Self-Care: Self-Talk for Elementary School

Activities to help elementary students develop the key self-care practice of positive self-talk, from affirmations to gratitude.

To the Teacher:

As schools and families continue to grapple with the continuing Covid pandemic, one thing we know for sure: This coming school year won’t be business as usual.  Nor should it be.  

The changes and losses we’ve experienced during this pandemic have been hard to handle, overwhelming at times. And, as is too often the case, they’ve been disproportionately devastating for poor families and families of color. And now the uncertainty around when this will all be over, how we will transition out of it, is wearing on people. It’s uncomfortable and brings with it further anxiety, stress, and exhaustion.

Young people are absorbing all this, both the deep losses and the changing moods of the adults in their lives. Some are also struggling with new responsibilities, uncertainty, isolation, and grief. 

As we move into the new school year – whatever that might look like – self-care for us, the adults, is key so we can stay strong and healthy ourselves to support our children at this time. Self-care may also be one of the most important things we can teach young people at a time like this.  Part four of our series of activities for the corona age explores self-care practices for all of our K-12 students, from the youngest to the oldest. Below, we provide ideas for helping students develop the key self-care practice of positive self-talk. 

About Self-Care With Students

In the process of engaging young people in social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindful awareness practice, we naturally begin to teach them about self-care. One of the core competencies of SEL is “self awareness.” With increased self-awareness, students can begin developing practices and skills that they can employ to take care of themselves. This can include learning how to center themselves, stay grounded and present, calm themselves down, gain insight and perspective, and decide on possible next steps to meet their needs – all while recognizing and respecting the needs of others.

Rather than telling young people what to do and how to do it, our goal should be to support students in cultivating the awareness, skills and practices that they find useful. They need to be able to make their own choices in the moment about how to handle themselves and the situation at hand – whether we, as adults, are around or not.  Building on the activities already shared in our Covid-19 series (especially those around recognizing and naming to tame our feelings so as not to be overwhelmed or controlled by them) the activities below support young people in further developing their capacity for self-care, through self-talk. 

Before we continue, you might consider the tree of contemplative practices created by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Consider the multiple branches as ways to practice different kinds of self (and community) care and healing. 

Think about your own practices. What has worked for you? How did you come to that practice? Now think about your students, their life experiences, their personalities, and who they are in the world. What might work for them? Have you asked? Have you given them opportunities to try different ways, to share practices that have worked for them perhaps? 

Consider this series on self-care as a joint exploration with your students so that you can all learn together.


Introducing Students to Self-Talk and the Brain

Self-talk is one of many self-care practices that can help us and our students both prevent and respond to stress. (See our units on intentional breathing practices and music (K-2, 3-5), two other self-care strategies that can help us deal with stressful times.) 

Self-talk is a powerful tool that can help us get through challenging situations and create some distance from them. It can even enable us to rewire our brains!  While we used to believe that our brains were fixed in adolescence, in recent years neuroscientists have discovered that we can continue to grow and (re)shape our brains well into old age. It’s what’s referred to as neuroplasticity.

Say you’re a complainer. You’re always looking for what’s wrong with a person or situation. You might be beating up on yourself. Not only does this negative outlook impact how you feel, your accompanying thoughts manifest as a neural pathway in the brain. And as you travel down this negative path more and more often, new connections between neurons are created to facilitate this particular thought process. Eventually the pathway may even be insulated, through a process called myelination, which further increases the speed with which these neurons fire together. 

But if instead you turn your thoughts to what’s good about a particular moment, a different set of neurons start to fire together. With practice, the connection between them is strengthened and a new neural pathway comes into being. This more traveled path becomes the default as the “what’s bad about the person or situation” path is pruned back, in a process called “synaptic pruning.” Over time, the physical structure of the brain is re-wired.

Rewiring the brain using positive self-talk has the additional benefit that it can help us boost our self-esteem, strengthen our emotional resilience, and, like regular breathing practices, protect us from anxiety and stress.  Self-esteem in turn has been said to boost our emotional immune system.


