Cognitive Behavioral Techniques in the Middle Grades

  • Learning
Nima Rouhanifard, Dean of Students, Grades 6–9

The dean team at Avenues consistently explores the best possible ways to proactively expose our students to skills that will help them persevere through the unavoidable difficulties that pervade adolescent development. One proactive method which has gained traction is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Though we are not utilizing this approach in a clinical setting in either one-on-one or group sessions, we are helping our community find a common vocabulary around themes in the middle school experience. We presented CBT to the 7th grade as “Cognitive Behavioral Techniques,” intentionally replacing the word therapy to not confuse what we were doing with any sort of official therapy administered by a licensed and credentialed professional. The focus in this particular session was identifying cognitive distortions that might exist in the world of middle school students. The four that we discussed with the 7th grade in dean groups were for the following:

Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed. I’m going to fail this math test.”

Emotional Reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “She didn’t save a seat for me at lunch. She hates me and I’m being excluded.”

Negative Filtering: You focus exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

Dichotomous Thinking (also known as “all-or-nothing thinking” or “binary thinking”): Viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

After reviewing these four terms and discussing possibilities of where they might exist in middle school life, the dean team found clips from familiar animated movies such as Frozen, Inside Out and Toy Story that have these cognitive distortions manifest through innocuous and sometimes comical ways. Through discussions, students were able to accurately find sometimes multiple distortions in one scene. After some practice and familiarity, we had students create scenarios where each of these distortions exist in an average day of middle school life. It was enlightening both for the students and adults in the room. Though much of this content is heavy and requires maturity, the animated clips and specific scenarios met this content with a lot of laughter. After this dean group, all of the middle grades faculty received an overview of the four terms that were reviewed in detail so we can support one another in minimizing an emergence of any of them as the dominant mode of thinking through a scenario.

All of the content that was created and utilized by deans comes from the work of Jonathan Haidt in his most recent collaboration with Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Furthermore, the dean team strongly recommends the book iGen by Jean M. Twenge, as she does a phenomenal job of both giving a macro overview of the social media effect on adolescent development and ways of proactively supporting adolescent development through all of it.

  • 7th Grade
  • Deans
  • Middle Grades Program
  • Social-emotional Learning
  • Upper Division