Section 1: Definition
Cognitions are the ideas and beliefs that we express through self-talking (the way we talk) and self-images (the way we think). Our cognitions guide our perception or interpretation of an event, which in turn influences the way we feel about the event (e.g. amazed, embarrassed, threatened, or angry). The way we feel about the event in turn influences the way we respond to the event. For example, if I perceive the event as hazardous to my health, I feel threatened and find ways to protect myself, but if the same event is challenging to me, I feel energized mentally and physically and behave accordingly. In other words, the way we feel and behave is a reaction to the way we perceive or interpret the event.
Based on this basic premise, the cognitive-emotive approach, also known as rational-emotive thinking, states that we control our emotional destinies by the way we look at the events that take place in our lives, and by the actions we choose to deal with these events. The cognitive-emotive view states that the negative or conflictive things that happen to us do not upset us, but our view or interpretation of what happened is what troubles us. Albert Ellis, the founder of rational-emotive therapy or RET, developed the A-B-C Model of Emotions, where A is the antecedent and C is the consequence. According to the cognitive-emotive model, A (what happened) does not cause C (the emotional or behavioral consequence); B, or our beliefs about A is what causes C. In Ellis’ model, cognitions (B) represent a mediating operation between the stimulus (A) and our response (C). What we call emotions and behavior do not merely stem from our reaction to the environment, but mainly from our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about that environment. To put it in RET’s terminology, our thinking is what creates our emotions (Ellis in Ellis and Grieger, 1977).
Section 2: Hypotheses
The cognitive-emotive model develops from several hypotheses. From Ellis (in Ellis and Grieger, 1977), we adapted the following list to school-aged children:
Hypothesis 1: Thinking creates emotion. Emotions and behavior do not merely stem from children’s reactions to the environment, but mainly from children’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about that environment.
Hypothesis 2: Semantic processes and self-statements influence behavior. The things children say to themselves, as well as the way in which they say those things, significantly affect their emotions and behavior.
Hypothesis 3: Students emotional or mood states depend on cognition, that is, depend on what they believe or tell themselves about events.
Hypothesis 4: Awareness, insight, and self-monitoring of troubled behavior influence and change that behavior. Increased awareness and monitoring of behavior (what children say, think, and do to disturb themselves) lead to behavioral change. When we teach emotionally troubled and acting-out children how to observe and analyze their disruptive behaviors, we can modify those behaviors. Self-monitoring of behavior is more effective than monitoring of behavior by an outside observer.
Hypothesis 5: Imagining (visualizations) and fantasizing mediate emotions and behaviors.
Hypothesis 6: Cognitions or thinking, emotions and behavior are interrelated. When teachers or parents successfully influence and modify one of the three, the other two change automatically.
Hypothesis 7: Expectancy influences behavior. When a child expects that something will happen, or expects that others will act or respond in a particular way, that child’s expectation influences the way he behaves.
Hypothesis 8: Students’ perceived loci of control influence their behavior. When children see situations, others’ reactions, and even their own behavior as something within their control (internal locus of control), they act differently than when they see those situations as stemming from external sources and outside their control (external locus of control).
Hypothesis 9: Children’s attribution errors influence their emotions and behavior. Like adults, children too attribute motives, reasons, and causes for behavior to other people, to external events, and to internal or mental states. These attributions, or misattributions if they are inaccurate, significantly influence children’s emotions and behavior.
Hypothesis 10: Children have the choice of behavioral change.
Hypothesis 11: To modify troubled behavior, education and information is important.
Hypothesis 12: Effective coping with stress and threats relates to children’s self-perception, that is, relates to how well children believe they can cope. When a teacher is dealing with an emotionally troubled student, it is important to teach the child coping skills, and then, the teacher manipulates the child’s belief system to help her see that she has the skills to cope.
Hypothesis 13: Emotionally disturbed and acting-out students are deficient in social problem-solving skills. Teaching students social problem-solving skills is therapeutic.
Section 3: Key Concepts
Key concepts in the cognitive-emotive model include attributions, cognitive errors, and rationality/irrationality.
