The late Steve Irwin could have taught us a lot about dealing with our angriest, most troublesome students


I've often suggested to teachers that they think of their most troublesome students as "rattlesnakes". Please don't be quick to find that offensive. It may seem derogatory, but I promise you that it’s anything but. The reason I suggest that metaphor is that I've watched many teacher-student conflicts unfold over the years and they've always reminded me of someone poking a rattlesnake with a stick, and the more it strikes out, the more they poke it. In this same way, teacher-student conflicts too often escalate out of control.

I used to watch the late Steve Irwin on Saturday mornings. I always thought he was a little crazy because of the huge risks he took with the most venomous snakes in the world, including rattlesnakes. But I think his approach with real snakes could teach us a lot about how to better deal with our most troublesome students when they coil, rattle and start striking out at us and other students. I also feel the same way Steve probably felt about trying to handle venomous snakes. It’s well worth the risk. Actually, there really is no risk. Challenge for sure, but the greater the challenge, the greater the potential reward. The work I did with my “Tool Time” rattlers was the most rewarding experience of my 40 year career. Besides, we can’t afford to keep losing kids the way we do.


Anyone who’s ever stumbled on a real rattlesnake will usually be caught off guard, even when you expect them and are looking for them, as I always am when I wander the desert with my cameras at sunrise and sunset. That sound is always unmistakable. (assuming they do rattle; I’ve had a few that didn’t). Your heart will start to pound as you immediately plug into fight or flight and your adrenal glands dump adrenaline into your blood stream. But once you realize you’re in no immediate danger, because you’re well beyond their striking range of half their length, it’s easy to take offense at the snakes sinister look and agitation. I’ve told quite a few to “Shut up!” Some people even grab a stick and start to poke at the snake. (Not me) That only causes it to strike out. Of course, that can cause some people to take even more offense and poke it even more. The more the snake strikes out, the more they’ll want to just kill it. Rangers have told me many times that the vast majority of people who get bit were harassing the snake in some way when they were bitten (many were also intoxicated - what a surprise). 


The key point is that the snake is doing what it does because it FEELS THREATENED, and is plugging into its own fight or flight response. It’s not being aggressive. I’ve been told there's only one type of rattler that will actually pursue a person - the Green Mohave. It’s being totally DEFENSIVE. Back off far enough and the snake will calm down and crawl off to hide as soon as it can, and as quick as it can. It's only when it sees no escape route that it coils, rattles, and prepares to strike.


Many of our most troublesome students do the equivalent of coiling, rattling and striking out with venom. And they do it for the same reason real rattlers do – they feel threatened, and it’s more often than not defensive in nature. They literally plug into their fight or flight responses. Like so many other people, including teachers, students often do it needlessly simple because of the way they choose to look at things before, while and after they happen.

Like those who stumble on real rattlers, rather than see such behavior as defensive, teachers often instead take offense, and are quick to choose to see it as being disrespectful, and start to do the equivalent of poking a real rattler with a stick. As the interaction escalates, they want to “kill” the "rattler" - not literally by any means, but just to "teach them a lesson" for being so defiant and disrespectful.


Troublesome students often have the "mistaken" goals of power and control, even revenge when they coil, rattle and strike out. What they do when they are angry and have these mistaken goals can seem offensive or aggressive in nature, but even then it’s typically a reaction to a real or at least perceived threat precipitated by, or hurt inflicted by someone else’s actions. More often than not these threats are simply to the students "symbolic self", not their actual life. In that sense it’s still defensive.

Teachers can and unfortunately often do adopt the same "mistaken" goals with students. Authoritarian mindsets in particular make teachers more likely to see such behavior as a real threat to them (even though it really isn’t), to plug into their own fight or flight, to get angry and adopt such mistaken goals. It’d be better if this didn’t happen, but it does much too often. We always need at least one adult in the room. But when teachers make themselves angry, and adopt the same "mistaken" goals as students, we don't have that. 


