4 Steps to Positive Thinking: Activities for Elementary 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
teach students to transform their negative thoughts to positive ones in 4 steps.

Take a moment to think about the times during the day it would help students to use positive self talk. I doubt you are at a loss to name some. Learning to give ourselves positive messages versus negative ones can be the push we need to try something new or try again. When students learn to challenge negative thinking and encourage themselves with positive thoughts, they build their resiliency and improve their confidence.

What is Self Talk?

Self talk are the words we say to ourselves. These words can be positive or negative. You can use the term self-talk or thoughts or messages. 

  • Negative self talk is when we tell ourselves we can’t do something or we aren’t good enough. It can stop us from trying new things, doubt ourselves, or push us to think the worst.
  • Positive self talk is when we remind ourselves we can try our best or that we are good enough. It can help us face challenges, take risks, set big goals, and build confidence.

Students will learn to recognize strengths, opportunities for growth, and reasons to try again. Positive self talk isn’t about making students optimistic, but rather being resilient when faced with challenges.

4 Steps to Positive Self Talk

So let's dig into some ways you can help students develop positive thinking.

1. Spot Self Talk

Practice spotting negative and positive self talk with students. Make note of your own self talk when you are doing something new or hard. When students are reading books or you have a read aloud, take time to note the kind of positive or negative thinking a character is having. 

Before student can develop consistent positive self talk, they need to be able to identify it.

Try having students sort thoughts as negative or positive. You can also have them sort thoughts that are too positive, too negative, or just right.

challenging negative thoughts

2. Challenge Negative Self Talk

Part of developing positive self talk is challenging the negative thoughts that come in. Teach students these four strategies and have them pick the one that feels the most natural to them.

Best Friend's Eyes

If your best friend was faced with this challenge, what would you say to them to encourage them? As you start, keep your best friend's positive words in your head.

You're awesome! Try your best.

What Can You Control?

Sometimes there are situations that are out of our control, like what other people do or if it rains today. But no matter what, we can control how we act, think and feel. When you are faced with a challenge, repeat the things you can control. 

I can control how I feel, what I think, and how I act.

Boss the Thought

Sometimes negative thoughts come in and take over. They tell you all the things you can't do. You can be the boss though. Tell your negative thoughts who is in charge.

That's not true. It doesn't have to be perfect. I can try my best.

Ugh, But

Sometimes things aren't perfect. That's okay. We can try to find some positives. Try using an Ugh, But sentence.

Ugh, our field trip got cancelled, but at least we get to go to gym twice this week.

3. Change Negative Self Talk

Once they can challenge their negative self talk, they need to replace it with something positive. Have students create a couple different positive self talk phrases and then find the one or two that work for them. 

It is important that students realize positive self talk is a strategy they can use. They won't always give themselves positive messages, but they can stop, spot the negative thought, and try to replace it.

Note About Ability vs Effort

A lot of articles and resources on positive self talk focus on having students create positive self-talk phrases that are ability focused.

For example, “I am good at this” or “I’m smart.” Those can be helpful for students and you don’t have to put positive affirmation resources in the recycling bin.

BUT there is some research that effort-based self talk is more effective, especially for students who have negative beliefs about their competence, like not being good at math. For these students, it is better for them to focus on their effort.

They can say something like “I can try my best” or “I can work hard.” The thinking is that focusing on ability can make them fear that failure would reveal their weak skills. While focusing on effort is about what they can control.

4. Practice Positive Self Talk

Positive thinking happens through regular practice, not just a few lessons here or there. Add in positive messages and thinking throughout your day. 

You can put sticky notes on student's desks with positive messages or quotes on them.

You can use your daily morning message as an opportunity to have students practice positive thinking first thing in the morning.

Have students do a daily gratitude exercise for a week. They write down three things that went well that day and tell why it went well. These can be small things like they worked with a friend or they got extra recess time. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Positive self talk will happen over time for students with practice and an encouraging environment. It is also important for students to know that negative thinking is normal and happens to everyone. We can recognize it and decide what to do about it though.

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About Laura

I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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