A simple but important thing we could and should teach students - but never have


Make of a list of all the problems and issues students so often struggle with. List all the behaviors they so often engage in that create problems and issues for teachers, other students and school, that endanger their own health, and undermine their readiness, willingness and ability to learn, and be taught. Seriously, make a list.

I like to use the term from mathematics, “least common denominators”, to describe what all these behaviors, problems and issues have in common. One important “least common denominator” is that:

1)  Students are REACTING to their life events, in or outside of their classrooms instead of RESPONDING in the best possible ways.

2)  They are engaging in unacceptable and often unhealthy behavior, and more often than not know it; behavior that is self-defeating with respect to what they really want in life

3)  They behave in such ways because they have what Rudolph Dreikurs called “mistaken” goals. Behavior is always purposeful and goal-orientated. But students too often have “mistaken” goals that get them off course from getting what they really want in their lives.

Talking back, cussing at teachers, arguing, fighting with others students, not doing work, cutting classes and school, dropping out, smoking, drinking, using drugs, and even self-harm, starving themselves or overeating and attempting suicide are all examples of these 3 “least common denominators”.


The main reason they do these things is because they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion. E-motion can be helpful energy to move, but too often students generate:

1)  More than is necessary or helpful for the situations they find themselves in

2)  More than they want to have

3)  More than is healthy for them

4)  More than they know what to do with

5)  A type and amount that works against them instead of for them

Anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt more often than not fit these definitions. People do all kinds of unacceptable, unhealthy, self-defeating, destructive and even self-destructive things when they feel these ways. A dysfunctional amount of emotion gives purpose to unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking and using drugs. The more anxiety, depression, shame and guilt students generate, the more purpose such behaviors will serve in their lives.

These feelings become the driving force behind behaviors intended to satisfy “mistaken” goals like power and control, revenge and avoidance of failure. The angrier students are, the more driven they will be to get even with others. The more shame and anxiety they generate, the more driven they will be to avoid failure.  Many problems students struggle with and that undermine their readiness, willingness and ability to learn are literally defined by them generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion. For example, they have anger problems, anxiety disorders and phobias, suffer from depression, too much stress (anxiety) and low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is really shame about the past, and anxiety about the future because of it.


One of the main, if not the main reason they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion is that they have an external locus of control. Locus of control means where they see their feelings as coming from; what they see as the cause of their feelings. The vast majority of people on the planet have what’s called an external locus of control. That means they see something outside them as the cause of how they feel – what others say and do, and what happens to them. That includes the vast majority of teachers and parents in students’ lives. Just listen to the way people talk about how they feel. For example, “That really ticks me off”, “They hurt my feelings”, “This job is stressing me out” and “They make me feel so guilty when they say that”.


Looking at things this way puts people needlessly at the mercy of others comments and actions, and the events of their lives – others that they really can’t ever control, and events that they often can’t. Without realizing it, they give away the real power and control they do have over how they feel, and given other people and events of their lives power and control over how they feel that those people and events really don’t have. This more often than not results in them feeling worse than is necessary or helpful, for longer than needed. More importantly, by looking at things this way, it suggest that other people and their life events must change for the better for them to feel better. What if they never do? People with an external locus of control miss many opportunities to feel better because they look at things in the way they do.


The truth is that it’s really what people choose to think about, or how they choose to look at what others say and do, or what happens that really determines how they end up feeling. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. It’s the thoughts about the events of their lives that really cause how they feel, not the events themselves. This can all be summed up in the formula below:


Anything others say or do, or that happens is technically just an EVENT in this formula. EVENTS can be real or imagined. If we put how most people look at things into a formula, it would look like this instead:



We teach kids so many things about the way life works, and how to use that knowledge to their advantage to have their lives turn out the way they want them to. We often give them formulas and rules as part of this. Yet we neglect to teach them about something that is so basic to everyday life. We neglect to give them a simple formula that could help them navigate much better on their journey through life. I was almost forty with a Masters degree before I learned this simple, but vitally important formula – and I was a psych major as an undergraduate. Given the potential and common consequences of getting this important aspect of life wrong, it’s close to being gross negligence that we don’t teach students how their feelings really come about. 