Let’s start with the real ones. You’re upward of six feet tall, standing above them, weighing over a hundred pounds, giving off a huge heat signature. They’re down on the ground, a couple feet long, and weigh only a few pounds, and don’t know for sure what your real intentions are. If you were them, wouldn’t you feel threatened? Their first move would be to slither quickly away, but that option stops seeming like a viable one if we surprise them and they feel cornered or trapped. So they coil, rattle (if we’re lucky), and may strike out and try to inject venom into us.

Now consider being a child. It's important to do that because the "rattlesnake" responses we have to deal with in students often have their origins in early childhood. An adult in their lives is upwards of six feet tall, outweighs they by at least a hundred pounds, and often picks them up off the ground at will, sometimes against their will. That adult is standing above them, angry, making distorted faces and turning red, in many ways giving off a huge heat signature, and rattling off hurtful comments in a bellowing, threatening voice. There might even be some grabbing, slapping or even hitting. You’re much smaller in height, much lighter, nowhere near as strong, don’t know how this encounter might play out, and there’s no way to escape. Wouldn’t you feel threatened? It would be totally understandable to plug into fight or flight. Flight won’t work. You might even try it at first and find that out the hard way. That leaves you with fight. That probably won't work either, as you’ll probably soon find out, but you don't have any other options. 


Most troublesome students have had a lifetime of being told they don't live up to adult expectations, often in some very harsh ways that they ended up feeling really hurt by. It often starts well before they even come to school. The emotional hurt alone is enough to trigger a defensive reaction. Throw in some rough grabbing, slapping, spanking or hitting and it’s even more likely, especially if they cause some physical hurt. It’s also pretty scary to disappoint the people you have come to realize you’re so dependent on for survival in so many ways. Some parents even drive that point home, i.e. sending a kid to bed without dinner. Not living up to expectations is the recipe for feeling shame. That shame will lead to intense anxiety. If they haven’t lived up to expectation in the past, it’s understandable to imagine they won’t in the future. Anxiety is half of the emotional components fight or flight, and is often enough to even cause them to plug into their fight or flight responses. Many fight responses start with anxiety.

Both animals and humans learn to anticipate threats and become quicker to react to them. Our dog starts running to hide under our bed whenever I open a kitchen draw because she's learned that it has preceded my cutting her nails in the past - something she really hates. It makes sense that they should and would in terms of survival. For some kids, this response has become quite automatic and quick by the time they start school. Some may even have been spanked, hit or even physically abused in some way. That will make them even more likely to quickly plug into fight or flight. You know you’d never spank, hit, or abuse them, but their reptilian brain doesn’t know that. That part of their brains just sees someone about the same size as those who have in the past, with the same look and emotion they’ve seen before. The more they practice such a response, the more automatic and unconscious it becomes. What teachers are really dealing with in most cases are well practiced and rehearsed behaviors they’ve used in an attempt to survive threatening situations in the past.


There is usually a big emphasis in the early grades on getting kids “to behave”. Having taught high school my entire career, the thought of managing an elementary classroom just seems like it would be like trying to herd cats, as they say. It certainly would be a lot easier to teach if they all just simply behaved. Unfortunately, there will always be some who don’t, or at least not as much or as well as teachers would like.

Many teachers will have an authoritarian mindset when it comes to dealing with children. It typically comes from being parented the way they were. In the absence of any real professional training, it’s what many teachers will fall back on once in the classroom, especially if they are presented with behavioral challenges. The big age and size difference between students and teachers in the early grades makes it even more likely that teachers will be more parent-like than they might be with older kids. Put students with a tendency to feel threatened and react quickly with fight or flight in classrooms with teachers with authoritarian mindsets determined to make students learn to behave, and you’ve got a lot of accidents looking for a place to happen.

