SEL Tip: We can shape our self-talk

We all have self-talk. Fortunately, we, and our students, can learn to shape what that self-talk is.

We all have self-talk. Fortunately, we, and our students, can learn to shape what that self-talk is.

As we go about our daily lives we are constantly interpreting the situations in which we find ourselves. These interpretations are voiced inside our head with an internal voice that only we can hear. This voice influences how we feel about any given situation. Psychologists call this inner voice “self-talk,” and it includes our conscious thoughts as well as our unconscious assumptions or beliefs.

Sometimes our self-talk is helpful and reasonable, for example, “I’d better do some preparation for that exam,” or “I’m really looking forward to hanging out this weekend.” This kind of self-talk usually makes us feel better.
However, our self-talk can also be negative, unrealistic or self-defeating. For instance, “I’m going to fail for sure,” or “They hate me.” Negative, unrealistic, or self-defeating self-talk usually makes us feels worse.
But with practice, we – and our students – can learn to notice our own negative self-talk as it happens, and we can consciously change it.

Teaching Kids to Choose Their Self-Talk

Here is a simple process to help students observe and choose their self-talk.

  • First, share this definition of self-talk: The act or practice of talking to oneself, either aloud or silently and mentally.
  • Let everyone know that we all experience silent self-talk within our minds, unconsciously, during our everyday lives. Students might even have some silent self-talk going on right now. They might be thinking, “I’m hungry.” Or, “What is self-talk?” Or, “Will I do okay on the test next period?”
  • Set a timer and tell students that for the next minute, we’ll sit in silent meditation, with eyes closed, and observe our silent self-talk.
  • After the minute has passed, ask students to open their eyes and share the self-talk that they observed inside their own minds. Let them know that there are no right or wrong answers. Chart the students’ answers.
  • Let students know that some of our self-talk is positive or neutral, which usually makes us feel better, and some of it is negative, which usually makes feel worse. See if you and the students can categorize the answers you charted into those that might make the person feel better and those that might the person feel worse.
  • Sometimes our thoughts are focused on a real mistake or problem that needs to be addressed. Negative self-talk about this might include berating ourselves over and over. Positive self-talk could include thinking about how we can address the problem and reminding ourselves that making mistakes is part of life and doesn’t make us “bad.”
  • Let students know that they have the power to change their self-talk if it is making them feel worse.  One way to do this is to shift their interpretation of a situation from negative to neutral or positive.



Self-Talk Brainstorm

Present the following situations to the class and let students brainstorm possible neutral or positive self-talk responses.

Situation #1
You are looking for a spot to sit in the lunch room and approach a table. The students sitting there are unwelcoming and one of them says, “We don’t have any room for you” – even though there is an empty seat.

  • Negative Self-Talk:  “No one likes me. I’ll never make any good friends.”
  • Positive Self-Talk:

Situation #2
You have an important question for the teacher, but the teacher tells you that he/she doesn’t have time to answer it.

  • Negative Self-Talk:  “I can’t figure this out by myself!”
  • Positive Self-Talk:

Situation #3
You are your sister are fighting over the remote control. Your mom comes in and yells at you,  even though it was your sister who started the fight.

  • Negative Self-Talk:  “My parents think my brother/sister is an angel! I get in trouble for everything!”
  • Positive Self-Talk:

Situation #4
You’ve just received your grade for the final math test.  You failed, even though you love math usually do well.

  • Negative Self-Talk:  “I’m terrible at math. I’ll never go to college like I want to. “
  • Positive Self-Talk:




Close the session by asking students to share some positive self-talk that they might use to make themselves feel better when they are anxious, scared, or angry.