The vast majority of kids go through their school years wrongly believing that it’s what happens, and what others say and do that makes them feel the way they do, both bad and good. Most continue on through their entire adult lives continuing to believe this falsehood. They generate so much needless emotion during their childhood, teen years and adult lives because no one helps them correct this erroneous notion while in school. What other major misconception would we ever let go uncorrected the way we do this one?


The reason students don’t get taught about how their feelings really come about is simple. The vast majority of teachers live their personal and professional lives based on the same lie – that what others say and do and what happens makes them feel the way they do. Teachers end up much more stressed out in their jobs than necessary or helpful because they get this wrong, and miss many opportunities to be less stressed out. Their physical health can even suffer directly and indirectly because they get this wrong. Many drop out within the first five years of entering the profession, and others struggle emotionally through decades, and look for ways to get out early because of this misconception. All because no one ever taught them the truth about how their feelings come about, or bothered to correct their erroneous notion about such things. Of course that’s because their teachers and parents didn’t know any better either. 


In the 1950’s, Dr. Albert Ellis developed his ABC Theory of Emotions. It’s the original version of the formula above. But Ellis certainly wasn’t the first to see that thoughts cause feelings, not events. The Greek-speaking stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135 A.D.) said, “Man is not disturbed so much by the events of his life as he is by the beliefs he holds about them”. Ellis actually credits Epictetus for his form of therapy called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). REBT is a very psycho-educational form of therapy. There is even a classroom version of it called Rational Emotive Behavioral Education (REBE). Unfortunately, education has never incorporated REBE into classrooms. It was one of Ellis’ greatest frustrations right up to his death just a few years ago.

The ABC Theory of Emotions goes like this:

A  =  Activating Event

B  =  Beliefs

C  =  Consequences

An activating event is what happens, or what someone imagines might happen. Beliefs include what people think about the event, and themselves, others and life in general. Consequences are what people feel and do as a consequence of what they believe about what happens, themselves, others and life. The formula would thus be:


The beauty of this formula is that it taps into most students’ prior knowledge of a formula that they all get taught in math classes. That formula is:  a  +  b  =  c, where a is a constant, and b is a variable. If a stays the same, and b changes, then c changes also. Likewise, if peoples’ beliefs about their activating events change, their feelings will change, perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, depending on what their thoughts become.


We all have a host of cognitive choices that we make all the time, usually without realizing that we are making them. You’re making many of them as you read this article. They include:

1)  How we LOOK AT what happens

2)  What MEANING we attach to what happens

3)  What we REMEMBER at any given moment about our pasts

4)  What we IMAGINE will happen in the future

5)  What we FOCUS on

6)  What we COMPARE things to

7)  What we  EXPECT of ourselves, others and life in the first place

8)  How much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does  happen

The reason we have such choices is that there is always more than one way we can LOOK AT anything that happens, more than one MEANING we can attach, more than one thing we could FOCUS on or COMPARE things to, and so on. Some ways we make these choices will make us feel better; others will make us feel worse. Some ways we make such choices will make it easier to deal with what happens, and other ways will make it harder. We always have choices, and there will always be emotional consequences for the ways we choose.


It’s really what we THINK about the EVENTS of our lives that really determines how we feel. We always a choice as to how we want to think about or LOOK AT what happens, and make all our other cognitive choices. Therefore, logically,

It’s our choice how we want to FEEL.