This often is the starting point for chronic teacher-students conflicts with some students throughout their years in school. In many ways it's like that Billy Joel song, "We didn't start the fire...". Kids often come with some "fires" already burning. But too often we add fuel to the fires without realizing it or intending to. Alfred Adler used to say "A problem is a misbehavior than gets mismanaged". Unfortunately, that happens much too often in schools, often starting in the early grades.


If troubled and troublesome student can run away when they feel threatened, they probably will. It’s why some in high school cut classes and don’t come to school, or even eventually drop out. But they often can’t, or at least don’t see any escape route, so they become “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. Some suck into their shells and others coil, rattle and even strike out. If we try to get the turtles to come out of their shells with a stick, they just pull deeper into their shells. If we poke the rattlers, they just get more threatened, agitated, and start striking out. Keep poking them and it just gets even worse. Such confrontation never end well, in the wild, or in schools.


Do you remember the late Steve Irwin? How he handled the most venomous snakes in the world, including rattlers? I believe it would help a lot if teachers strived to emulate Steve's approach. He always knew the snake was seeing him as a threat, even though he knew he wasn’t. He knew the snake was being totally defensive, not offensive. So he never took what they did personally. He understood. The snake had its own understandable reasons for reacting the way it did.

Then he would talk to the snake profusely in a calming voice and patiently, but cautiously of course, strive to get the snake to feel less threatened so he could handle it. And more often than not, he got to. It would help if teachers approached dealing with their “rattlers” the same way.


There’s a rule in medicine called the “first do no harm” rule. It basically means that if you’re not immediately sure what to do to make a patient better, at least don’t do anything to make him/her worse. By misreading student rattlers, and taking offense, teachers often do make matters worse. They make themselves angry and do the equivalent of poking a real rattler with a stick. It only makes the “rattlers” feel more threatened, and prone to strike out. They’d probably act like jackrabbits and run if they could, and some will, but if they feel cornered or trapped, they’ll become “rattlers”.

I had some simple rules as a teacher. One was the “first do no harm” rule. Another was “There’s two ways to makes something you don’t like worse – do nothing and overreact to it”. Teachers too often do the latter because they are too quick to take offense at the posturing rather than see it as defensive. A third rule was “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing”. If you stand perfectly still, and even back off a little, a real rattler will calm down. So will student ones. I’ve had some morph into “jackrabbits” and run, but that’s better than poking them with a stick and provoking them into striking out at me and others. You can just catch up with them later.


It’s important to remember and keep reminding yourself that it’s really all DEFENSIVE. It can help to other teachers when they get into it with students. Isn’t what I suggesting what you see? When you watch those conflicts, don’t they often look like someone poking a rattler with a stick? The more you practice seeing teacher-student conflicts in this light, the more automatic it will become to do so, and the more likely it is that you will choose to see it that way the next time you conflict with a student. And maybe be more like Steve Irwin with the rattler in front of you.

So what could be causing your rattler to feel threatened? So threatened that he/she might strike out in self-defense, knowing in the back of his/her mind somewhere that doing so will result in consequences. Somewhere in there kids know from experience what teachers can and often will do if they push too hard, let alone strike out with venom.


It’s not always easy to know why. But I’ve always found that a good starting point is to choose to believe and accept that whatever reason they might have for coiling, rattling and even striking out is understandable given what their life experiences have been. Put other kids through exactly what he/she has been through, and most would probably think, feel, say and do much the same. I’ve always said kids should come with movies of their lives that we had to watch. If they came with such movies, we’d probably see the understandable reasons why they coil, rattle and are ready to strike out. Many times, I didn’t personally know a student who I crossed paths with, had no idea as to what their history had been. But it was always safe to bet that they had some history that would understandably explain the way they reacted. That didn’t mean I had to like the way they did, or even tolerate it. It just helped temper my emotional response to choose to believe that.    