“Negativity Bias”

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that our brains are wired to focus on what’s negative. It is a survival mechanism that was intended to keep early humans safe. Their more primitive brains developed systems to zero in on threat and danger, sending messages at lightning speed to their bodies to react and get to safety. In modern humans, those ancient brain systems are alive and well, even if we may not face the same dangers we did in ancient times. 
This “negativity bias” spills into the classroom, in that positive and negative feedback are weighted differently for those receiving it. We are wired to experience criticism more intensely than praise. As a result, if we want to help young people develop their emotional immune systems, our feedback needs to significantly tilt towards the positive (research suggests a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative messaging).

Of course, some of this, students can be empowered to do on their own. This is where working with them on positive self-talk comes into play. Self-talk is an important tool for emotional regulation. It can help boost our confidence and belief in ourselves. It can also help us gain a more positive outlook on life and increase choices to respond to situations more effectively. Negative self-talk, on the other hand, can lead to anxiety and depression, and is more likely to narrow our options when it comes to decision-making.


Early Messages

Often how we feel about ourselves and our responses to the world around us depend on our early programming. Many of the beliefs we hold about ourselves are a reflection of the early messages we received from the people we grew up with—our parents, peers, teachers, neighbors, faith leaders, and others in the community. No matter how positive some of their messages about us may have been, we all grew up in a larger society that devalues and degrades women, BIPOC, poor people, disabled people, and many other groups who are deemed (and often referred to and treated) as “less than” by mainstream society. We can’t avoid absorbing these negative messages. They surround us, everywhere, like the air we all breathe. 

These messages can weigh on a person’s spirit, and become a heavy emotional burden if they are not countered and dismantled. They impact how students feel about themselves and respond to the world around them. Helping students replenish their spirits, and teaching them ways to do so themselves, is crucial, especially in challenging times like these.  

With awareness and practice, negative self-talk can be transformed to generate positive feelings and self-worth.  

1. Positive Affirmations

As we slow down, breathe deeply, relax, and become more aware of our thoughts and feelings, we can learn to transform our negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our ability, and our performance. Research tells us that our thoughts are as real to the brain as what’s happening in our outer lives. This is one reason why positive affirmations can be so effective. Positive affirmations work best when you:

  • use the present tense and the first person (as in, “I am enough,” “I am lovable” or “I am a good friend”)
  • frame them in the positive (instead of “I am not weak,” try “I am strong”)
  • speak them as if they are fact and truth (no mights, shoulds, or coulds)
  • repeat them confidently to yourself multiple times a day, especially before going to sleep or right before a difficult conversation or test 

You can reinforce positive affirmations with physical touch. Tap the back of your hand, gently caress your arm or apply pressure to your temples as you state your affirmation. Consider positive affirmations that have four syllables (e.g. “I am calm now,” “I can do this,” “I am ready,” etc.) so that you can squeeze your thumb and fingers together one syllable at a time, from your index finger, through to your pinky, several times over. 

Modeling Positive Affirmations: We know that children learn best by example – the idea of “do as I do, not just as I say.” So as the adult in the (virtual) room, it is important you let them know what affirmations look and sound like. Share some of your favorite affirmations, and talk about their impact. And if affirmations are not part of your daily practice, now is a great time to start. 

Try positive affirmations first thing in the morning. It helps having a consistent time of day, to turn this into a regular, empowering self-care practice. Consider some sentence starters, like:

  • I …  matter, have got this, figured it out all by myself, etc.
  • I am … loved, powerful, blessed, etc.
  • I can … do this, sit in discomfort, make a difference, etc. 
  • I choose … love over fear, compassion, generosity, etc. 

