Recognising and responding to faulty thinking patterns

Updated: Sep 24, 2018

I wrote this article for SecEd Magazine. It originally appeared in print and online here.

Faulty thinking patterns can present a real threat to pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. Dr Pooky Knightsmith looks at recognising and responding to these ‘cognitive distortions.’ You can download a PDF handout of this here.

Some tools that are used in the treatment of mental health conditions are incredibly useful and can be readily used by anybody in order to promote their wellbeing. One such tool is responding to faulty thinking patterns or cognitive distortions. This is a simple technique used to treat anxiety, but it can also be used to promote wellbeing and protect against the negative impacts of anxious thoughts and feelings in all pupils (and staff).

The premise is simple, we learn about common faulty thinking patterns and we look out for them in our own thinking – and when we spot them, we challenge them. The beauty of teaching these ideas to all pupils is that they can then support each other by challenging faulty thinking as they see it arise. You will recognise the common cognitive distortions I have outlined below because we can all fall victim to them – but by naming them and looking out for them, we can quickly reduce the impact they have on our feelings and behaviour.

Mental filtering

Mental filtering is when we screen out the positive aspects of a situation and focus exclusively on the negative aspects. For example, the pupil who will instantly tell you what went wrong in their day when asked how things are going, rather than focusing on the positives. Or the pupil who dwells on the mark they dropped when they scored nine out of 10 on a test.

You can help by encouraging pupils to flip their thinking and to look for the positives – encourage them to think about what they are proud of and what they enjoyed.

You can also alter your questioning to specifically look for positives – so instead of asking a pupil how their day is going, we might ask: “What are three things that have gone well today?”

Disqualifying the positives

This is when a pupil readily counters any positive feedback or situations with reasons which mean it doesn’t count, or is invalid in some way. So a friend being nice to them might be disqualified with “it’s just because they feel sorry for me” or “they just want something from me”.

Doing well on a test might be disqualified with “I was just lucky” or “I did well because the test was easy”.

You can help by actively challenging these kinds of responses. When a pupil dismisses their achievement as a result of luck, remind them that we make our own luck by working hard and that they should be proud of themselves.


This thinking pattern is about seeing only the worst possible outcome by magnifying the negatives and minimising the positives – the pupil who believes that one poor grade means that they are going to fail their exams, never get joy and never be happy is one well-rehearsed example.

You can help by putting things in perspective and enabling pupils to feel a sense of mastery and control over their future.

Help pupils to see the bigger picture and how small a part that one negative experience may play in this. Also encourage them to realise that it is within their gift to change the way that things unfold and help them to identify how to make change happen.

Shoulds and oughts

Pupils who have an idea of how they should and ought to be which conflicts with how they actually are can be in danger of falling victim of this faulty thinking pattern.

When we create an idealised version of ourselves that we continuously fail to live up to, this can have an impact on our self-esteem. Sometimes, the should and oughts come from pupils comparing themselves to siblings or friends, or by their belief of what parents or teachers expect of them. They might feel they should be good at certain subjects or they ought to look or behave a certain way.

You can help by encouraging pupils to forge their own path and to recognise their personal strengths and what makes them unique. You can also directly challenge their should and oughts: Why should you? Says who? Why does it matter? Would you hold a friend to the same standard?

Recognise, reflect, role-model

Help pupils to recognise and reflect on their faulty thinking patterns and encourage them to challenge themselves, each other and you when faulty thinking creeps in. If we’re not alert to them, these patterns can often emerge without us realising. Challenging and changing them can help to promote self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing.

As well as encouraging pupils to recognise and respond to their faulty thinking patterns, think too about how you can role-model this behaviour, and consider whether you are able to take small steps to promote positive thinking and behaviour patterns.

These are just some of the common faulty thinking patterns or cognitive distortions we can all fall foul of. There are plenty more where these came from and a whole host of practical ideas for breaking negative thought/feelings/behaviour patterns.

This is the bedrock of cognitive behavioural therapy which is a rich vein of further research if this article has piqued your interest.