Our student dean was a good friend. Teachers would often ask him “How do you deal with these kids day after day without losing it? (because he never did)” He always said, “I don’t take what they do personally”. When real rattlers coil, rattle and strike out, it’s not personal. Some people take it that way and it’s why they poke it with a stick, or try to kill it. But it’s not. It’s not with student rattlers either. Something about the situation just reminds them of some past situation, and you may remind them of someone who hurt or tried to control them before, and that reptilian part of their brain kicks into gear to try to save them from a recurrence. It’s not you, it’s the situation. It’s their history.


Another rule I had was “If you do what others always have with a troublesome student, you’ll get what those others have always gotten. So do something different.” Even doing nothing would be different because teachers more often than not think they HAVE TO do something. Some even believe you HAVE TO do something big and dramatic so students will never think to do what they did again. Do nothing and kids will often be so busy wondering why you didn’t that they’ll calm down. I had one student tell me he started verbally attacking a teacher because he had heard the teacher often put down students so “I was gonna get him before he got me”. When people would tell me a student was a real “problem” and had “anger issues”, I’m going to be the sweetest person that student has ever met. Do something different.


Kids bring cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” to any interaction with teachers. Having “ruts” makes thoughts, feelings and behavior automatic. That could be a helpful, or unhelpful thing. It depends on what thoughts, feelings and actions the “ruts” lead to. I first heard the term “ruts” used for connections or pathways between nerve cells in the brain by a neuroscientist who spoke at our school. The reason I like the metaphor of “ruts” is that I’ve done a lot of off road driving, and know how easy it is for tires to slip into real ruts on dirt roads, and how hard it is to stay out of them or to get out of them once your tires slip into them. The same is true for ruts in our brains. It’s just too easy to slip into them, and just as hard to stay out of, or get out them as it is with real ruts on dirt roads. So I expect students to slip into theirs. Expecting and allowing for that is part of having Unconditional Other Acceptance.


Ruts are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories can become their destinies. That can be good or bad news as well, depending on what a student’s history has been. The important point is that kids will unconsciously try to recreate their crummy pasts with teachers because they have “ruts” and plug into them. Teachers bring their own cognitive, emotional and behavioral ruts to interactions with students. For example, many will bring an authoritarian mindset, and be quick to get angry and go authoritarian with kids because that’s the way they were parented, or their teachers were with them. That can cause some to jump at the chance to help a student recreate their crummy past.


One way I envision this is that students are trying to reproduce a play that they have starred in many times in the past, one that has an unhappy ending, and they invite me to audition for a part in that play. Too often, teachers are quick to accept the invitation. By looking at it this way, I always immediately start wondering how a student might be inviting me to audition for a part. One of my mentors said, “Sometimes the job of teaching involves protecting kids from themselves”. Kids will tend to recreate their crummy pasts, and invite you to help them do so. One way to protect them from themselves is to not be quick to do so.


Here’s a perfect example. I had this little girl named Shannon. One of the first days in class, she starts letting the F-bomb fly out of her mouth. Any student knows that doing that usually earns you a quick trip to the office.  Sometimes kids just let it slip out because they practice and rehearse using it so much outside of school that doing so gets “rutted” in their brains, and it’s so automatic that it slips out at times they don’t want it to. When I sense that’s the reason, no big deal. I often simply mention “ruts” and why it’s important to be careful what you practice outside of class. But Shannon’s use of it was so blatant that an alarm went off in my head that said she might be trying to get me to audition. So instead of doing what most teachers would, I walked over to her and said, “You know, when most people swear like that, it’s ugly, and easy to get upset about. But when you do it, it’s so cute it’s hard to get upset”. She blushed, smiled and was quiet the rest of the period. 0

Later in the year, she mentioned in passing that she lived with her grandmother. Out of curiosity, I asked why. She said her mom and dad had abandoned her and her grandmother took her in. So what she was trying to do was recreate her crummy past with them by getting me to kick her out of class – to reject her like her parents did. Luckily, I didn’t accept her invitation.

Shannon ended up dropping out of school as a junior – probably because she got too many others to take her up on her invitation to help her recreate her crummy past. But she did write me a nice letter before she did, and I still have it.