- Perception is the process of registering the sensory stimuli as a meaningful experience. A sensation, or sensory stimulus, is simple. Our brain recognizes the sensory stimuli and joins those simple elements through association, which makes perception a complex task. Our brain recognizes, joins, and interprets the sensory stimuli, making evaluative judgments and identifying attributes. Learning strongly influences and modifies our perceptions.
- Cognition is the psychological term for the mental functions or processing of information, applying our knowledge, and changing our preferences. In simpler terms, cognitions are how we know the world. Students’ mental processes or thoughts (the way they think) are evident to teachers through their self-talking and self-images. According to the cognitive-emotive model, children's self-talking and self-images guide us in understanding and modifying their feelings and behavior.
- Attitudes are affective or emotional responses to social situations. Attitudes represent a degree of like or dislike for an item, that is, positive and negative views of another person, place, thing, or event. In one word, attitudes are judgments.
- Expectations are inferences and predictions that we all make about how others will behave based upon a set of beliefs that the evidence available may or may not support. Once an expectation is set, even if it is not accurate, we tend to act in ways that are consistent with that expectation. Teachers communicate both social (behavior) and academic expectations to students all the time; high expectations lead us to expect more from children, but lower expectations lead us to expect less.
- Locus of control is a psychological concept developed by Julian Rotter in the 1950’s. This concept refers to our perception about the underlying causes of events in our lives. When we believe that the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do, we have an internal control orientation, but if we believe that the outcomes of our actions are outside our personal control, we have an external control orientation. Children with an internal locus orientation believe that the good or bad outcomes in their lives are due to their personal decisions and efforts. Children with an external locus orientation feel that good and bad outcomes in their lives result from fate, luck, or other external or environmental circumstances, e.g., “I had a low score on the science test because Ms. Williams hates me and gave me a bad grade.”
- Appraisal is a cognitive process in which children evaluate an event or situation as stressful or benign in terms of the significance of the event for their well-being. There are two main types of appraisal:
ü In primary appraisal, the child evaluates the stress value of an event or situation. Here, the child may appraise the situation or event as irrelevant, positive, or stressful. If the child appraises the situation as stressful, he moves to the next level.
ü In secondary appraisal, the child evaluates the resources, mental and physical, that he has to deal with the event or situation. In other words, the child is appraising his coping options. The more coping skills the child believes he has, the less stress he feels. For example, in taking a test, the child may appraise the situation as positive because he feels certain that he will pass, or he may appraise the situation as stressful because he lacks confidence on his skills or ability, believing that the test will be too difficult for him. If the student has the skills, even when his self-confidence is low, he may appraise the situation as difficult but challenging.
- Attributions start from the premise that we all need to explain the world, both to ourselves and to other people, attributing causes to the events around us. This gives us a sense of self-control. In other words, we feel we need to explain why we do what we do, attributing causes to our behavior and to the behavior of others. The way we interpret events (attribute causes) influences both our thinking and our behavior. We can classify attributions along three causal dimensions:
ü Locus of control with its two poles, internal and external.
ü Stability/instability, or whether causes change over time or not. For example, ability is both a stable and an internal cause; effort is also internal but unstable (can change).
ü Controllability contrasts those causes that we can control, like our skills or efficacy, from those causes that we cannot control like our ability, others’ actions, or luck.
In the classroom, attributions explain the difference in motivation and performance between high-achieving students and low-achieving children. For example, children with learning problems are more likely to attribute school failure to low ability (a stable and uncontrollable factor), and less likely to attribute failure to effort (an unstable and controllable factor). High achievers, on the other hand, believe that school success is due to high ability and effort, and failure is the result of bad luck or a poor exam, in other words, failure is not their fault.
- Cognitive distortion, cognitive errors, or irrational thinking is a pattern of deviation in our reasoning and judgment that happens in particular situations. These faulty thought patterns consist mainly of exaggerations, distortions, and negative thoughts. Most common cognitive errors are (See for example DeRubeis and Beck, in Dobson, 1988; also, Shapiro, 1994):
ü Arbitrary inference, that is, drawing conclusions when the supporting evidence is lacking, or in spite of contradictory evidence.
