Using Cognitive Reappraisal in the Classroom

Cognitive reappraisal is an adaptive strategy that helps to encourage emotional regulation by restructuring our beliefs about a situation we view as inherently negative.

The Role of Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation is important in everyday life and the ability to recognise our emotional responses and to ensure that they don’t overwhelm us is an important skill. Unfortunately, emotion regulation is something that develops over time, through experience and neurological growth, which means that younger people find it difficult to act adaptively when emotions arrive. They might become angry and lash out, sad and cry uncontrollably or excited to the extent that decision making and judgement become impaired.

Fig. 1

When Emotions Overwhelm

In learning situations, poor emotion regulation can result in emotional states that impact future learning goals and impair the ability to progress. For example, poor performance on a test or homework task can result in learners feeling disappointed. They might then attribute their poor performance to a factor they believe to be beyond their control (such as intelligence). These thoughts then promote and nurture maladaptive negative emotions which then, in turn, feed further negative thoughts (or cognitions). Fear of failure might ensue or learned helplessness develop.

We can think of this pattern as a negative feedback loop (Fig.2).


Short Circuit the Negative Feedback Loop

Cognitive Reappraisal is a technique widely used in the treatment of illnesses such a depression, but has also proven useful in other areas. Cognitive Reappraisal occurs when we make a conscious effort to restructure our beliefs about a situation that is causing psychological discomfort and encouraging maladaptive thought processes.

Emotional situations elicit an automatic judgement (an appraisal). These are rapid and unconscious. Imagine that a teacher hands a marked test paper to a student. The student looks at the disappointingly low mark and might immediately think, my teacher doesn’t like me and that’s why I was given a bad mark. The attribution is immediate and based on emotion rather than rationalization. Similarly, our student could attribute the poor mark to their innate intelligence (I did poorly because I’m stupid). When the intense emotion arises, it becomes difficult not to think about related emotions. Some people start off thinking they are stupid and then start questioning their self-worth, negatively impacting both global self-esteem and more targeted beliefs such as academic self-concept.

We all make such attributions. Some of us are able to immediately challenge these attributions: I’m not stupid because I did really well on the test last week – my poor mark must be due to something else. In this instance, our student has employed cognitive reappraisal by opening up to other possible reasons for the poor mark.

Those students who are unable to interrogate such attributions can be encouraged to do so in a number of ways. For example, we can ask them:

Does previous performance support the attribution?

  • Was enough effort exerted? Did they revise for the test or allocate enough time to complete the homework?
  • Was the task fully understood? If not, what can be done to ensure improved understanding?
  • What is needed to ensure progress? What does the student feel they need?

A Word of Caution

The purpose of Cognitive Reappraisal is to help students move forward and prevent them from entering into a negative believe cycle. It is not the purpose of Cognitive Reappraisal to restructure attributions in such a way that the student becomes comfortable with the status quo. It might be comforting to believe that our failures are due to something we can’t control (such as intelligence) but such beliefs don’t promote moving forward.

Progress Goals

Using a system of progress goals (as opposed to performance goals such as target grades or class rankings) can also help to shift a negative attributional style. Linking attributions to learning goals (preferably Personal Best Goals) is essential in order to embed a more positive learning approach.

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