I often will calmly ask a student, “Why are you so upset?”, or afterward ask “Why did you get so upset before?”  In doing this, I'm focusing on, and asking them to focus on their anger instead of focusing on their behavior. Teachers too often focus on the latter. Addressing the anger first is important because if they stay angry, it will escalate. Anger also precludes anyone from doing the reflection necessary to see the "error of their way" because it gives the angry person a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. It’s why people say and do stupid things, things they regret later. 

They’ll usually be glad to tell you why they're upset. It won’t always be in the most tactful way, but if you can look past that, and concern yourself more with finding out the answer to your question, you’ll often get some important information. That information will help you make sense of why they're feeling threatened, and are so agitated and ready to strike out. It can also offer up solutions - alternatives to simply doing the equivalent of poking a rattler with a stick when it's already coiled and agitated.


More often than not, any emotional or behavioral overreaction in students will be an age regression. In many ways, every overreaction in any of us is. Something in the present has been recognized by their reptilian brain at an unconscious level as being similar to a past threatening situation. A primary function of the brain is to prevent recurrences of past threats. It's like that old saying, "those who don't learn from their history are doomed to repeat it". Their brain will be so worried about a repeat that it will ramp up quickly in response to any hint of a repeat of past threats. It's like they start reliving their past - it's like they pull out some old folder for a past experience, one that contains the old emotion they experienced. With each perceived recurrence, their reaction gets stronger. 

For this reason, I sometimes will say "Have you ever heard that an overreaction is an age regression? Do you know what that means?" Simply getting them to attend to my question can help short-circuit the HOT thoughts that are causing their anger. Parents use distraction with children all the time to get them to stop crying. I'll follow with, “When kids get really upset like you are now, it’s often because something about their current situation is reminding them of something that happened to them in the past, and it floods them with emotion. Is that happening to you now?”  Some kids will immediately see a connection between the present and their past, and let you know about it. That will help to start separating their past from the present. The goal is to get them to see "That was then, and this is now. This isn't then". You might also add "I'm not that other person" if it's appropriate.


Sometimes kids will spill their guts when given the chance, but other times they won’t. So many thoughts kids have at such times are so fleeting that they won't be able to verbalize them. It's why when adults ask kids, "What were you thinking when you did that?" they often will get "I don't know". I liken it to having a message board where a message rolls across the screen - but the speed is cranked up so much that the person can't tell you what just passed by. It's there, but moving too fast. In that case, you’ll have to speculate. A simple but important question my mentor taught us was, “If their behavior could talk, what would it say?” What might they be trying to tell us by the way they’re acting? What doesn’t come out in words will often come out in behavior. Their behavior is often the only way some kids can communicate any information about what’s going on inside them. We might need to active listen what is going on inside their heads for them, i.e. "Do you think this means....." or "So you're upset because they...."


Students will often exhibit a good deal of anger in teacher-student conflicts. It helps to remember that anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. It can serve a huge purpose in some kids’ lives because of these false senses. Many angry students feel powerless in many ways in their everyday lives. It could be from having had overbearing or even abusive people in their lives. But it could also simply be from not liking how they always feel, and not being able to feel better, or have their lives turn out the way they’d like. Anger acts like an anabolic steroid for them. They typically will also have heard about what they did wrong more than anything else. That will make a temporary, false sense of righteousness attractive. Most have had many hurtful things said and done to them, so they will welcome the false sense of permission to return the favor to others, even if they aren’t the ones who hurt them. Anger is often a secondary emotion to shame, guilt, anxiety or even depression they struggle with when not angry. As long as they stay angry, it protects them from feeling those ways. Kids will use anger like alcohol or drugs to get relief.

