Helping Students Overcome “All or Nothing” Thinking to Focus on Learning

Nov 02, 2023
All or nothing thinking Edmentum article

The past few years have resulted in challenges for everyone in many aspects of life. Young people, in particular, have been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it has brought about. As adults, we often can use our knowledge and coping skills to have a broader perspective when things become challenging. But, for many students, in these times of outside stress and uncertainty, it can be easy to fall into the trap of negative self-talk or develop an “all or nothing” frame of mind.

What is “All or Nothing” Thinking, Exactly?

“All or nothing thinking” can be defined as looking at the world and thinking everything in life is one way or another with no room to see in between situations, with people, etc. You might also hear it described as “black and white” thinking. It may sound silly on paper, but it’s easy to let our minds fall into these extreme assumptions during periods of stress or self-doubt. Especially in a world that’s become increasingly chaotic for students, it’s no wonder that this self-defeating line of thought continues to hold some students back.

How to Help Students Overcome “All or Nothing” Thinking

When we, or our students, develop “all or nothing” thinking, how can we better support them? Check out the following tips to help your students who may be struggling.

Be On the Lookout

Sometimes, students who are feeling self-critical or self-conscious might be easy to spot. You’ll hear things like: “I hate math; I’ll never be any good at it,” or “This just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

But, some students, especially younger children, might not be able to express themselves when they are experiencing self-doubt. They may only work on certain subjects or assignments that they feel confident about, or they may act out when it's time to focus in the hope of diverting attention away from topics they need help understanding. Knowing what to look for can help you intervene quicker and help your students work on what is really bothering them so that they can get back to learning.

Listen and Validate

It can sometimes be easy to brush off young people as dramatic when they express negative thoughts or a negative inner voice. Still, it is vital to create an environment that supports building trust and opening a dialogue so students can come to you if they are struggling.

A couple of ways to incorporate this into your virtual classrooms include offering one-on-one office hours and asking students to identify on a scale of 1–5 how they’re feeling that day. When you offer students a safe place to practice sharing their stories and concerns, you'll have a better time getting to what might be the real issue, as well as getting a better idea of their internal narratives.

Bring Things into Perspective

On a particularly hard day in my senior year of college, I remember going to my advisor crying over the pressure of trying to be "good enough" to impress future employers and secure myself a job post-graduation.
After explaining the amount of pressure and stress I felt, he looked at me and said, "Haley, what is the worst that will happen?"

After I recovered from my initial spiral of imagining the world exploding, I realized he was right. I was under the impression that my life would cease to exist if I did not graduate with a job, and looking back, I understand that was wrong.

When my advisor offered a broader perspective, I was able to step back and realize that one "bad" experience does not mean the world is over. This is an extreme example, but it highlights how easy it is for anyone to chase a “worst-case scenario” line of thinking.

Helping students identify what is upsetting them and then offering to share a new or different perspective that they may not be able to identify themselves may relieve some of the situation's pressure and anxiety. To do this, try focusing on the facts of a story rather than the negative narrative that can build in one’s head or focusing on shifting one word like "can't" or "never" to "can" or "sometimes."

Model with Your Mistakes

How many times have you thought to yourself, "I can't do this," in the past few years? When we fall into the habit of saying, “I can’t,” changing your internal dialogue is easier said than done.

When you get frustrated because technology isn't working, it can be easy to say, "I am just terrible at this." Stop, reset, and try to model perseverance and coping skills for your students by saying, "This is something that is difficult for me, but I will figure it out. I just need to be patient and try again." Rewording a negative statement with positive intent is a valuable teaching moment for them to see.

Touch Base with Home

If you're worried about the pressure and negativity students are putting on themselves, check in with their parents or caregivers to find out what they see as well. It might give you a better picture of what is going on.

You can use caregiver feedback to adjust virtual learning plans or make appropriate accommodations to help your students relieve some pressure. Whatever may be going on, working as a team with students and their families will be useful as you continue to work with them on building their self-confidence.

Point Out the Importance of Skills

American author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once recalled how an archeologist changed his life by telling him, "I don't think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you've got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them."

We often find ourselves in achievement-oriented environments, where we tell ourselves that the only value in doing something comes from if we can “win” or succeed. This mindset can make us afraid to fail or drive us to be self-critical when we think getting good at something becomes more difficult. The goal of learning is to learn, but that doesn't mean you have to be a genius. This idea can be lost on students, but reminding them can make all the difference.

Saying Goodbye to “All or Nothing” Thinking: Final Thoughts

Extreme pressure and “all or nothing” thinking can block us into one corner or the other. They deny us the opportunity for enjoyment and appreciation of the in-between areas. Life is not all or nothing, and helping students understand this can open the door to less stress and better experiences down the line.

Interested in learning more about enhancing your students' wellbeing? Check out this blog post, Help All Students Be Seen: Five Tips for Stronger Connections.

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