ü Generalization or drawing a general rule or conclusion from an isolated incident and applying that rule to other related and unrelated incidents. For example, when Lucy scored a forty on the science test (one event at one particular time), she generalized, “I always mess up.” After an argument with a peer, Cody generalized, “No one likes me.” Labeling is one kind of generalization, for example, “I’m dumb” or “You are a jerk!” When we pay attention to children’s talking, we learn to recognize the cognitive errors or irrational thinking that drives their painful feelings and troubled behavior.
ü Catastrophic thinking or making the event worse, for example, “I cannot stand that I was not invited to Cindy’s birthday party. No one will want to be my friend after this.”
ü Selective abstraction happens when the child ignores the overall characteristics of the event, focusing and basing her conclusion about the whole event on a single detail.
ü Focusing on negative details, for example, “I slipped on the dance; I’m such a terrible dancer.” (This is also a generalization.)
ü Absolutistic thinking, for example, “I will never have friends” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”
ü Personalization is relating the event to self when there is no reason to do so, e.g., “All the other kids are whispering about me and laughing at me” or “My science teacher seems upset. She must be thinking that I’m such a big failure.”
ü Disqualifying positive occurrences, for example, “My science teacher smiled at me because she feels sorry for me” and “She only said that I did a good job because she is kind.”
ü Misattributions, “I said ‘hi’ and William ignored me. I must have done something wrong for William to be so angry with me.”
ü Dichotomous thinking or all-or-none thinking is placing the event in one of two opposite extreme categories, e.g. the best thing that ever happened to me or the worst thing that ever happened to me, with no in-betweens.
ü Magnification and minimization are making errors in judging the magnitude of the event, which leads to a distortion in evaluating the true meaning of the event. For example, “I gave such a dumb answer in class; now the other kinds think I’m stupid.”
- Rationality/irrationality. Rational thinking is any thought that the facts and evidence support (can be proved). Irrational thinking, on the other hand, reflects the child’s cognitive distortions or cognitive errors, and it is not supported by the evidence (cannot be proved). Irrational thinking is negative thinking, leading to self-defeating and/or self-destructive thoughts, troubled emotions, and/or dysfunctional behaviors. The cognitive-emotive literature distinguishes between three categories of cognitive errors/irrational thinking:
ü Demands like “should,” “must,” and “have to.” For example, “I must go to Cindy’s party!”
ü Exaggerations like, “My life is ruined!”
ü Absolute thinking like, “She cannot do this to me!”
Teaching Children Rational Thinking
According to the cognitive-emotive model or RET, coping is the ability to deal effectively, but not necessarily in a perfect way, with a social problem when the problem arises. In schools, the RET approach focuses on eliminating irrational beliefs and teaching rational self-talking and rational thinking to emotionally troubled and acting-out students. A therapeutic teacher trained in the cognitive-emotive method listens closely to the troubled child’s self-talking to help the child identify and eliminate his or her irrational beliefs and attitudes. In a process known as cognitive behavior modification, the RET teacher explains to children that their angry and troubled feelings are not that much in response to what happened to them, but in response to how they think and interpret what happened. When children learn how to control their irrational talking and irrational thinking, they also gain emotional and behavioral self-control. On my book, Thinking, Feeling, and Behaving: A Cognitive-Emotive Model to Get Children to Control their Behavior, I detail in full how to apply rational thinking techniques to the classroom.The printed edition of this book is now available on Amazon.
DeRubeis, R., & Beck, A. (1988). Cognitive therapy. In K. S. Dobson (ed.), Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies (pp. 272-306). New York: Guilford Press.
Ellis, A. (1977). The basic clinical theory of rational-emotive therapy. In A. Ellis & R. Grieger (Eds.), Handbook of rational-emotive therapy (pp. 3-34). NY: Springer Publishing.
Shapiro, L. E. (1994). Tricks of the trade: 101 psychological techniques to help children grow and change. King of Prussia, PA: Center for Applied Psychology.
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