My “Tool Time” guys would get angry and get into arguments with teachers all the time. But when they went home, if there was no one to fight with, their anger would dissipate and their shame, guilt and depression would manifest themselves. So they would self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, which is why they often had trouble getting to school the next day. The shame would morph into anxiety in the morning, which is why they sometimes came to school high. The more you can help them with their primary emotions, the less purpose anger will serve in their lives, and the less likely it will be that it will become a driving force behind behavior we don’t like.


My mentor always said, "If a student goes ballistic, the last thing we need is a teacher going with them". Dr. Robert Marzano says teachers need to have "emotional objectivity" when dealing with classroom conflicts. As noted earlier, we always need at least one adult in the room. Anger will make otherwise smart people say and do stupid things, including teachers. The key to keeping your emotional thermostat down is to keep your cognitive thermostat down. How to do that is beyond the scope of this article. But you can read how at:

Or in many others artcles on this blog site.


Discovering any underlying emotions can help you work backward to the real cause of their anger and behavior. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. It’s really what students think about what has, is or might happen to them that really causes how they feel. If they are ever going to feel better, they will need to change the way they think. To do so, it helps to first help them identify what it is that they do think. Attitude is always the father of behavior. Their behavior will typically not change until their attitudes do.


Students typically have what Rudolph Dreikurs called “mistaken” goals when they misbehave, or don’t work. The same thoughts that give rise to their feelings, simultaneously give rise to these “mistaken” goals. These “mistaken” goals give rise to their behavior, and the emotion they generate becomes the driving force behind the behavior intended to satisfy their mistaken goals. Identifying their “mistaken” goals can also help you speculate what their thoughts are as well.

Dreikurs said students typically have one or more of four mistaken goals when they misbehave: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, and Avoidance of Failure. Attention seeking behavior tends to be driven by loneliness, or feeling estranged from what’s happening in a classroom or school. Power and Control, and Revenge are associated with and driven by anger. Avoidance of Failure is associated with and driven by shame and anxiety. Many times, it will seem like students are trying to get kicked out of class. Getting kicked out is a way to avoiding having to deal with potential and seemingly eminent failure. Another mistaken goal is Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. Students will seek to withdraw from and avoid unpleasantness, and get relief from feelings like anxiety, shame, guilt or depression. Smoking, drinking, using drugs, or even suicide are commons behaviors with this mistaken goal. But these behaviors can have other mistaken goals at the same time, i.e. attention, power and control or revenge.


I’ve always found using Dr. Albert Ellis’ model of irrational thinking helpful in figuring out what students might be thinking, and helping them do the same. Ellis said that when people of any age disturb themselves more than is helpful or necessary, or behave in ways that make their lives worse, they engage in four basic types of irrational thinking. He called them: Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning. He contended that all four types will always be there. Over the years, I’ve found that to be true.


I teach students and teachers five simple rules.

RULE #1 - We all have the right to want whatever we want

We have a right to want students to do as we ask. Most of what we ask of them is best for them anyways. But students also have the right to want what they want. I’ve always believed it’s important to respect that right. If I want them to respect my right to want what I do, it only makes sense to me  to respect theirs in return.

I will challenge students’ thoughts when they are irrational, especially when they are being demanding. But I’ll do it tactfully. I usually start by doing something called “affirming their preference”. That means saying something like, “Look, you have a right to want to do whatever you want to. Everyone has that right, and you do too.” I often add, “I can understand why you would want that”. This affirms and stipulates to their right to want whatever they want. That’s much better than arguing about whether they should or shouldn’t want what they do. That’s inflammatory, and a dead end.

According to Ellis, the mistakes people make are to:

1)      Start to think they NEED things they simply want

2)      Start to treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES

3)      Start to DEMAND what they simple desire

People can makes demands of others, themselves or life. Anger comes from making demands of others that don’t get met. Anxiety comes from making demands of themselves or life before events. Shame and guilt come from making demands of themselves after events. Depression comes from making demands of life. The demands often involve SHOULDING on others, themselves or life.

The reason this is important is because of Rule #2.

RULE #2 - The bigger the difference between peoples’ expectations and reality, the more emotion they’ll generate.