Also affirm your students, modeling language that they, in turn, can use to affirm themselves. Use their names and look them in the eye as you tell them:

  • Marissa, you matter.
  • You are loved, Tamir.
  • Rosa, you are smart.
  • Class/friends, you can do this, you’ve got this, you are persistent.
  • Congrats Louis. Your efforts paid off; you figured it out!

What we know is that our self-talk is shaped by the way caregivers speak to us. As an influential adult in students’ lives, you can help transform their negative self-talk into more positive, affirming messages over time. That, or you can further affirm the positive self-talk they’ve already been practicing. Watch this short clip of three-year-old Ayaan reciting positive affirmations on his way to school. Clearly it is never too early to start.

Brainstorming and Putting Positive Affirmations to Use: If affirmations aren’t part of your practice, you can choose to build one alongside your students. 

  • Ask if they use positive self-talk in their lives. If so, what are their favorites? 
  • Brainstorm a list of positive affirmations for all to draw on, as you all practice getting better at positively affirming yourself and others in the classroom.
  • Ask students what it feels like to positively affirm themselves. Accept the feelings that come up, from weird, uncomfortable, and embarrassing to happy, exciting, warm, and fulfilling, and everything in between. 

Call and Response Affirmations (to start or end your lesson): Ask students to repeat after you a set of affirmations, in a call and response way, e.g. 

  • You: “I am enough”          Class: “I am enough”
  • You: “I am powerful”        Class: “I am powerful”
  • You: “I am lovable”          Class: “I am lovable”

Repeat a second or third time, as you see fit. As this becomes part of your classroom rituals, invite student volunteers to lead the call and response, coming up with their own positive affirmations over time.

Consider using the following video for call and response affirmations, set to music: 33 Positive Affirmations for Kids' Self-Esteem

Positive Affirmation Songs: Songs are yet another way to introduce positive affirmations into the early childhood classroom:

Sesame Street: I Wanna Be Me Song
After listening to the song, talk about what message Cecile is trying to send. 

  • How does Cecile feel when other people are telling her how to be or who to be?
  • How does she feel about being herself?

Yes, I Can! | Animal Song For Children | Super Simple Songs
After listening to the song, talk about the different things the animals can do. Next, have students finish their own sentence starter: I can … [fill in some of the things they can do].

  • How does it make them feel to list all the things they can do?

I Am Smart: Positive Self-Talk that gives Children Self Confidence
Consider playing this song in two parts.  The first part is touches on different affirmations (called affies in the song).  The second part touches on being smart.

Sesame Street: Sings "What I Am"
After listening to the song, talk about the different things that can do. 

  • What do the animals tell him he is? 
  • How does feel? 
  • Why do you think that is?
  • Next, have students finish their own sentence starter:  I am …
  • How does it make them feel to list all the good things they are?


2. Gratitude Practice

Research shows that one way to take stress down a notch is to cultivate gratitude as a nurturing self-care practice. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis has been associated with enhanced optimism, better sleep, fewer physical ailments, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Try it yourself so you can more authentically guide your students:

  • Think of something you are grateful for. It could be anything, large or small. Consider, for instance, feeling grateful for waking up in a comfortable bed, having hot water for your morning shower, or having a good cup of coffee to start your day. You might be grateful for having a job, for your family, for supportive colleagues or the students in your class. Whatever it is, direct your mind to go there. 
  • Consider how it makes you feel. Take a few moments to sit with that feeling before moving on to the rest of your day. 

Taking charge of our thoughts in this way can shift our feelings in a positive direction. Those more positive feelings can lead to a shift in behavior—we might become more calm and thoughtful, for instance. And that can result in a calmer environment in our classrooms that can lead to improved outcomes. Just imagine being grateful for those outcomes … and feel your stress levels drop!

Modeling Gratitude: Similar to the affirmations above, modeling gratitude, showing how it’s done, can help students direct their brains to go to what they’re grateful for. 

Gratitude Prompts:  And if it’s hard for students to get started on a gratitude practice consider using gratitude prompts.  Some of the ones below can help students get started.