Other ways of saying the same thing are:

No one upsets us, we upset ourselves

We’re responsible for how we feel, not others (and that’s good news)


These cognitive choices are our power and control over our emotional destiny. The reason is simple: no one can make these choices for us. They are made deep in our brains. They are ours alone to make. People often let others influence or even make these choices for them. That’s perfectly understandable, especially when they are young. A child or teen would have trouble not being influenced by the way adults in their lives make such choices regarding them, or a group of their peers do. However, with some guided practice, young people can be trained to retain control over these choices for themselves. Once they do, it can be extremely empowering. It’s a way they can have REAL power and control over their emotional destinies.

You can read more about an internal locus of control, and teaching students to have one at:



This is the basis for what I call Mental and Emotional Karate against bullying – teaching young people to defend themselves against verbal and cyber attacks like some are taught to defend themselves against physical attack in real karate classes. It’s what I call an inside-out approach to the problem of bullying. Schools take outside-in approaches. They have to. They have an obligation to provide a safe environment for every child. So they appeal to their students’ humanity, and back it up with a set of rules, consequences and increased vigilance and enforcement. They sometimes adopt “zero tolerance” approaches to it. Unfortunately, no matter how well executed such programs are, it usually doesn’t stop all the bullying. I believe we need to also “harden the targets”, or prospective targets of bullying. Teaching them to have an internal locus of control is a big part of doing so.

You can read about Mental and Emotional Karate at:



Dr. Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust. When asked how, he famously said:

“Everything can  be taken from us but the last of human freedoms. To choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way”

What Dr. Frankl really taught us was that no one can get inside our head unless we let them. People let others in all the time, but can be taught not to. Like anything else, with practice, they can learn to get pretty good at keeping people out.

Eleanor Roosevelt summed this up in her own way:

“No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your consent”


When I was a kid, we were taught to respond to bullying with:

“I’m rubber, you’re glue. What you say bounces off me and sticks to you”

If we actually said it, and kept repeating it, it worked. It protected us from whatever other kids might say about us. The problem was always that we’d start thinking and saying other things like “How dare you say that about me?” or “You can’t say that about me”. Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is “Easily!” and people can in fact think, feel and say whatever they want to about us. When kids have such thoughts, it just makes them angry, and makes it hard to think or say what was suggested. Unfortunately thoughts like “How dare you?” and “You can’t say that” have been practiced and rehearsed many times and have become “ruts” in their brains. They easily and quickly slip into their “ruts” just like tires do with real ruts on a dirt road. Such “ruts” are just as hard to stay out of, or get out of as real ruts are too.

Just imagine if we could get all students to practice saying to following so much that it became as automatic as the words to songs they have memorized, and it was  their automatic response to attacks.

“You can think and say whatever you want to about me. That’s YOUR choice. But it’s MY choice how I look at myself and how I feel about myself. And you don’t get to make those choices for me unless I let you. And I choose not to.”


Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Dr. Ellis identified a simple pattern of irrational thinking that people of all ages engage in that causes them to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, and to behave in ways that make their own and others lives worse instead of better. That’s the definition of irrational. He called them: DEMANDINESS, AWFULIZING, CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS, and LABELING AND DAMNING. It’s quite simple to teach students to look for these types of thoughts in themselves, others students, and even their teachers and parents. It’s also quite simple to teach them to correct such thoughts. With practice, correcting such thinking can become quite automatic, and be the equivalent of grammar check on a computer.

You can read more about the four types of irrational thinking at:


You can read about how to teach students to correct such thinking at:



Too often, students generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary in response to the events of their lives, both past, present and imagined ones. Peoples behavior will always follow their emotions toward their life events. One of the main reasons students (or anyone) generates a dysfunctional amount of emotion is that they have an external locus of control. It’s understandable that students have one because the adults in their lives typically have. Children learn what they live. Teaching them to have an internal locus of control is simple to do, and it can give us a tremendous return on investment. It would take very little time, effort or energy to teach them to have an internal locus of control, but doing so would go a long way in helping them learn to control their emotional thermostats – to generate a more functional amount of emotion in their lives. That would make them more response-able, or able to respond to life in the best possible way rather than react to it, as so many students so often do, in so many ways.