don't want them to? They can't or you just don't like when they do?"
A: "They can, I just don't want them to. They can, I just don't like when they do. They can do whatever they want"
B: "They should/have to/need to be more respectful"
D: "Why do they have to/ need to be more respectful? They have to/need to, or you just want them to? They have to/need to, or you'd just like them to?"
A: "They don't have to/need to be more respectful. They don't have to/need to, I just want them to be. They don't have to/need to, I'd just like them to be. They don't have to do anything".
B: "It's really awful that they did that"
D: "It's awful, or just unpleasant/inconvenient/uncomfortable?"
A: "It's not awful, it's just unpleasant/inconvenient/uncomfortable"
B: "I can't stand when kids do things like that"
D: "You can't stand it, or just don't like it?
A: "I can stand it, I just don't like it".
B: "That kids a little brat"
D: "He's a brat, or just did something you didn't like?"
A: "He's not a brat, he just did something I didn't like"
The goal of posing such questions is not to get us to like what kids do, or not care what they do. The goal is simply to get us to turn our THINK thermostats down a notch when they go up, and keep them from going up needlessly. We all have cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" that make many of our thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. Once we create such "ruts" we can't really get rid of them. We can only create new ones. So we will have a tendency to slip into our old cognitive "ruts" and turn our THINK thermostats up in the ways I've been talking about. But we can create new "ruts" that make questioning, challenging and disputing our old irrational thoughts as automatic as the thoughts themselves have always been - thereby negating their effect.
PUT YOUR BEHAVIOR WHERE YOU WANT YOUR ATTITUDE TO BE
One simple way to do the last step is by forcing ourselves to always start what we say to students with either "Please" (the magic word) or "I". For example "Please sit down and be quiet" or "I'd like you to sit down and be quiet" instead of "Sit down and be quiet!" Ellis called this "putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be". In this case, your verbal behavior. In other words, practice talking the way you want to think. Attitude is always the father of behavior, but if you change your verbal behavior it can also work the other way, and change your attitude.
TEACH STUDENTS TO CONTROL THEIR THERMOSTATS
Behavioral problems and issues more often than not arise because students generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events, either real time ones, or remembered or imagined ones. There's a saying, "An overreaction is an age regression". In other words, students often overreact emotionally because what's happening in the preset reminds them of many things that have happened to them repeatedly in the past. They plug into some old "ruts" for generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, and get flood with it. Most kids won't even make the connection between their present life events and past ones. This overreaction is very much an automatic response, actually intended by nature to be protective, even life-saving.
My point is that if we can teach kids to gain control over their own emotional thermostats, our jobs will get easier. An additional perk is they gain a sense of power and control over their lives. That's always a plus even in the absence of behavioral problems and issuses. Many students simply quiety struggle emotionally through school, and go on to do the same the rest of their lives. They'll remember and love you more for empowering them in this way than for teaching them any subject matter. And it's something any teacher can do for students. You don't have to be a counselor, social worker, school psychologist or therapist to do it. That's the beauty of the "Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life". It's not brain surgery.
To read about "tools" you can teach to your students to help them gain control over their own emotional and behavioral thermostats, please visit my Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life website at:
The best way to get good at teaching your studens these "tools" is for you to practice using them in your own life. Everyone wins if you do.
CREATING YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT
CREATING YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT
Get a blank sheet of paper. Place the paper in the landscape position. Using a pen or pencil, and ruler, divide this sheet into six columns, and three rows. The first four columns from left to right will be for THINK. The fifth column is for FEEL. The last column for DO.
THINK COLUMN 1
Write DON’T CARE in the bottom row. In the middle row, write WANT, PREFER, DESIRE. In the top row write NEED, NECESSITY, DEMAND. (See diagram below)
THINK COLUMN 2
Write DON’T CARE again in the bottom row. In the middle row, write UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT, UNCOMFORTABLE. In the top row, write AWFUL. (See diagram below)
THINK COLUMN 3
Write DON’T CARE once again in the bottom row. Then write DON’T LIKE IT in the middle row, and CAN’T STAND in the top row. (See diagram below)
THINK COLUMN 4
The fourth column. Once more write DON’T CARE in the bottom row. The middle row is DISLIKE THE BEHAVIOR, and the top row is LABEL AND DAMN THE PERSON. (See diagram below)
ADD "SORT OF" AND "REALLY"
In the bottom boxes of all four columns, write REALLY at the bottom, and SORT OF at the top. In all the other 8 THINK boxes, write SORT OF at the bottom, and REALLY at the top. (See diagram below)
Write CALM in the bottom row; FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION, ANNOYANCE in the middle row; and ANGER in the top row. Now write CONCERN in the middle row, and ANXIETY in the top row. Then write SADNESS in the middle row, and DEPRESSION in the top row. Finally, write REGRET and REMORSE in the middle row, and SHAME and GUILT in the top row. (See diagram below)
You always want to look at the FREQUENCY, INTENSITY and DURATION of any feeling you generate. You can go from a Low FID to High FID for any feeling listed in the boxes. In the bottom box, write High FID at the bottom, and Low FID at the top. In the top two boxes, write Low FID in the bottom of the boxes, and High FID at the top. (See diagram below)
In the DO column, the bottom row is DO NOTHING, the middle row is RESPOND, and the top row is REACT. (See diagram below)