  • I’m grateful for  [a person or persons in your life]
  • I’m grateful for  [a pet, or animals in your life]
  • I’m grateful for  [things in your home or in your building]
  • I’m grateful for  [things in your yard, your street or the park]
  • I’m grateful for  [things in your neighborhood]
  • I’m grateful for  [things you enjoy doing]

You can focus on the senses:

  • I’m grateful for  [something you can hear]
  • I’m grateful for  [something you can see]
  • I’m grateful for  [something you can touch/feel]
  • I’m grateful for  [something you can smell]
  • I’m grateful for  [something you can taste]

Or colors: 

  • I’m grateful for   [something blue]
  • I’m grateful for   [something green]
  • I’m grateful for   [something red]
  • I’m grateful for   [something yellow]
  • I’m grateful for   [something orange]
  • I’m grateful for   [something in your favorite color]

Or whatever else you think students might be grateful for in their lives.  You can also ask them to explain why.

A Gratitude Journal: Keeping a gratitude journal, for the older grades, is another way for us to direct our brains to go to what’s going well and what we appreciate, so as to counter the negativity bias that our brains are wired for. Writing a journal in longhand can help us slow down and reflect more deeply on the things we’re grateful for. Perhaps journaling before going to sleep works for some students, but keeping a journal at the start of class for a few minutes, might be another way of having students practice. And remember, like any practice, focusing on what you’re grateful for comes easier with time.  

Gratitude Drawing: Consider having the younger grades draw what their grateful for and maybe write a word or more to explain what they drew. Have them show their drawing to the rest of the class and explain what they’re grateful for.

Create a (Virtual) Gratitude Jar: This practice can have a profound impact on your students’ and classroom’s well-being. Get a jar and decorate it in an appealing way. Have students share one thing they’re grateful for every day. Collect all the things students are grateful for, write them on index cards, and put them in the jar. The jar will fill up with the many things your students are grateful for, while cultivating their gratitude practice. When a student is having a rough day and needs a pick-me-up, they can ask for a card or two from the jar to help focus on what’s good in life.  You can also have students make their own jars that they fill up themselves and are able to draw on when they need it.  

Opening or Closing The Day With Gratitude:  Inviting young people to reflect on what they’re grateful for can be turned into a collective self-care practice. Invite students one after the other to share what they’re grateful for. After everyone has shared, ask them to check in with themselves, and recognize how that made them feel. When doing this activity with groups, I often feel the energy in the room shift as smiles appear, and nodding shows how people connect to the things other people in the group are grateful for as well. It’s a great way to start or close out the day.

Appreciations: You can also invite students to share what they appreciate about others in their class. Encourage them to focus on substantive appreciations that make this activity more meaningful. Instead of, “I appreciate Sam for being my friend,” ask them what it is about Sam that makes them a good friend. Or when students share that they appreciate someone for their humor, ask them to talk about a specific time and how it made them feel. This kind of story-telling is an important part of building community, as well as empathy. Of course, it may take some time for students to get comfortable enough with their peers to open up. As always, as the teacher, modeling more meaningful appreciations can help push students to make theirs more meaningful as well.

Songs Focused on Gratitude and Appreciations:  Songs are yet another way to introduce gratitude practice into the early childhood and higher elementary classroom.  Listen to some of the following songs, then reflect on them by drawing, writing or discussing in pairs, small groups and/or the full class.

Thank You Chant | Thank You Song for Kids | Gratitude Song | Preschool Educational Videos
If You're Thankful and You Know It Song for Kids | Thanksgiving Songs for Children | The Kiboomers
The Thank You Song
Thank You | Kids Dance Music | Didi & Friends Kids Songs to Dance
What a Wonderful World, Bob Thiele and George David Weiss

Gratitude Yoga.  Yo Re Me Kids combines kid-friendly affirmations with yoga practice aimed at keeping children’s minds and bodies healthy.