Size of the Problem – Strategies When Everything is a Big Deal 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

Students can get stuck in a rut overreacting to small problems again and again. You've done size of the problem lessons, but in the moment students often have a hard time telling the difference between big deals and little deals.

When we talk about the size of a problem, we often don't look at what caused the student to misjudge it in the first place. Often at the root of thinking something is a big deal is a thinking mistake. Students have a negative thought about themselves or others or a situation. Negative feelings happen after that. Then off we are to meltdown mountain.

For example, someone is whispering to a friend. Your student thinks they are talking about them. They assume everyone hates them and they feel angry and sad. They pout and put their head down and refuse to talk to anyone. 

There are a couple thinking mistakes at the beginning of this big reaction. We can help students understand the kind of missteps (i.e., automatic negative thoughts) they make so they can be better at judging the size of a problem and controlling the size of their reaction.

This post is going to cover typical thinking mistakes kids make, help students recognizethem, and connect those to big (over)reactions.

Thinking Mistakes 101

Making thinking mistakes is part of being human. There are 6 kinds kids may make.

Gloomy: focus on small negative things.

  • You get a 90 on a spelling test and think: “So stupid! How did I miss it? It’s such an easy word.”
  • Your friend compliments your new jacket and you think: “She’s always so nice. This jacket is so boring. She can’t possibly really like it.”

Hype: make something into a big deal.

  • You forgot to turn in your book report and think: “Now I’m going to fail. My teacher isn’t going to let me turn it in late.”
  • You get in a fight with you friend and think: “I’m not talking to him again. That’s it!”

Omen: predict bad things will happen.

  • You have a class party today and you think: “It will probably get canceled because of our behavior with the substitute yesterday.”
  • Your teacher didn't call you when you raised your hand and you think: “She thinks I don’t know the answer and I am going to waste everyone’s time."

Fault: blame ourselves or someone else.

  • You didn't turn your book report in and you think: “My teacher should have reminded me.”
  • Your bike got a flat tire and you think: “I probably ran over something sharp because I never pay attention. My mom should just take away my bike.”

Rule: focus on what should happen.

  • Jeff gets extra time on his tests and you think: “No fair! We should all get more time.”
  • Craig is reading at recess and you think: “Craig should play with everyone else. I’m going to take his book so he can’t read.”

Heart: only listen to feelings.

  • You finished your art project and think: “It's embarrassing. It’s not as good as Simone’s. Hers are always the best.”
  • You have a solo at the concert and think: “I'm so nervous. Hopefully no one walks out. I’m glad it’s short.”
Negative Thinking Strategies

Get Specific: My Thinking Mistakes

Kids often make one or two kinds of these most often, so it is helpful to focus in on the ones that are personal to them. 

For example, does your student get stuck on what should happen or what people should be doing (i.e., Rule Thoughts)? Or maybe they focus on little negative parts of a situation rather than seeing the big picture (Gloomy Thoughts)?

You can write down examples of the kinds of negative thoughts and have the student sort them into thoughts that they relate to and thoughts they don't.

Negative Thinking Examples

You could also take previous examples of their big reactions and look at the thinking behind it. Then determine what kind of mistakes they they made.

The Mistakes Behind Big Reactions

If students know their thinking mistakes, they can better understand how or why their reaction got so big. Once you know them, come up with strategies to challenge those thinking mistakes.

If I'm prone to Rule Thoughts, I might use self-talk to remind myself that it is not my job to police everybody.

Strategies like positive self-talk or 3 questions are great tools for students to practice. 

3 Questions Positive Thinking Strategies

This post has 9 positive thinking strategies students can use to challenge negative thinking.

Thinking mistakes can lead to big reactions. Students can learn the ones that they make, how to manage them, and then hopefully how to prevent big reactions before they start.

Get Started

Looking to get started helping students challenge thinking mistakes? Check out the resources below and download your Negative Thinking Mistakes Poster.

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Size of the Problem Strategy
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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