Updated: Sep 13, 2021
What is CBT?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a highly used psychological intervention which is based on the premise that our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviours are all interlinked and create a bigger picture. When a person is encountering difficulty, such as stress, anxiety and depression, CBT aims to assess whether certain aspects, for example the thoughts and behaviours, are creating a problematic bigger picture (what CBT therapists often refer to as ‘the vicious cycle’). CBT allows a person to break this picture down into these different aspects to consider how a problem is being maintained, and what may be keeping this vicious cycle going. Using practical strategies to improve a person’s wellbeing, CBT focuses on challenging and altering unhelpful thoughts and behaviours within this cycle. Unlike some other therapeutic techniques, CBT targets current problems, as opposed to focusing on past experiences.
Teaching CBT in schools to help build emotional resilience and critical thinking
Traditionally, CBT has been highly effective in helping to treat anxiety, depression and other conditions. However, with the growing mental health crisis amongst adolescents, a leading social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (2018), argues that part of the solution is to teach CBT in schools. By learning techniques to spot your distorted thoughts, you can identify catastrophising, mind-reading, labelling, blaming and black-and-white thinking. Essentially, you learn to think critically, problem solve and, in a sense, call yourself out when your mind is distorting the truth or making misinformed assumptions.
Further research has suggested that the presence of poor emotional resilience is associated with the development of common mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression (Anyan & Hjemdal, 2016; GarcíaLeón, Pérez-Mármol, Gonzalez-Perez, García-Ríos, & Peralta-Ramírez, 2019). Learning CBT skills can significantly enhance one’s emotional resilience (Joyce et al., 2018; Şahin & Türk, 2021) by targeting ‘irrational thoughts’, as well as improving overall mental wellbeing.
Similarly, learning basic CBT skills involves gaining an understanding of unhelpful behaviours, which commonly people mistake as helpful behaviours (due to their tendency to provide short-term relief) yet may be creating a deeper, underlying problem in the long term.
Where does critical thinking come in?
Critical thinking refers to one’s ability to think logically, rationally and reflectively, and encourages an individual to consider information actively, as opposed to just accepting it. To be a critical thinker is to regularly question assumptions and ideas, identify inconsistencies and faults within reasoning, and to reflect on one’s own beliefs, values and assumptions. It is to consider information without bias, in a systematic, methodical manner.
Learning basic CBT skills directly aligns with the development of critical thinking abilities, because one of the key strategies within CBT is gaining an awareness of our own biases, cognitive distortions and unhelpful thinking styles, and then challenging them based on step by step, systematic processes. To be able to have an understanding of our own thinking errors (which, as humans we all make), allows us to view situations, experiences and information from a more critical, unbiased standpoint. Quite often, cognitive distortions associated with difficulties such as depression, anxiety and stress can act as a barrier to this critical thinking.
CBT for neurodiverse individuals
Research has suggested that neurodiverse individuals, such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) may be at higher risk of developing common mental health problems (such as depression and anxiety) than neurotypical individuals. Whilst a large body of research has pointed to the effectiveness of CBT based interventions on neurotypical individuals, it is also important to highlight CBT’s effectiveness for neurodiverse individuals. For example, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence [NICE] (2018) has advocated the use of CBT in supporting and managing those with symptoms of ADHD, as well as supporting those with ASD who may be suffering from anxiety (NICE, 2013).
So, what are the benefits of teaching basic CBT skills to school students?
There is an abundance of research arguing for the use of CBT for the treatment and prevention of various mental health difficulties.
To teach students these skills would take a proactive instead of reactive strategy towards improving students’ mental wellbeing, emotional resilience, confidence, motivation, grades and future prospects.
There is also a large body of research indicating the use of CBT based interventions for supporting neurodiverse individuals, such as those with ASD and ADHD.
We are currently in the midst of a growing mental health crisis, and it is thought that 75% of psychiatric conditions emerge during adolescence.
Learning CBT skills directly aligns with critical thinking abilities, as it encourages us to challenge our own unhelpful thinking styles and look at information more objectively, without emotional reasoning.
Once CBT skills are learned, they can be applied for life, meaning that someone is able to use these skills in the life-long maintenance of their own mental wellbeing.
To make use of CBT skills within schools would be normalising the fact that all humans are subject to thinking errors, cognitive distortions and unhelpful behaviours, but giving students the skills to manage this could help in the prevention of common mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and stress.
Making use of CBT skills in schools promotes self-awareness, introspection and the importance of discussing emotional resilience and mental wellbeing from a young age and encourages this as a priority.
Want to learn more?
On January 12th 2022, at 17.30 (GMT), Gemma Laming, a low intensity CBT therapist will be delivering a free online lecture, where she will expand on much of what is covered above, as well as provide top tips for introducing CBT skills within your school. To sign up to the lecture please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Introducing CBT skills lecture," detailing your name and school/organisation.
You may also wish to learn more about the Critical Thinkers Awards designed to empower the next generation to become more resilient, emotionally intelligent and in turn, more effective critical thinkers.