If people simply want, prefer or desire something, and don’t get it, they’ll be frustrated, irritated or annoyed. But if they think they need it, it’s a necessity in their lives, and demand it, and then don’t get it, they’ll get angry. People can set their THINK thermostats wherever they want to, but there will be emotional consequences for where they do.

Students will think they NEED to do something, like talk to a friend, check emails on their phone or text someone who texted them. They'll not only desire to do so, but DEMAND that they be able to . At the same time, teachers often will think they NEED for studentss to pay attention, show respect for what they're tyring to do in class, and do the work they are asked to. They not only desire that students do such things, but DEMAND that they do. It's an explosion looking for a place to happen.

RULE #3 - When people start to think they need things they simply want, and start to demand what they simply desire, it can make otherwise smart people do stupid things.

That’s true for both students and teachers. It’s why we see so many unnecessary conflicts between teachers and students about cell phones, and why they so often escalate unnecessarily. Students think they NEED to text someone or check emails so they'll risk detentions to do so. Teachers think students NEED to stay off their phones during class, so they'll try to take them away from students. Students have a right to want to use their phone during class, and teachers have a right to want them not to. But when both turn their THINK thermostats up to perceived NEEDS, then there will be more emotion generated on both sides than is helpful or necessary, and both parties will often start to behave stupidly, in ways they know aren’t going to help. 

RULE #4 – Behavior intended to satisfy a perceived need will trump behavior intended to satisfy a rational preference.

Students don't want to get into trouble. They never like getting detentions or suspensions. That's a rational preference. But when they think they NEED to talk to friends, check emails or text someone, they'll risk getting both. Teachers don't want to argue with students. That's a rational prefference. But when they think students NEED to pay attention, be respectful, and work, they'll be quick to argue with them.


There are a lot of things in life that are unpleasant, inconvenient, or uncomfortable to one degree or another. The mistake people make is to start telling themselves that what has, is or might happen to them is AWFUL. Awful means the worst possible thing that could happen. As my grandparents used to always say, “It could always be a lot worse”.


RULE #5 - We have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to

The mistake people make is to start to tell themselves that they CAN’T STAND what has happened to them, or COULDN’T STAND what might. People saying they CAN’T STAND something suggest they’re going to die or go crazy – that’s what would happen if people truly couldn’t stand something. Obviously people don’t die or go crazy when they say they CAN’T STAND something, so they’re exaggerating or lying to the lower parts of their brains that control emotion. In this way they needlessly inflame themselves. It’s why Ellis called this type of thinking CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS.


Labeling and damning is basically name-calling and put downs – condemning a person instead simply disliking his/her behavior. People have the right to dislike others’ or their own behavior, but they turn their THINK thermostat up to labeling and damning a person. People can label and damn others or themselves. It’s condemning the doer instead of their deed. It’s also over generalization, like calling an apple bad because it has a bruise, even though most of the apple is just fine. Labeling and damning sometimes is the only type of irrational thinking students will verbalize. Ellis said that when a person has one type of thinking, they will always have the other three.


Ultimately, it’s these thoughts that cause students to get upset more than is helpful or necessary, and to behave in ways that we don’t like, and that are unhealthy or self-defeating for them. The four types of irrational thinking listed above will be the kind “turtles” and “rattlesnakes” will both have.  They are also the same thoughts teachers can have to cause them to get angry and mismanage the student “rattlesnakes” we stumble upon. So it's important to learn to recognize them in ourselves, and to help students learn to recognize them in themselves.

Then it's important that we correct such thinking in ourselves, and tactfully challenge it in students. This article has gotten long, and how to do both of these things is simple in many ways, but would take time and more space to explain. So I'll just invite you to read about how to correct this thinking, or challenge it in students, please visit:

Then it's a question of practicing disputing, questioning and challenging our own irrational thinking until it becomes in our minds like grammar check on a computer, and encouraging students to do the same.